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White Youth and Hip-Hop

qjules's picture

            In David Nurenberg’s article “What Does Injustice Have to do With Me? A Pedagogy of the Privileged” the educator discusses his experience being raised in the upper middle class, while being knowledgeable about the hardships his Jewish family members encountered. He discusses his own accounts of harassment growing up, and brings readers into his struggle of teaching suburban white privileged students multicultural education and social justice education. “I specifically wanted to work with a suburban population, with the young people who would grow up into the college roommates and friends I had known and who had frustrated me… I felt I could act as some sort of bridge between the worlds to which my parents had exposed me to, and the one that produced the CEO’s and policy makers who I believed unwittingly perpetuated this unfair system.” (Nurenberg 53) This paper will act as spokes around this quote and highlight other figures who share this ideology and act as ‘bridges’ in the context of white consumers of Hip Hop industry, and what multicultural education can do for the white, privileged, and impressionable.

            Hip-Hop is arguably one of the biggest behavioral influences on teenagers’ worldwide. In the United States, its consumption is estimated to be 70% white in sales, which means what whites buy, is what is reproduced. The significance of this data becomes further complex when the education of white students is called into question. The overwhelming resistance to the narratives of lower class Americans, women, and people of color paired with the consumption of black coded racist and misogynist content is a necessary place for multicultural education to enter the lives of white students.

            So what is stopping white students from seeing multicultural education material as worthy of learning? There are many answers. To begin with, a term has been circulating white privilege blogs called Fragile White Ego Syndrome. While the term “White Ego Syndrome” it is not confirmed to be legitimate, many of its properties are. The term has been popular on race critique blogs to describe the ego of the white and privileged. Several blogs composed lists of behavioral patterns that fall under “White Ego Syndrome”, but can easily be interpreted by what is most commonly understood as white privilege.

            Blogger Agabond writes fragile white ego syndrome symptoms include ‘playing up white accomplishments (inventions, civilization) and play down white evils (colonialism, racism, genocide, slavery)’ and doing the opposite for people of color, playing up the ‘faults of people of color, and play down the successes of people of color ( overlooking invention, contribution of society)’ these behaviors can be seen through individual action, but also can be installed structurally in curriculum, in which case multicultural education can is a solution. The article also claims moral blindness- not being able to face up to what one has done, stereotyping, and projection- taking one’s worst qualities and imagining them in others are a apart of the fragile white ego. When considering these potential and already enacted attitudes of white youth, it is almost impossible to leave Hip-Hop out of the conversation.

            In a NPR interview conducted by Michel Martin titled “ Writer: Blame White Consumers for Bad ‘Rap’” White male Hip-Hop enthusiast Justin Ross, a Maryland native serving his second term in the Maryland House of Delegates says whites need to take responsibility for the negative impact of the genre. Ross states “ I think that white folks have, you now, been aloud this sort of psychic distance because of the music, because of the imagery, and frankly, sort of the overt discussion of whom they are speaking to and about when they’re killing.” Ross is speaking to the fact that Hip Hop, to white audiences can serve an escapist purpose, because they can enter a world of drugs, violence, and poverty that is glorified, and for the most part internally Black, without ever physically entering or being threatened by such communities.

            He later makes the point that whites wouldn’t listen to Hip-Hop if it was saying “were coming to the suburbs, were going to push, you now, dope in the suburbs. Were going to beat down white men, would we still be listening to it? I can assure you the answer is no.” Ross was raised in very diverse suburb of D.C called Prince George’s county, other wise known as PG county, which separates him from young whites growing up in homogenous townships, and informed his outlook on race perception, however, his current socio-economic status gives him access to reach out to whites about these issues, similar to the way Nurenberg navigates his own whiteness.

            Also in the interview, is a moment where Martin refers to the general discussion of white participation in Hip-Hop and notes “you said you haven’t heard peep from the white fans who essentially underwrite the industry. And I wonder, is part of that, that white people don’t feel like its their conversation to have?”  He answered her question by saying “yes.” The reasoning for a white participant who feels the state of Hip-Hop is not their conversation to have goes back to the safe distance they have from Hip-Hop due to the fact the lyrics are not a direct attack on them, and also relates to the idea of ‘moral blindness’ stated earlier. The silence that white Hip-Hop listeners maintain on such subjects playing up the faults of people of color. The blame of the messages sent out by the genre go directly to the black rapper marionette rather than the white executive puppeteer, creating a situation where the producers and consumers are guilt free, and the performers are guilted.

            In Nurenberg’s article “What Does Injustice Have To Do With Me?” The down playing of the accomplishments of people of color is exemplified in the behavior of his students. Nurenberg recounts that when he taught his class about Chicano walk outs organized by East Los Angeles students, one of his students responded  “it doesn’t seem reasonable … for Mexican students to come to America and then demand a better education. You can’t control the color of your skin but you can control your demands of another country.” This student completely belittles the accomplishment of Chicano students coming together to demand a better education by assuming that Mexican students came to America, as if America played no role in the residence of Mexicans in America. He implies that the color of these students’ skin should keep them from demanding an education and ultimately from achieving academic success all the while  neglecting the fact that by opposing the lesson he is demanding a ‘better’ education, and the skin he cant control makes his behavior okay.

            On another blog titled “restructure!” one blogger makes the point that regular enforcement that white is right as found in mainstream education restricts critical thinking. This is a result of developing the critical thinking skills developed by being required to look at events through different perspectives, and accepting that western thought is not the only thought, and it is not the only correct way to view the world. The challenge in bringing critical thinking to white students by way of multicultural education is getting white students engaged in non-white narratives. Students resist multicultural and social justice education because they feel it is irrelevant. In his article Nurenberg brings Stotsky into his argument saying “An overdose of white guilt…may cause students to associate “multicultural” literature with white guilt literature.”  Nurenberg notes the intelligence of his students and locates their guilt in their recognition and sheepish knowledge of who had to suffer to make their clothes, bringing sweatshops, and foreign workers into the discourse.

            He has the realization that his students resist multicultural education because it evokes white guilt for them and says “a healthy mind’s first impulse is to resist cognitive dissonance, and so repeatedly holding up this sort of mirror up to students faces may not be the most psychologically, or pedagogically sound approach” (Nurenberg 56) in addition “the answers to who is victim and who is beneficiary of oppression are not so simple, and in this complexity lies and opportunity for engagement.” (Nurenburg 56) the resistance from students allows Nurenerg to realize he must change his approach to teaching social justice to his students by including figures and experiences that resemble his students but contributed to society that resemble his students.

            In an article on the titled “White Privilege: a challenge for multicultural education”, Vinay Harpalani suggests that to eliminate white privilege in education, whites must be brought into the curriculum as other diverse groups and histories are and be examined in the same way with the goal in mind to be these groups treated equally in education. “It means labeling curriculum focusing on whites as “Eurocentric” in the same way that corresponding lessons on Blacks are called “Afrocentric.” Harpalani argues that this will help white privilege become visible to the students. In addition, naming white studies as Eurocentric and equalizing the label with “Afrocentric” allows afroccentricity and eurocentricity to share space in the center, rather then one being inn the margin.

Harpalani continues on to say being able to name white privilege will help white students when conversations on racism occur  “this will allow white students to become aware of their own privileges so they can work to combat these inequities. Like students of color, they, too must become activists in their own communities to effect social change.” (Harpalani 1)

            If more young people shared an ideology with Justin Ross and saw Hip-Hop as a platform for the correction of social issues, instead of a contributor, then white privileged students would have easy access to at least one way in which they can effect social change. Hip hop music is a medium that is accessible to students and often dictates what is cool, what is sexy, what is slang, what is masculine, and what is not. In addition, if you are removed from the black community Hip-Hop can heavily influence one’s perception of what is black.  

            In the spirit of white participation in multicultural issues, as Harpalani and Stosky claim whites need to included in social justice to feel empathy towards the curriculum, that same can be said for the silence of white consumers, a demographic that overlaps with white student who resist multicultural education, and white visibility in Hip-Hop. Many whites have come to identify with Hip-Hop culture because of white rappers such as Eminiem, Paul Wall, MGK (Machine Gun Kelly) and Yelawolf who have all made a respected name for themselves in the industry. For white students at a cross roads with the popular black aesthetic and the new address of their white privilege in school, southern rapper Yelawolf has a message: “American music culture is Black culture, don’t ever get it fucked up… you know your roots, know who the fuck your getting this music from and respect it.” He said in an interview with DJ Vlad’s VLADTV when asked about white rapper’s use of the N-word.

            In his response he calls on whites to recognize and respect the circumstance from which hip hop rose from- first derived from word play risen during slavery, then in the 1980’s during this impoverishment and displacement of many during the construction of the cross Bronx expressway in New York. The second most important thing Yelawolf is doing is equalizing “American” and “Black” which is exactly what Harpalani says needs to happen in education when discussing diverse groups. Yelawolf saying know your roots blurs the line between black and whites, causing white listeners to understand Hip Hop history as related to them, therefore making worthy of respect. In saying that he has implemented Harpalani’s idea that if whites are included, and have consciousness of their own privilege than they will be able to combat inequality,.

In closing, Hip-Hop is the avenue which many young whites get exposure to other races through images and lyrics. For those students who do not have multicultural education in school, many of the impressions students get of other racial groups will not come from authors of color, but from the radio and television, and will be perceived as fact.  The people who decide the way Black looks, and Black sounds are the same people who were privileged students in a system void of multicultural education. Without multicultural education these people have the power and social capital to perpetuate the same images of minorities that have been circulating for decades.

            Hip-Hop has such an effect on white students, that if students digest images and sounds put out to represent people of color, without the tools to view such images critically, young whites are due to repeat those images. Hip-Hop culture is one example, but this is true for any form of representation of any group of people. This paper has highlighted and contrasted the behaviors of white male hip hop community members, with the behaviors of young privileged whites and posed multi cultural education as a tool for the social progression of white males and society at large.

Multicultural education, and white social justice presence in Hip Hop can work together to enforce the importance of the legitimacy the contributions people of color have made to society. Ultimately the collaboration between education and music in America can work together to change the social and media landscapes of the United States by ensuring that those calling the shots as executives and producers were once students of teachers such as Nurenberg, Listeners of Justin Ross and fans of Yelawolf.


Works Cited

Agabond. "Fragile White Ego Syndrome." Web log post. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2014.

Harpalani, Vinay. "White Privilege: A Challenge for Multicultural Education." Public School Notebook. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Apr. 2014.

Martin, Michel, and Justin Ross. "Writer: Blame White Consumers for Hip-Hop's Bad 'Rap'" NPR. NPR, n.d. Web. 17 Apr. 2014.

Nurenberg, David. ""What Does Injustice Have to Do With Me? A Pedagogy of the Privileged." Harvard Educational Review (2011): n. pag. Web.

“This Is Why White Males Are so Confident in Themselves." Restructure. N.p., 4 May 2009. Web. 18 Apr. 2014.