A few years ago, I went to a Chance the Rapper concert in Portland, Oregon. It was his biggest show of the year in one of the whitest cities on the tour. About 12,000 people packed into the stadium, most of them not black, and the majority of the room loudly sang the word “nigger” along with every track that played during the pre-concert and Chance’s performance. The majority-white audience clearly felt the freedom to abandon decorum and fully participate in blackness because they had paid $60 to be there.
This experience is not unique or new. It has long been the operating posture of white people, particularly at festivals and concerts, to assume that minority culture itself is up for grabs. Blackness, though, is not something that can be sojourned into for the price of concert or festival ticket. With the approach of Afropunk, Lollapalooza and Outside Lands, all featuring prominent black artists, it may be time for a refresher course on the implications of loving and mimicking black culture while still operating in rampant anti-blackness.
The cost of blackness is something that black people wear and live every day, but often white people seek full participation in our experiences without operating within appropriate participatory boundaries. When the boundaries of racial appropriateness are blurred, it leads white people to feel they are granted permission to act out racist tropes that demonstrate anti-blackness, and their indifference toward the suffering and feelings of black people is revealed. Nowhere is this more apparent than at music festivals and concerts.
White people love to participate in black culture, but seem to feel threatened by black people who they don’t pay to perform for them.
Festivals operate with an illusion of being post-racial havens. The majority of festival goers are white but as artist line-ups become more and more diverse, it is easy to mistake the diversity for a marker of racial unity. Under this illusion of unity, white people feel free to literally put on culture costumes and perform blackness.
Coachella has long been a source of controversy with white women in particular seemingly trading good common sense and racial sensitivity for social media likes that come from appropriative fashion.
Kylie Jenners popularized box braids as a festival trend despite black women wearing them (better) for centuries. Post Malone, (the great image of appropriation himself) mimics grills and cornrows on stage. Justin Bieber recently sported (this is generous, they were bad) “dreads” and then became fragile on his social media. Yes, it’s “just his hair” as he put it, but he is able to get away with a style that has rarely been seen as culturally acceptable for black people.
These are our social models, the people who wear blackness literally or figuratively as clothing that can be taken on and off, but would never want to experience what black people do in the U.S.
Outside of concert arenas in the real world, black people cannot have a bbq, mow a lawn, sell water or have a pool party without a white person feeling threatened. The reality is this: White people love to participate in black culture, but seem to feel threatened by black people who they don’t pay to perform for them.
Concerts and festivals become training grounds for this sort of problematic behavior and a place to practice defensiveness. They are freewheeling spaces, where, in the busyness and hype of everything going on, cultural appropriation gets a special pass.
If they feel free enough to yell the N-word as loud as they please, who knows what other things they may feel, believe or do when their inhibitions are gone.
White people seem to act as though the playing field is leveled on festival grounds. That under the influence of their favorite hallucinogenic (the use of which results in disproportionate criminalization rates for black people) and in the presence of their favorite artists, we are all the same. A loudspeaker system apparently flattens the implications of white women twerking on every object within reach without experiencing the same violent sexualization and judgment that black women do. The N-word apparently loses its stigma and is shouted like a birthright.
Proximity to black people seems to transfer blackness for a few nights, but at the end of the day, it is the highest mark of privilege to systematically oppress people for hundreds of years and then to mimic, perform and market everything within their culture. Racial propriety is ejected in the name of letting loose and being free.
Some might try to argue that because black art is now mainstream, the culture belongs to everyone. The mainstream popularity of black art and life doesn’t transfer to the highest bidder, nor does it mean the end of oppression for black people. Black people are the authority on what should and can be done with our culture. In 2018, white people cannot seem to fathom that there are limits to what they can do. They act as though, through small acts of claiming black culture, they are exempt from the harmful implications of racism on black people.
Now, as a black person, being in a space with 10,000 or more non-black people yelling/singing “nigger” is not a neutral experience. White people being that free is terrifying. If they feel free enough to yell the N-word as loud as they please, who knows what other things they may feel, believe or do when their inhibitions are gone.
White people have always used their freedom to benefit from black work and creative endeavors. Freedom for white people has always been rooted in anti-blackness. And in our current society, that anti-blackness is hidden under misguided attempts to perform or appropriate culture.
Black people are not safe, nor are we allowed to live our culture fully, and when white people feel the freedom to discard all racial decorum, it reveals the insidious reality that black culture matters more to white people than black lives.
Brandi Miller is a campus minister and justice program director from the Pacific Northwest.