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In White Skin

“I’m just a lost soul in white skin / Trying to find my way to a new end”

I won’t quit my day job to write rap lyrics, but it seemed fitting to appropriate an African American art form to express what is going on with me.

This white guy, who grew up in a white neighborhood and went to a white university, is drawn to Talib Kweli’s music. The socially conscious rapper from Brooklyn, who has worked with some of the biggest names in black music, remarkably was in Bellingham on Thursday, January 28, to play to a crowd of a few hundred at the Wild Buffalo.

If anyone can be a source of inspiration for a white person trying to make sense of race relations, it’s Kweli. He conveys his message, which lately has focused on “Black Lives Matter,” to a mostly white audience — and not just in Bellingham. Videos posted to social media of his recent shows in Orange County, Portland and even Oakland show a sea of white faces, and white arms putting their hands in the air.

Kweli has been busy in recent weeks, playing four or five shows a week, so he likely didn’t have time to read up on a Whatcom County jail proposal criticized for not doing enough to prevent recidivism despite the active school-to-prison pipeline for minorities. He likely missed coverage of the Martin Luther King Jr. event at Bellingham City Hall that was disrupted by activists who called out the city-sanctioned event for sanitizing MLK’s legacy.

I couldn’t get an interview with Kweli after the show (I tried), but I speculate that news of a racial justice movement in Bellingham wouldn’t really be news to him.

From “It Only Gets Better,” off the album Prisoner of Conscious:

People of color 25 percent more likely than whites to face prison
But just because the president is black there’s no more racism?
Post-racial? More like most racial
The hate for you disgraceful
Don’t let it take you off your base, let it motivate you

That’s one of Kweli’s messages to people of color. But what about his white audience? “We listen to the same songs but we hear them different,” Kweli raps in “Before He Walked,” also from Prisoner of Conscious.

I’m trying to hear things from other people’s perspective. I’ve begun attending meetings of the Bellingham Racial Justice Coalition because I want to help. I’ve noticed the same irony Kweli mentions: Wasn’t Obama’s election supposed to augur a post-racial society? Either things have gotten worse, or—more likely—the proliferation of video phones has brought to light more of the everyday injustices people of color have been experiencing all along in post Civil Rights-era America and even in “post-racial” America.

I have a vague sense of wanting to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. But I don’t know what I’m doing. I want to hear the song the same as people whose experiences are different from mine, but I’m not sure of my listening skills.

I don’t trust myself to avoid thinking or acting in the racist ways I’ve learned to think and act.

Despite my love of Kweli’s music, I don’t trust myself to get the right message out of it. But maybe I need to set aside notions of “right vs. wrong.” After all, I learned this all-or-nothing approach to truth while studying philosophy in college. It was an education in how white European men—you might know the drill: Rene Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant—explained the world and our experiences. These men, for the most part, were obsessed with being right and proving the others wrong. Could it be that this white male approach to truth-seeking was leading me astray all along? Would embracing the European male view, as I have done, make me complicit in a racist, white-supremacist world view?

Like I said, the more I know, the less sure of myself I become. I need to reset my brain about racism and start with the basic concepts.

Is there a concept an anti-racism neophyte like me can latch onto, before I start my required reading in the history of oppression in America?

“You know what love is.”
— Slum Village, “The Look of Love.”

Early in Kweli’s Bellingham show, he honored the late J. Dilla by doing “The Look of Love” by Dilla’s 1990s underground rap group, Slum Village.

What is the look of—
It’s got something to do with umm
Being a man and handling your biz

In my house, which has three daughters, we implore each other to “be a woman” when someone needs to take care of their own biz. Anyhow, we all have business to take care of when it comes to counteracting racism. What’s mine?

How about keeping it simple and starting with myself and my family? That much I can understand.

Right before the encore, Kweli riled up the Wild Buffalo crowd with his biggest hit, “Get By.” As Kweli described it on stage that night, the song is about black people holding themselves accountable for their ills.

They need something to rely on
We get high on all types of drugs
When all you really need is love

On that line, Kweli put his right fist to his heart for emphasis. I stood at the left end of the stage, and as he was turning in my direction I believe he caught me reflexively copying his motion—fist to the chest.

He’s from Bed Stuy, I’m from Allison Park, Pennsylvania. Worlds apart, but just maybe connecting in that fleeting moment? Or was I just high on the music and imagining things?

Either way, I say there’s hope for me. J Dilla’s group was right.

I know what love is.

About Ralph Schwartz

Writer • Member since May 23, 2014

After 13 years in mainstream journalism, Ralph Schwartz left The Bellingham Herald in November 2015 to get more involved in the community. He's now a freelance editor and writer, and works in [...]

Comments by Readers

Doug Starcher

Feb 01, 2016

Ralph,

I was at the show as well, thank you for your thoughts. This is a struggle for those of us looking to find ways to be an ally, we will find ways by reaching out and asking “what can I do”? It will not happen by simply patting ourselves on the back for being on the right side of issues, we must find ways to act.

Good start.

Thanks

Doug

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Bob Aegerter

Feb 03, 2016

Ralph,

Thank you for this.  Please in time write more that can help us understand what each of us need to do.

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