One Hashtag Exposes Everything Wrong with How We Talk About Racism
The MSNBC talk show aired a cringeworthy segment Wednesday about hip-hop's alleged role in teaching racism to children. All five panelists were white, and among them, they managed to exhibit everything wrong with how we talk about racism in America today:
Atlanta-bred Waka Flocka Flame canceled his University of Oklahoma show in "disgust" Monday when one of its fraternities, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, was shut down and two members were expelled for singing a racist song in a video.
Morning Joe co-host Mika Brzezinski was quick to call Waka a hypocrite. "I'm just saying," she said, citing the rapper's frequent use of "n*gger." "He shouldn't be disgusted with [the kids] — he should be disgusted with himself."
"Pop culture becomes a cesspool," added co-host Bill Kristol. "[And suddenly] people are surprised when some drunk 19-year-old kids repeat what they're hearing."
Joe Scarborough observed, "The kids that are buying hip-hop ... it's a white audience, and they hear this over and over again. So do they hear this at home? Chances are good, no, they hear this from guys like this who are now acting shocked."
There's just one problem: These kids definitely do hear it at home. Waka's music teaches many things, but hanging "niggers" from trees rather than letting them join your fraternity is not one of them. That sentiment is rooted in white supremacy and its distinctly American brand of racial violence. How easily we seem to have forgotten.
The suggestion was so absurd that Twitter user @tacojenkins launched a hashtag ridiculing it, #RapAlbumsThatCausedSlavery:
It speaks to our pervasive ignorance around racism's role in history that a group of news pundits can so casually misidentify where a white child might learn the word "n*gger."
It's especially ironic framed in context: "There is a distinction between a bunch of white kids chanting about hanging someone from a tree, using that term, and Waka Flocka Flame using it," Morning Joe pundit Willie Geiss says in the video. Or, as Ice Cube rhymes in "Gangsta Rap Made Me Do It" — "You're the ones that we learned it from, I heard 'nigger' back in 1971."
The word is embedded in the culture of American racial exclusion far more so than it is in hip-hop. It wasn't invented when Straight Outta Compton dropped in 1988. It was invented when white colonizers shipped millions of black people to the U.S. as chattel and needed something to call them.
Yet our history is littered with pundits using respectability politics to demonize rap and blame it for ills that racism and racist policy created, from Tipper Gore and Bill O'Reilly to the bright folks at Morning Joe. It's a convenient deflection employed by those who benefit from it most.
So perhaps it's time to start looking inward for the roots of racism — at our history, our institutions and our practices. There's a time and a place to talk about Waka Flocka Flame. This is not it.