Last month, Joyner Lucas released his new and provocative music video, “I’m not racist.” With more than 11 million views on YouTube and 34 million views on Facebook, it’s safe to say the video has been a viral smash. Lucas, who is a hip-hop artist signed to Atlantic records, garnered attention from his 2015 single “Ross Cappichioni” and is known for his first-rate lyrical ability, storytelling, and visuals.
The video opens with two men (one black and one white) sitting face-to-face at a table, airing their racial grievances with one another (all rapped by Lucas).
In the first verse, the white man –who is fitted in Donald Trump’s infamous “Make America Great Again” hat— rattles off his frustrations in a litany of racist tropes and generalizations. He essentially talks about how African Americans are lazy, don’t take care of their kids, have double standards in their use of the “N-word” and play victim by blaming racism for all of their problems and ills. These racial tropes aren’t new to African-Americans. We have long pushed back against such racist and bigoted stereotypes and prejudices.
In the second verse, the black man rebuts the white man’s claims and generalizations. The black man touches on systemic racism, police brutality, and his white counterparts inability to understand what it’s like being black in America. In the end, the two hug it out and seem to continue their discussion providing a paradigm to promote peace and understanding (I guess? *sarcasm*).
Appreciation and Irony
For people of color who are embattled in the cultural war of racial equality, hearing the perpetual “I’m not racist” from white folks can be exhausting. It’s not exhausting because some are not telling the truth. It’s exhausting because the statement is often attached to an ignorance born of naiveté and privilege. Some white folks use the statement as a sort of self-justification that comes with immunity from the responsibility of having to examine their own heart to see if they, in fact, unwittingly perpetuate racism.
The statement can be self-absolution that is devoid of the experience and wisdom of their black counterparts and one that denies the reality of personal racism for a deceptive fantasy of unity.
In this, the denial of racism itself becomes the very thing that actually continues to suffuse racism with vigor and strength. Dr. Alana Lentin actually refers to this as “not racism” racism: one can deny any involvement in racism while perpetuating it at the same time. Lucas highlights the irony of this in the first verse (and also in the song’s title). “I’m not racist” is continually repeated as a pause or break in the arrangement of the verses. Ironically, in the first verse, it is said after and before the white man continues to rattle off a list of racist tropes. I appreciate the artistic use of irony here.
However, I don’t interpret the black man’s repetition of “I’m not racist” in the same way. His verse is not filled with the reinforcement of historical racist tropes. His verse is made up of his own experience and factual history of hegemony and abuse within America. Some would say that the issue for both parties in the video is the same but I don’t believe this.
To imply that both parties are the same but on two opposite ends of an equally racist spectrum is to draw a problematic false-equivalency. One party’s grievances are based on historically racist ideologies, stereotypes, and prejudices (that you can find being pushed at any white nationalist gathering). The other is an experiential recounting and resentment of being the recipient of injustice that has shaped the metaphysical reality in which he finds himself. One is a statement of false absolution while the other is a statement of fact. These two are not the same.
A Both Sides Approach
CNN reported that “I’m Not Racist” is the brutal race conversation no one wants to have. My problem with the “both sides need to have the conversation” mindset is that once again it makes the weight of “racial reconciliation” equal for both blacks and whites. Historically, it has been expected of black folks to be the irenic ones; the ones who forgive, show grace and shoulder the burden of racism while coming to the table to try and bridge the gap of division by spearheading reconciliation.
Call me a cynic but I find it highly dubious to believe that the same man that sits at a table rattling off racist trope after racist trope will have the desire and open mind to understand the perspective and grievances of a black man. Our job has always been to fix a problem we did not create.
This isn’t a case of blacks meeting whites in the middle. The separation initially exists because of historical racism at the hands of white men and women who deemed blacks as sub-human and created systemic structures and legislation that reinforced that divide.
The stratification and disparity that exist today is a result of that system. We didn’t create the problem so the burden is not solely on us to fix. It’s our job to re-affirm all men’s dignity (being made in God’s image) and call folks to repentance, truth, and justice in the name of Christ. It is not our job to be mules for racial reconciliation. This is a two-way street. It’s our white counterparts job to stand with us in solidarity and acknowledge how they may have been complicit while also calling their own to repentance and the work of conciliation.
Truth and Limitations
The reconciliation at the end of the video (if we can call it that) wasn’t really reconciliation at all. It was extremely facile and devoid of truth-telling and correction. The strident accusations that were made in the first verse were full of extremely racist and prejudicial stereotypes. They need to be addressed head-on and corrected in truth.
Jesus says that we should love one another (Matt. 5:44-45) but true love doesn’t come without truth-telling and correction. An essential part of this is correcting one’s lies. Jesus constantly corrected the Pharisees, religious leaders, and his disciples. In the words of my sister and theologian Ekemini Uwan: “If it weren’t for Jesus telling me the truth about my sin [and correcting the lies that it would have me believe] I would not be one of His children.”
Without truth-telling, there can be no real repentance. Additionally, this is not always a one-and-done experience (just like many of our salvation stories weren’t). There is a process of breaking and humbling that won’t be done in one conversation—or hug.
At the same time, I understand the limitations of art. Art is not always meant to solve the world’s problems and ills in one song or video. Art reflects the issues at hand and gives a directional nudge. I think this is what Lucas was going for. He is an artist who’s using a song and video platform to express something that is immensely complex. I don’t expect him to have the time to didactically parse through and delineate everything regarding race in America.
Art is not a remedy but a reflection. We can demand too much from a platform that may not have the power to uphold everything we desire. Lucas has provided a video that depicts an obvious caricature of an honest conversation about race. But in this, we can still ask for accuracy and a certain savoir-faire that handles the issue responsibly to help push people forward towards real amelioration. If Lucas’ desire was to spark conversation around racial tensions in America, then he has certainly done that and this article (and many others) are the proof.
I would love for us to continue the conversation about this in the comment section. Watch Joyner Lucas’ video here and tell me what you think.
*The video is laced with profanity; view at your own discretion.*