Yesterday, I took a day trip to DC to participate in a panel called Where My Girls At?: Women's Voices in Hip Hop. The event was part of the Can a Sister Roc a Mic Festival, and my fellow panelists included my homegirl Yvonne Bynoe, Bassey Ikpiand EmoniFela. We arrived at the Q&A segment, and the first person approached by moderator Dr. Maya Rockeymoorewas a young White woman in the front row. Although she phrased it in a different way, she asked what has become a standard question at an event such as this.
"How can I be down?"
As Yvonne took on the question with the fearless honesty that I have come to expect and appreciate from her, I found myself discomforted by the question. I couldn't understand it. There was a time when a White person (not if... when) would stand and pose that very same question, I would feel touched and hopeful.
Now I was just annoyed.
Then I realized why. Oh, I had an answer to the question, one that has not changed very much over the years. Yet I found myself struggling to listen to Yvonne's response while finding the words to speak my particular truth in way that could be received. I do believe there's a place for White allies in hip hop culture and that there are specific things they can and should do promote racial justice in this realm.
Unfortunately, I'm starting to feel that it is rare that a person who asks this question truly wants to know.
This comes from multiple experiences -- my own, that of other people of color, and yes, that of progressive White hip hop heads (e.g. my girl J-Lovewho penned the essay White Like Mewhich consists of a controversial 10-point code for Whites in hip hop culture) who are unafraid to speak truth to their own folks -- where anything short of, "Sure, come on in and just do you" is met with a negative response.
None of the head nodding you might witness as they groove to the conscious lyrics of a Mos Def or Common or even Public Enemy. Just the neck and shoulders getting mad stiff. The eyes blinking to push back the tears and the arms latching across the chest as if it to prevent your words from infiltrating their hearts.
It doesn't matter if the message is conveyed with sensitivity to their feelings and appreciation without anger, resentment or suspicion. It doesn't matter if the message starts with the words, "Of course, there's a place for you..." It doesn't matter if the message is amen-ed by another White person on the other side of the room.
If the message is anything more than, "Come in, and do you," all they hear no matter what is actually said is, "No, there's not a goddamn thing you as a White person can do so get the #$%& on out!"
After so many negative experiences of White folks asking that question (admittedly on issues beyond hip hop as well), and have them �hearing� a staunch separatist position regardless of what I say, and how I say it, I sadly have come to question the sincerity of people who feel the need to ask the question.
Here's an example. I once had a White woman -- a woman in a multicultural space who I felt more connected to than most of the people of color there because we had similar professional interests and political values - accuse me of saying, �Stick to your own kind� when I never uttered that phrase at all. Hell, even in my nationalistic twenties, I never said something like that! .All I knew is that we were having this wonderfully honest yet constructive conversation about race. She shared with me a particular context when despite all her efforts to be an ally to people of color, she was being regarded with suspicion public by some of the same folks she was trying to support. Among several things I said, I recommended that it would be both healthy and strategic for her to starting having these conversations about race with other progressive Whites.
Several hours later I found out that this woman was LIVID with me. And I didn't find out about it her anger from her either but from another woman who was part of our conversation. By the time I approached her to discuss the issue, she had gotten it into her head that I said verbatim to stick to her own kind. I was so offended because what I actually said was, �And I'm not telling you, oh, stick to your own kind, what I'm saying is� � I thought Of all the things I said in response to the question that you posed, why is that all that you heard? While it did bother me that she was upset and angry, I could not bring myself to admit never mind apologize for something I know I neither said never mind meant.
Furthermore, I was deeply resentful that I was once again been maneuvered into the angry Black woman role. Trust me, I'm not beyond WILLINGLY playing that role if I feel some shit needs to be said to the point that I could give a fuck how some people are going to take it. But not only was I unfairly put in this position, I was done so behind my back as she discussed it with at least one other person in the group. Who knows how many other people heard about the incident that never was before I did. It hit me that if I had not found out about her upset and sought her out to discuss it, we might have never had that conversation, a conversation that was limited because she insisted on hearing me say and mean something I never did. Only when she realized that I wasn't going to own up to her revisionist recollection of our conversation did she concede that perhaps she might have misinterpret what I said. By that point, I did not have the energy or interest in discovering why she could hear something that was never said.
Most of all, I was deeply saddened because a potentially meaningful friendship was shattered just as it started to blossom. Still am now that I think about it again. I had walked away from our first conversation feeling very heartened and hopeful. I truly believed our ability to be so transparent with each other over such a difficult topic had brought us closer together. All because she simply posed that question and struck me as sincerely open to my honest answer to it.
How can I be down?
So my turn comes to answer the question yet again at the Where My Girls Atpanel. I stumble over myself trying so hard to be diplomatic and sensitive that something in my shifts. I was and have been tempering my response to that particular question -- which never ceases to be asked -- because I've had too many experiences with the person who asks it taking issue with the answers, leaving the gathering all flustered, and the people who answered being cast as villains for not breaking out into a hip hop remix of We Are the World because they made the stupid assumption that the person who asked was genuinely interested in hearing the truth.
So I sat on the panel in DC trying to find a way to word my truth yet protect myself from misinterpretation. As Yvonne nicely but firmly broke down some of things she should be conscious of doing (or not doing) as a White woman in hip hop circles, I found myself paying rapt attention to her body language to see how she was taking Yvonne's response. From where I sat, she seemed as uncomfortable as I was feeling. When the panel ended, I made a beeline toward her to make sure that Yvonne and I were not misunderstood.
And when I thought about this later, I grew angry. Not at the young woman herself. She's a stranger who asked a question that I have heard many times before. I have no idea if she is guilty of any of the things that I've just described. I checked myself at the panel as I should have.
But I realize now that I have lost patience with the question �How can I be down?�
I've lost patience because it is often rooted in so many problematic assumptions. The one that bothers me the most is that there is a place for Whites in hip hop. Now I personally believe there is. It just so happens that most of my White friends - the ones that I trust implicitly and more than many people of color that cross my path - have come into my life through the bridge of hip hop. I'm taking issue with the sense of entitlement that allows the question how can I be down even be posed: that there's no such place or time in the human experience where Whites just may not belong.
I can't help but doubt now that many who pose the question are open to an honest and complex answer and truly want to know never mind do what people of color must see to not have reservations about their presence. Are they actually asking because they already have an answer that they want to hear? That there is only one right answer to that question which is that although they are White, they have no particular responsibility to hip hop culture other than to be there.
It has gotten to the point, I think, where there's even a return on the risk of standing up in a room full of people of color and asking, "How can I be down?" Even if all one gets is one of the "wrong" answers yes, they're genuinely hurt and maybe even angry to hear them, but they have also have been let off the hook. See, I tried to do the right thing and asked how I could be an ally, and they told me it wasn't possible.
The problem is that any answer but, "Just be there" is interpreted as "It's not possible."
The ironic - and hopeful -- thing is that a big part of the reason why I'm annoyed with the question is because I actually know quite a few Whites in hip hop who don't have to ask it. They discovered the answer by showing and proving. They keep coming to the table with something meaningful to offer courtesy of their racial privilege, all the while expecting, understanding and withstanding the doubt that people of color may have. They are not intimidated or afraid by the hard questions we may pose. Ultimately, they derive the validation they seek of their goodness, not from gaining acceptance by people of color, but by witnessing the value added to our struggles from the actual work that they do because they're not just content to be there.
Maybe the next time a person asks me, "How as a White person can I be down with hip hop?" my answer will be, "Ask a White person who knows.�