Let me begin by establishing something very important: Saying that white people need Beyoncé is not meant, at all, to suggest that Beyoncé exists for the benefit, betterment or amusement of white people. And this is not a think piece about what Beyoncé means to the black community, because dear God am I under-qualified for that.
I acknowledge that when white people say Queen Bey it is awkward. When white people dance to her music it is mostly unfortunate. And when white people talk about the importance of her increasingly political music it is a dangerous, dangerous proposition, because when it comes to talking about race, white people are—with very few exceptions—complete idiots.
Yes. Most white people have no idea how to have thoughtful, productive conversations about race with people of color, which is probably why it feels like no one even wants us too. And that makes sense. If someone is terrible at cooking, you don’t ask them to make you dinner. And if they suggest it you just say, “How about we go out instead?” because that’s easier than the alternatives: humoring the person and suffering through their food or telling them, “You’re terrible so let’s just not.” The options are hurt them or hurt yourself, so let’s just call it a draw and avoid the issue.
A great and terrible example of this is the intersection of two things that happened on the Internet this week: Beyoncé’s #LEMONADE and Iggy Azalea—poor, unfortunate, chronically uninformed social media race relations guinea pig, Iggy Azalea. Through her latest Twitter dust up over the misuse/appropriation/disrespect of black culture (it’s become a regular event) we see a horribly uncomfortable and perfect example of how white people should not address the very necessary conversation of race and identity in the United States.
But let’s get one thing straight first. Neither I nor anyone else can tell Azalea about her experience as a white, female rapper trying to succeed in a predominantly black art form, who is also in an inter-racial relationship and the object of a terrifying amount of vitriol on social media. The way we have all been complicit in the online assassination of Azalea is abhorrent, because even someone with a long history of saying tone-deaf things in conversations about race deserves to be treated like a human. That means not threatening her with releasing a sex tape or mocking her skin color or body shaming her or waging any other ad hominem attacks. Much like Azalea’s seemingly willful refusal to develop a deeper understanding about how to confront race and gender politics hurts the cause of progress, so too does people just calling her names in public.
All that being said, Azalea continues to make herself a hard figure to defend. In this latest Twitter spat, Azalea took exception to Beyoncé’s use of the term “Becky” in one of her new songs to refer to a mystery woman. Azalea has oft been referred to as a “Becky” in her career—a kind of panacea term for women inclined to provide oral sex—and insisted on Twitter that calling a white woman Becky is the same as calling all “Asian women” by the name “ming lee” or calling all black men “DeShawn.” Azalea drew a parallel between “Becky” and using racial epithets, then recanted and said doesn’t see it as a racial slur, despite the fact that she definitely characterized it as such.
Every time someone charges Azlaea with a new offense (past Twitter foes include Talib Kweli, Azalea Banks, Macklemore, Nicki Minaj, Q-Tip and an assortment of Twitter normals) she reacts the wrong way. She gets defensive. She wings insults. She accuses people of patronizing her while whitesplaining why she gets to “do her.” In her private life, Azalea could be an eminently tolerant, empathetic and self-aware person who thrives in conversations about racial identity and the minority experience in America, but in public she comes off as the petulant, uninformed poseur that people keep accusing her of being. And this time she sounded off about the most talked about—and maybe most important—piece of popular art of the 21st century.
Perhaps the greatest offense repeatedly committed by Azalea is that when she gets in these altercations, which are almost always with black artists, she speaks in statements instead of asking questions, suggesting she either knows better or has no interest in learning how to participate in a thoughtful, public dialogue about race. But even if she asked, why would a person of color want to spend their time explaining the minority experience in America to white people, as if it’s their job to mentor us? I’m a white person who really wants to have that conversation, but can plainly see how annoying it would be to have to explain oppression to the privileged class. Besides, Q-Tip tried to helpfully explain black frustration over Azalea’s public image to her, and she half-dismissed him as “patronizing” before saying she’s used to the haters. In internet terms, she basically said ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
And it’s not like white people can return the favor either. Sitting down to give heartfelt explanations about white identity in America sounds like a whole mess of helper whitey bullshit, because no one else needs to be told what it’s like to be white. The great privilege of being a white person in this country (and many others) is that we don’t have to tell anyone what it’s like to be us. Everyone knows what the white experience is, because it is inescapable. The Hollywood machine churns out chronicles of whiteness in movies and on TV. Thinking about race as a white person is a lot like thinking about weather if you live in San Diego. You never really have to because your surroundings are always comfortable anyway—but as soon as something unexpected happens you shut yourself inside and wait out the storm until it passes. Even if we’re not necessarily afraid of the rain, we just don’t know what the hell to do about it!
But if you don’t brave the rain you’ll never learn how to live in it. And at this present cultural moment, Beyoncé is the storm. Her music and message are pouring down over the discourse, saturating the media landscape with speculation about her ideas and her intentions and her inspirations and her process. Whether or not you’ve watched and loved Lemonade is the current litmus test for whether or not you’re woke/relevant/racist/thoughtful or even a human being at all. Most people, regardless of color or creed, have to be jolted out of their routine to consider another person’s perspective. I don’t think people are inherently selfish. They’ve just got complicated lives to lead. But Beyoncé, in all her power and beauty and glory, is that jolt. That shock of perspective. And any white person of good conscious should go out of their way to ask questions about the passion and fervor surrounding Lemonade.
Perhaps the best part about watching the video event air in real time was following along on Twitter and seeing the reactions from black users, particularly black women. Watching Lemonade and seeing their responses did not make me understand. It did not make me informed. I did not suddenly “get” what it meant to be black in America. But I, and any other white person who was really paying attention, was being permitted to see how much we don’t know and can’t know, and how much better of an effort we all need to make to understand why art like this can even exist—what fuels it, what powers it, what inspires it. The pain and the pride and the agony and the joy. Even if slavery and racial oppression is not your personal history, it is the shared history of everyone who lives in this country, and we all bear the responsibility of trying to understand it better. We bear the responsibility of knowing how what we were shapes what we are, and what we will become.
So the storm is still over us. Beyoncé is on tour now and if we’re smart we will insist that what she presented in Lemonade is not the period at the end of a sentence, but the beginning of a whole new conversation. White people are awful at discussing race, because we never have to, which is a very true and very terrible thing. And any time you start trying to learn something as an adult it’s going to be awkward and slow and you’re going to screw up a lot before you get things right. But that doesn’t mean we are allowed to give up and remain complacent. Staying in our lane can’t just mean sitting idle for fear of looking like idiots. And honestly, we kind of already do, so there’s nowhere to go but up.
White people learning to talk about race, online and in real life, is going to feel like learning a foreign language, and we’re going to say so many accidentally offensive, well-intentioned things before we learn how to phrase our questions the right way. But we need to screw up—sometimes publicly—and we need to be corrected, because this is a conversation we can no longer opt to stay out of. We cannot close our doors to the storm outside. And the incredible vulnerability showed by a great artist that millions of people from all backgrounds can unite around has exposed the scars of disenfranchised community in our country, and we need to stop looking the other way. It’s time to acknowledge the scars. It’s time to stop making statements and start asking questions. It is time to take our lumps for passively promoting a culture of disenfranchisement for so long and listen.
So fall in, white people! It’s time we learned how to get in formation.