Is It Racist to Mimic Hip-Hop Language?

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Sheila Jackson Lee's attempt to get hurricanes named things like Jamal or Chamiqua isn't new to me, but it was surprising to see it turn up on snopes.com. I'm not surprised that someone might be offended at the particular email that they're confirming the basic facts behind, given the nature of the speech used in the email's last paragraph. (I'm not going to quote it here. Go read it for yourself.) I'm a little surprised that what's offensive is supposed to be that it's racist. It seems to be quoting a general tendency within a certain subset of African-Americans (and not exclusively among African-Americans either). Can it be racist to put words together that accurately reflect how the mainstream of the hip-hop community actually speaks? How is accurate representation of real people supposed to be racism? Unless it insinuates that all black people are like this, which it doesn't, I can't see how it's racist. It's certainly an offensive way of speaking, but the offensiveness is not something the email author came up with. It's something the email author is simply representing accurately. The most famous hip-hop artists speak in such an offensive way, and they are represented as major moral leaders by many African-Americans.

This is uncharacteristically uncareful for Barbara Mikkelson, who usually does an excellent job with the snopes.com site in sorting through what is accurate and what is not. She just seems to have a strange sense of what counts as racist.

9 Comments

I have to go with: yes

Any reason why you think that?

Not particularly. Probably isn't even rational - just the way it struck me.

I think that to go from black cultural names to a hip-hop weather ad is an insinuation that all black people are this way - they didn't imitate Bill Cosby.

Just think it was over-the-top; and that that was racially based.

Well, there's certainly a racial connection. The kind of speech imitated is characteristic of a group that is predominantly black and indeed extremely common among black youth. I didn't deny that it was racially based. I'm just not sure why it's racist.

This speech pattern and oppressive attitude toward women has become representative of a very large and influential subculture within black America. Those who use these invented names that are supposed to sound African but don't even come close tend to be more in the hip-hop group than not. In both cases you have a phenomenon that is distictively black in that you don't find it much at all outside African-Americans. In both cases you have a phenomenon that is not representatively black in that you find many examples of black Americans who don't use those names or who don't speak that way. Indeed, some black people think both are even ridiculous.

But the joke seems to me that similar representativeness in language on the level of actual weather reporting would lead to a weather reporting speech like the one in the email forward. I think the joke is a real stretch. I don't think it's funny at all. I'm not sure why there should be a connection between adopting names from a pattern of naming that is distinctively but not representatively black and having weather reporters who speak in a pattern of language in general that is distinctively but not representatively black. I don't see the humor that the connection is supposed to bring. But the link is not supposed to be that these are representative of being black, in either case. The links is supposed to be, in both cases, that something distinctively black that isn't representatively black connects with something else distinctively but not representatively black.

So the illustration connects with the original issue in a way that doesn't assume representativeness of being black. I think it's in bad taste because of the content of the weather speech, but I don't see how it would indicate an assumption that all black people are that way, because the original phenomenon of naming doesn't assume that all black people act that way. It just takes it as an example of something distinctively black. I'm not sure why it has to be anything more than that, and noticing something distinctively black and repeating it in connection with something else distinctively black doesn't seem to me to be racist.

Some of racism is audience (as in any other ideology)

You and I (you will have to accept that for now) have some intricate personal knowledge of racism. Your argument is probably right intellectually and rationally.

However, how is the joke recieved by the intended audience? I think that is the difficulty here.

I grew up is sw Missouri in a county that was 99% white - and gained its knowledge of black folk from the culture: TV, movies, jokes, urban legends, racist teaching, etc. Personal experience with people of color was nearly non-existant.

How does this joke play to that crowd?

I agree that it might be something racists will enjoy, but I don't think that makes it racist.

Racists also enjoy statistical facts about how black people on average do worse on standardized tests, which are just plain facts no matter how you want to explain them, and there are plenty of potential explanations that have been offered. Facts aren't racist, so the fact that racists enjoy something doesn't make it racist.

Racists tend to enjoy pointing out that a certain subset of black people make these misogynistic comments. That doesn't mean recognizing that a subset of black people talk that way is itself racist.

Maybe only demagogic?

Anyway, you are right - it was ugly either way.

The implication of the email is that ghetto slang is how blacks, writ large, speak*. "Look at those stupid blacks and their crazy language!" If it's not racist, it's coming uncomfortably close to the line.

"The links is supposed to be, in both cases, that something distinctively black that isn't representatively black connects with something else distinctively but not representatively black."

The implication is that "blacks do the darnedest things. What will those wacky blacks do next?" Again, coming right up to the line if not over. (I just saw this response of yours; it's an interesting point and deserves more than the above, but I'm time-restricted at the moment)

* The upshot is that if the email purported to claim that that's how, say, a rapper would talk about hurricanes, it wouldn't be racist at all. But the email was talking about blacks generally. It's like minstrelsy: I'm sure there were blacks that loved watermelon and spoke about "da mastuh sho' gon' be mad" and whatnot. But what makes it wrong is that it lays out a represenational field wherein all blacks are supposed to be represented (or, if not all balcks, then "real" blacks - implicit criticism of the language of "keepin' it real" fully intended).

I see nothing in the email that takes that way of talking to be representative of black people, just as an example of one way that black people sometimes talk. Nothing in it assumes that black people only use these kinds of names. As far as I can tell, it's a parody of those who assume that there's only one way black people can be. Sheila Jackson Lee does exactly that, thus excluding many black people, and thus from that mindset we'll do the same thing with how black weather reporters must talk. That seems to me to be not only the most charitable interpretation of what it's doing but even the most likely. The point seems to me to be exactly that Sheila Jackson Lee is going over the top in the same way it would be to think having black representation in weather reporting would required this sort of speech. That's not racism at all but in fact resistance to what is seen as black anti-black racism.

The implication is not that blacks do the darndest things and then what else might they come up with. It's that lefty blacks with their artificial sense of what it means to be authentically black come up with the darndest things, and what other ridiculous attempts to require representation for their view of authentic blackness will they come up with next.

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