Op-Ed: White kids, rap lyrics and the question of racism
The following op-ed was published in the Los Angeles Times on May 27, 2016.
Last week, I saw the controversial video of white students at Brentwood School rapping along to a song that contains the N-word and other vulgarities.
My husband and I are African American parents, and we have enrolled our son in Brentwood this fall. The video didn’t change our minds.
We’ve met plenty of Brentwood students of all races, and their families, during our son’s admission process. They’ve impressed us. In fact, what initially piqued our interest in the school was encountering Ountae Campbell, an African American student who graduated from Brentwood last year. He’s an all-around good kid -- personable, respectful, patient with adults who peppered him with questions because they wanted to make the best decision for their only child. Ountae loved his experiences at Brentwood, he learned a lot, he made lifelong friends. I definitely want my son to be a part of an environment that produces kids like him.
Now I’m reading comments that accuse Brentwood students of being racist and misogynist, of having bad parents. I’ve seen the calls for the suspension or expulsion of the students in the video, the attacks on the school.
I know none of the students in the video or their parents, so I can’t speak about them specifically. But I can’t help thinking, first, about how easily teenagers in the age of Snapchat and Instagram can broadcast their every move. The prefrontal cortex, the section of their brains responsible for rational thinking and decision-making, is not fully formed until around the age of 25. So I’m not surprised these students — any students — might act impulsively and engage in questionable behavior. I’m sure many adults are grateful that smartphones didn’t exist when we were in high school.
The angry commenters seem to be especially outraged that it is Brentwood School students that were caught on a cellphone video rapping along to misogynistic, vulgar lyrics. The assumption appears to be that at Brentwood, students should know better. Really? The school doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
If you live in the United States and own a television, computer or cellphone, you are served a large dose of misogyny and vulgarity every single day. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cringed watching Carl’s Jr. commercials. I didn’t know you needed half-naked women to sell a burger.
Nor is Brentwood School the only place where students of all colors are happily rapping along to N-word-laced lyrics. Hip-hop culture exerts a powerful influence on American youth. My husband takes the Metro light rail to work. He comes home with stories of young Latino males loudly referring to each other using the N-word. I once heard a group of Asian teenagers refer to themselves in the same way.
That doesn’t make it OK: It’s a hateful word. And sadly it’s deeply entrenched in American culture. Hip-hop’s flippant use of it adds a layer of complexity to an already fraught history. Many teens hear it used so casually, it doesn’t make them flinch. Racism exists, but I don’t think the students in the video are necessarily racist.
Castigating hip-hop makes no sense either. Violence and vulgarity are not exclusive to rap music, and to situate blame for them within one music genre is unfair and inaccurate. As with any art form, hip-hop cannot be viewed as a monolith. Many rap artists use their platform to reveal truths about life in inner-city America and the plight of African Americans.
As for blaming parents, it is the responsibility of every one of us to educate our children about the cultural appropriation, about racism, and the N-word. Replacing the “er” on the end with an “a” doesn’t make it a term of endearment, we tell our son. It does not erase the pain felt by many of our ancestors when they were called this word in its original, ugly, bigoted, form. And if one of his friends happens to use the word in front of him , our son is equipped with the knowledge to explain why it’s not appropriate, despite what A$AP Ferg or Jay-Z says.
I didn’t like what I saw and heard on the Brentwood video, but I also don’t think kids singing along to a pervasive, popular song defines once and for all the school they attend, an entire musical genre or the kids themselves. Whether our children attend small private schools or large urban high schools, they are going to be exposed to all sorts of influences. The video presents a teachable moment. What are we going to do with it?