As a child, most of the music I listened to was whatever my parents were listening to. I heard the pop and rap on the radio, but also older R&B and reggae. When I was thirteen, I started listening to music independently, getting into the alternative rock that was popular in England (my home at the time). As I grow older, I continuously seek out older music of many genres, wanting to diversify my tastes.
I first heard about Talib Kweli Greene (known professionally as Talib Kweli) when I was doing my undergraduate degree at the University of Ottawa. I forget the context for his name being brought up, but I believe he may have been doing a show somewhere in the city. Years later, when I joined Twitter, I was randomly motivated to find his account. To this day, I have not listened to his music. I will, but this post isn’t about his artistry. Anyone who follows Kweli knows he isn’t afraid to engage anyone who tweets to him or about him. Some of these tweets come from people criticizing his career or music for one reason or another, but a lot of the ones I’ve seen are people who accuse him of being racist.
As I’ve discussed before, “colour-blind racism” is the modern racism. It is a naive mindset that racism, both instutional and individual, is dead now except for those pesky people wearing white hoods. It treats any mention of race as being racist, while also defending comments, mindsets and behaviours that rely on racist assumptions. People will say they don’t see colour, and then argue that black people would get killed by cops less if they just obeyed the law. People will say they don’t see colour, but then refuse to date anyone whose skin doesn’t match their own. People will say they don’t see colour, but then assume a black person with a good job isn’t qualified for it.
Racists are drawn to Kweli like moths to the flame. There is a sort of vicious cycle at work, where someone attempts to call Talib out for perceived racism, e.g. Talib’s declarations of being proudly black or his previous responses to another racist. Then once Talib dismantles this racist’s arguments, another jumps in to attack him because he dared to discuss race. Such is the hypocrisy of the colour-blind racist. While they have their own racist assumptions and beliefs, they are quick to throw out the word racist for those who call them out on it. “I’m not racist, you politically correct social justice warriors, (other right wing buzzwords) race-baiters are the real racists. I just think I should be able to say I don’t want more black people in my neighborhood without libtards attacking me. Black people are violent after all! That’s not racist, I have black friends.”
I have sometimes wondered why Kweli bothers to respond to these people, and some tweets from fans have also expressed the same question. Some of the haters accused Kweli of doing nothing but tweeting all day, but a look at his touring and musical output shows he is a productive artist. He handles time well, but I guess I still wondered why he bothers. Then I read Kweli’s own answer to the question, and it all made sense.
People are always quick to label racist online comments as the work of “trolls”, people who write inflammatory comments and derive enjoyment from the uproar they produce. The word “troll” implies that the poster doesn’t actually believe what they wrote, they are just saying it to see how people react. This kind of mindset, where we just ignore online racists, is downright irresponsible in this day and age. As Kweli points out, the alt-right is an entity that was birthed online. Real people reside behind the alt-right sites and comments that have proliferated online. These people have jobs, families and the ability to vote. They got Trump elected, with their own votes and their ability to spread misinformation that reinvigorated the resentment of minorities that many people in America harbour. Kweli combats racism through campaigns and events and he knows “twitter fingers” may not be for everyone, but it is one of the tools he employs to combat the ignorance that is stoked by this new climate of right wing backlash.
The people who decide to accuse Kweli of racism demonstrate one racist assumption after another, and a straw-man understanding of concepts like white privilege. User @adamant919 had the audacity to use the term “black privilege” to describe black people’s supposed natural gifts and our “handouts” with programs like affirmative action, which actually benefit white women more and don’t lead to unqualified applicants getting selected for jobs. Funny enough, the user appears to have deleted his account since. This isn’t the first user that has deleted his account following an encounter with Kweli and it gives me some hope that some people might realize the error of their ways. However, someone can delete their account out of a sense of embarrassment, without actually reflecting on their views.
This Slate article offers an interesting case study of the infamous Hunger Games (2012) racist backlash, where supposed fans were upset that the character Rue was played by a black girl, even though Rue is described as having dark brown skin in the book. One fan began collecting these racist tweets, such as “Rue being black ruined the movie” and created a tumblr account to showcase them. This article follows up on this tumblr account, reaching out to some of the twitter users to get their thoughts.
The user who wrote this tweet argued that she didn’t mean to be racist. She was just surprised that Rue was black since Rue was supposed to remind Katniss (the white, main character) of her sister. Firstly, “remind her of” doesn’t always mean “look like”. If she was truly “colour-blind” then Rue’s skin colour shouldn’t have even registered with her. Aside from the terrible excuse offered by the twitter user, the author brings up a point that a lot of people like to use for defending racists online: “This kind of drive-by scapegoating does not seem conducive to genuine reflection (and it definitely doesn’t encourage reflection in the individuals it scapegoats). It allows us to point the finger at other, younger, relatively powerless people, rather than consider the ways in which we’re implicated in a problem that is much, much larger than a few misguided teenagers on Twitter.”
I have heard people say the same thing to Kweli about his Twitter comments, and it usually comes across as very disengenious. Some of the users from the Hunger Games example may be teenagers, but some of them are grown men and women. The same goes for the alt-right. People who throw out the “don’t shame people” argument out act as if there are no attempts made to examine racism on a much larger scale. There is plenty of information online, in classes, on tv that sheds light on the much larger problem of institutional racism. People choose to ignore these sources. People choose ignorance. They reject enlightenment as left wing propaganda, the work of libtards or social justice warriors. People surround themselves with friends and sources who share the same views and refuse to challenge any of their assumptions about the world. How exactly should their racist comments be dealt with? Conservatives love to throw out the argument of free speech to defend bigotry and no one is saying they don’t have the right to make such comments. My question is: If someone is willing to go online and criticize someone’s skin colour or attack a rapper for his liberal beliefs, why are we discouraged from exercising our free speech and shining the spotlight back on them?
As Kweli says, if someone is already racist “when I respond to them, it doesn’t matter what facts I give or how much sense I make. They’re going to be who they are.” Being kinder to the racists won’t make them more prone to ‘reflection.” The real purpose behind responding is to avoid having your message become silenced. There were probably millions of people, viewing one racist comment after another from the alt-right and thinking that all those comments wouldn’t have any impact on their lives. They stayed silent, and let misinformation and racist rhetoric fill the void. They may as well have packed Trump’s things and moved them into the White House for him.