SAE frat bros are racist — blame hip hop and Ronda Rousey
By now we’ve all seen the video of Sigma Alpha Epsilon frat brothers riding a bus and gleefully singing that they’d hang an n-word from a tree before they let him join SAE. Disgusting stuff, even if it’s not surprising for folks who never bought into the Myth of Post Racial America.
And by now we should all recognize the media routine that often follows incidents like this.
And by the middle of last week a few people in the press were pointing the finger at hip-hop. The folks at MSNBC’s Morning Joe thought foul-mouthed rappers emboldened the SAE bros, and over at ESPN.com Jason Whitlock made a similar argument. The case is straightforward and seems logical. If rappers and everyday black folks would quit using the n-word amongst each other, racist whites wouldn’t let n-bombs fly so freely.
Do those guys have a point?
To the extent that the music industry profits by peddling black pathology as something real and authentic, sure. Epic Records loved the idea that Bobby Shmurda was a gun-toting, weight-moving, up-and-coming drug kingpin whose music was lightly fictionalized autobiography. But when non-fictional police put Bobby Shmurda in non-fictional jail, the crime fantasy stopped being sexy and Epic stopped supporting him.
But to say profane rap music gives permission to bigots to act racist requires a leap in logic even world-class long jumpers can’t manage.
I could point out racism and prejudice predate hip hop, but the #RapAlbumsThatCausedSlavery Twitter hashtag does it better than I ever could.
So I’ll point out that blaming profane rap for white racism is like blaming Ultimate Fighting Championship superstar Ronda Rousey for domestic violence. Imagine the pundits and #HotTake artists scrambling to defend the next male celebrity arrested for battering a female significant other.
“Spousal abuse is horrible but the real problem is women fighting for sport and money. What kind of message are they sending to men who want to hit their wives?”
“Rousey has hit more women than Floyd Mayweather and Chris Brown combined. Why aren’t we protesting her?”
“How can women expect men not to hit them when they won’t stop hitting each other?”
If that logic sounds fatally flawed, that’s because it is. The failure to account for consent and individuality renders it structurally unsound and irrevocably dumb.
When Ronda Rousey met Cat Zingano, the two consented to mutual face punching, tackling and arm-wrenching for the sake of their competition and our entertainment. But that doesn’t mean they agree to strangers slugging them in the ribs while they’re standing in line at Starbucks. Nor does it mean that because two women who are trained fighters have agreed to mutual violence in competition, the rest of us should feel entitled to use violence against any other woman in any other space.
Making that assumption is a great way to go to jail.
Violent language — and the N-word certainly qualifies — works the same way. As Ta-Nehisi Coates laid out in this New York Times essay, the meaning of that word and many others depends heavily on context. You and your friends can trade insults in jest and with affection, but you transport that practice outside your circle at your peril. And if you’re a white person who thinks you can address random black people with any iteration of the n-word just because your favourite rapper says it in a song, you probably struggle to see black folks as individuals.
There’s a word for people who can’t recognize the individuality of people of other races.
There are all kinds of arguments against the idea of black folks using the n-word amongst each other, and many of them have merit. But “it emboldens white racists” isn’t one of them. When racist white people gather they don’t await a green light from black folks to say hateful things.
What happened on that bus full of SAE bros isn’t about what they learned from Chief Keef — especially not since several frat members have confessed they learned that song from their elders. It’s about the racism that festers when racists think nobody’s looking, and is more closely aligned with the behaviour the Department of Justice discovered in its investigation of Ferguson, Mo.’s police department than it is with any rap record ever produced.
Besides, racists don’t need permission from anybody to use slurs. Least of all the people they’re slurring.
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