Joyner Lucas – I’m Not Racist: An Appreciation and Critique
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.*
11 thoughts on “Joyner Lucas – I’m Not Racist: An Appreciation and Critique”
Thank you, Ameen. I hope all is well. I saw your list of CHH, and I wondered if you like D-Maub. My son likes him and Lecrae and Trip Lee, but I do not know enough to compare their styles. Peace be with you and your wife and your community, and I look forward to being in touch, when you have time.
Your brother in Christ,
I hope you had a wonderful Christmas.
I’m not after assuming or judging your intentions. I believe you are well meaning and express good intentions. And I also agree that there is a time for truth telling. In order to truth tell, we must believe we are in the right. I was more asking than being impetuous in order to encourage your own reflection and to know from you directly, rather than assume.
My concern is that in many conversations, esp on a topic like racism, is that we all see our selves as the person in the chair. We see the other side as the caricature, spouting stereotypes. We believe we have the facts and experience and the other side is lacking.
The reality is that we are most often the guy standing up. (And by we, I mean all human beings.) We are irrational creatures by fallen default.
Whereas there is certainly truth in whites being responsible for the treatment of blacks historically and today, the pursuit of repentance from a stereotyped group while assigning a measuring stick of blame is where you begin to stumble out of the realm of truth telling. There becomes subjectivity, ambiguity in who the target group is, and more so what must be done.
This makes it easier and easier to believe we’re the one in the chair. (Neither ultimately are).
Thank you Ameen for your insights. You have given me some things to think about. Thomas you have also presented some good arguments. Thank you Ameen for clarifying your position on being truthful as opposed to being right. The truth of the gospel is always what will set us free. Jeff and AD, where in the article does Ameen say that black people cannot be racisits? I have heard that argument on many occasions but didn’t see it in this article. Please be careful with making assumptions and if you see it in the article please correct me. Ameen please keep writing and serving. Looking forward to seeing more from you. Keep the conversation going even though it must be difficult. It’s not always easy to hear, as a white person, but oh so important!
I really appreciate your comment, brother and your desire to challenge the article. But I can’t help to see it as a bit impetuous in regards to judging my intention. It seems as if though you have made up your mind that my desire was simply to be “right” about racism and injustice at the hands of white people. Of course in my article I want to be accurate in regards to history but this isn’t just about being “right.” I have had honest conversations with white brothers and sisters for a while now in regards to racism and justice so I understand the need to “listen” on both sides. However, listening doesn’t negate truth-telling and truth-telling doesn’t mean that one just desires to be right in an argument. I’m much more concerned with winning the person instead of the argument. However, truth has to be told in order for people to be won in truth and in order for repentance to take place.
Jesus set aside His privilege as God in order to redeem us sinful people but this does not mean that we no longer fight for dignity that is stamped on us by his image. In fact, Him reconciling all things in his death calls for such dignity to be upheld and fight for in ALL men. And sacrifice in doing so – even if that means the sacrifice of our very lives – this is being like Jesus.
Much love, brother.
Sorry – the first two sentences are not clear. I meant thanks for speaking that the core and history of racism shows that it is not a 50/50 issue. It’s a deeper problem and blame on the white majority since they were active in this injustice.
Thank you for clarifying what I often don’t realize. At the core and history 50/50 issue. I suppose though that on the surface some feel hatred for white people and could easily thinks it’s now an equal struggle, but we can’t neglect the history. I’ve been reading Fortunes of Africa and realized the impact slavery has made in that continent. So sad. Lots of blacks, Muslims, and later whites kept it going and justified it. I’m afraid me and others are often too self-protective to admit how we’ve failed and the lasting psychological and cultural Impact our history has had on a people in the US. A similar point will he made with women who have lived under years of fearing aggressive males and avoiding harassment, which also is a very deep seated inner battle that few men may even realize they feel and suffer consequences from it. Help Jesus, you’re our only hope.
Your words are too kind. I hope others receive it as you have. I’m always afraid of being too blunt or direct.
I’ve responded to a couple of other articles, but only more recently.
Thomas – as someone who thinks about these issues alot I sometimes get the feeling that I have heard it all. This comment is not only extremely true (in my opinion), but also has brought a perspective that I havent heard before. Thanks so much for this thoughtful response. It has given me much to think about in how I respond to these types of articles. Seriously. Thank you. Do you comment alot on this site? If so, i may have to pursue the comments sections a bit more. 🙂
I believe you are right that correction and truth telling are important. I hope you can hear some of that from me today.
I know that it must be burdensome and tiring to feel like a “mule” as you put it. What I would remind you of and hope you’ll meditate on is that Christ did not consider equality something to be grasped, but gave up heaven (being God) to become a “mule”. To suffer, to die for a people that said “I’m not racist”. He carried that burden for us, despite us.
I say that to encourage you onward and in hopes that you’ll forgo worrying so much about being right about white privilege, racism, and anything else along those lines. Being right about the racial tropes, and attempting to convict white people won’t get you very far with those you have no relationship with and refuse to validate them as people.
Think about what kind of statement “I’m not a racist” is. It’s a defensive statement. Defenses are up. White people don’t hear that these days simply from well meaning and reconcile seeking blacks. They hear that they are racists from all over. (Yes, Jesus confronted the Pharisees, but Jesus also knew their hearts and is Jesus. He wasn’t trying to persuade them necessarily to reconcile or to repent. It has its time and place, but what are you really after here? Being right?).
What I hope you’ll realize is that it’s as much a barrier to relationship and conversation as you feel when the racial tropes are brought up for you as it is for whites to be implicated in racism and racists policies (esp if they are post 1980s). How defensive are you when someone talks about almost 70% of African Americans are being born into single parent families? Where does your mind go? Does it get defensive? Does it call it a “racial trope”? How can you better look past the racism to persuade others to hear what you want to say?
If you’re married, you probably have begun to learn that being right isn’t the most important thing to change or growing in such a relationship. There are times for it, but the most progress one makes in relationships with their spouse is from the ability to listen and validate their concerns. It lowers defenses, builds trust, and opens the conversation to correction and truth, largely because we’re treating them as equal people that have the same value. It’s hard, and it makes us give up ourselves to do it, but that’s entirely what you’re expecting and wanting from white people, and whether or not they ever give it, be above reproach in continuing to live toward them (and others) as you want them to live toward you. The Lord will be their judge all the same if there’s no reciprocation.
As christians, we have to be “mules” toward each other if we want anything to change. What happened yesterday has to be forgiven, and not held against. “Privilege” isn’t something to covet. We don’t have to tear down others or declare our rightness in order to move forward as brothers and sisters.
Jeff. Of course they can. The Bible talks about the sin of partiality that can be committed by the powerful and powerless alike. Most people who would embrace the view of this article would say no, though, which frankly commits the sin of partiality and is ironically a racist view.
Can black people be racists? Serious question. The author of this article, and many black friends & neighbors I’ve talked to, claim that the answer is, “absolutely not.” And that answer makes absolutely no sense to me.