I am not caping for Justin Timberlake, I have never been a fan; I do, though, understand him a little bit, I think.
I know what it feels like to be inspired by unfiltered and unapologetic truth-telling. I know what it feels like to have your soul spoken to. I also know what it feels like to feel lost when that happens. I know the despair of realizing how seldom that feeling comes. I also know the confusion, and anger, and guilt, and eventually the dissonance that comes with trying to figure out what it means when people of color inspire you but you are white in a white supremacist society.
I imagine Justin Timberlake was feeling many of those same feelings while he was watching Jesse Williams’ speech at the BET Awards. I imagine a lot of folks who look like me, folks with white skin, felt themselves coming alive. Sadly, when called out on their collusion with Whiteness (for Timberlake in the exact ways Jesse Williams had just broken down) many will fall back on the classic “we are all human” liberal deflection.
I know I’ve done that. And it’s not that it’s wrong (we all are human) it’s that it misses the point: our lived reality is very different. But this ain’t new, there are so many eloquent break downs of this lived difference a Google search can easily put the curious on game. This is not a breakdown of that difference. This is, I hope, a call to begin thinking about the solution.
When I first enrolled in grad school I was beyond excited to be studying Hip-Hop. I love Hip-Hop and felt myself a part of the community. I had been performing spoken word for some years and responded with indignation when folks even hinted at questioning my authenticity. I could run down the laundry list of reasons why I was Hip-Hop despite my white skin. And I still don’t back away from that. What I have learned, though, is that my relationship to Hip-Hop and the community is not the same as a Black or Brown person’s relationship to Hip-Hop. Looking back I realize that for an embarrassingly long time I treated Hip-Hop as an equalizer, as a way of saying “we are the same.” I was violating. It wasn’t until I started studying culture and whiteness that I began to understand why I was drawn to Hip-Hop in the first place and how to genuinely engage and be a part of the culture. This is what, I think, Timberlake and others are missing: a critical frame.
Whiteness is a destructive and divisive force. This is not opinion, or analysis, it is objective fact. The first time White appears in legislation is in anti-miscegenation laws. It’s only function has been to delineate which people were considered fully human and which ones would be relegated to subhuman status. That is not pretty stuff.White people have worked incredibly hard at scrubbing all remnants of this history from our collective memories and storytelling. This is especially true in the post-civil rights era where overt racism is ostensibly unacceptable. While this erasure is quite obviously a violence to people of color it is also a violence to those of us with white skin. It is at the intersection of this violence and ignorance that cultural appropriation finds life.
Despite the attempts at scrubbing the bloody foundation which whiteness is built upon the stain remains. Our souls know and carry the weight of whiteness. We feel the isolation and disconnection which comes from ignoring our history. We crave a return to community. We need connection. We need our humanity back. We also inherently know it is whiteness which has robbed us of these things, and we push back against it whether we know it or not. But without culture, without a clear understanding of how whiteness works our pushing back is simply a leveraging of the privileges granted us by our white skin. We must do better.
When I learned the truth about my people, Celtic people, I immediately lost any insecurities around my role in liberation, or my place in culture. I carry with me a beautiful history of resistance. Of course I was drawn to the most salient form of resistance in my own generation. But I also learned how whiteness has duped my people into exchanging their culture for access to the American Dream, forever cementing their place as the torchbearers for American racism.
I was able to see with the clearest of vision how my need for community was as legitimate as anyone else’s. That there was indeed a place for me and people who look like me at the table of liberation. I was also able to see, with astounding clarity, that before that was
possible I needed to study whiteness and unlearn its ways of being.
In doing just that I have never felt more alive, more free.
When Justin Timberlake was getting dragged on Twitter it wasn’t because people were mad he was “inspired.” People were upset because it is not clear what Timberlake was inspired to do. Because Timberlake lacks the cultural knowledge and historical lens necessary to understand whiteness, his response to the criticism confirmed the righteousness of peoples suspicion and anger. What Timberlake should have said in the first place could have gone something like this: @iJesseWilliams tho… #Inspired #UnlearningWhiteness #GoingtoDoBetter
And we can do better. I know that. There is a place at the Cultural table for people who look like me. We simply have very specific work to do before we ain’t crashing the party.