Am I Black Or Am I White?

A TV talk show recently trotted them out like five-legged cows at a county fair: "black" people who dressed, talked, looked like "white" people. Hair straightened, skin lightened, garb purchased from J. Crew or Land's End. The word "be" conjugated with object when used as a transitive verb.

And there don't be nothing wrong with what they be doing, or at least that's what the herd argued.

And maybe there isn't. Thousands, millions maybe, of lighter-skinned Americans have glommed equally hard onto black fashion (knee-length shorts have been popular in the ghetto for many years), black culture (one more X cap and I start shooting), black music (Pat Boone started it, one can only hope Michael Bolton has finished it). The one problem with whites seeking blackness is that they're more likely to look to Rolling Stone or GQ than to the source -- places such as Liberty City or O'town.

Sad as it may be, there's always been a pragmatic logic behind blacks' efforts to pass: White people have so many advantages over their darker brethren and sistren.

With the blossoming of a music genre called rap, there is a more precise concern at work here. Where does appropriation end and tribute begin? Is it a compliment to say, hey, even though my skin is tan, I want to dress like Flavor Flav, in colorful -- dare we say ostentatious -- jumpsuits with overstated hats and a giant clock medallion? Or is that posturing, insincere theft for darker, so to speak, purposes? Then again, is Flav himself an Amos-Andy parody of his own black heritage?

In the premiere issue of Vibe -- a new, Rolling Stone type magazine aimed at hip-hoppers and wanna-be hip-hoppers -- writer James Ledbetter argues that whites who dig Public Enemy should go a step further and embrace the ideology of that inflammatory group. It's not enough to familiarize yourself with P.E., to buy their records, to thoughtlessly groove to their siren. The white must also call for reparations of 911, complain that the emergency phone service is hesitant to provide black neighborhoods the same urgency as white sections of town, change society in ways suggested by Chuck D and his posse. As elegant and persuasive as Ledbetter's piece is, it is published in Vibe, a forum whose very nature belies close ties to the urban underbelly. Blacks can't keep it to themselves, there just isn't enough money in it. The first ad in the magazine -- a four-page spread no less -- is for Levis. Yo, bro, nice trousers.

There are at least four groups of people involved in this whole debate: whites who want to be black, blacks who want to be white, blacks who resent whites who want to be black, whites who resent blacks who want to be white. Ledbetter draws the example of 3rd Bass, the recently broken-up rap group that consisted of white people who grew up in a "black" environment and carried that into their music. Ledbetter notes that 3rd Bass made a habit of dissing on record Vanilla Ice's knack for stealing black nuances in order to make big bucks. Pat Boone all over again. But, Ledbetter points out, Bass's tactics are also a sign of their own insecurity. The pot calling the kettle black, as it were. Those denouncements, Ledbetter writes, imply that Ice's "downfall would inflate [3rd Bass's] `genuine' attachment to blacks and to rap." We're more legitimately "black" than he is, in other words, so we're legitimate. The problem with that theory is that everyone should denounce Vanilla Ice, not because he swipes blackisms for commercial purposes, but just because his music sucks.

We get caught up in these racial webs to our own detriment. For example, some weeks ago I wrote in this section an extremely tongue-in-cheek "guide" for those attending Lollapalooza. (I went to that fest, and I watched as Ice Cube came out to jam with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The collaboration was barely coherent and totally out of place. A bore. Not because Ice Cube is black -- the previous year's combination of Jane's Addiction and Ice-T performing Sly Stone's "Don't Call Me Nigger Whitey" worked much better -- but because the music didn't integrate, didn't even make sense, really.) The point of my "guide" was to make fun of just about everything connected to Lollapalooza.

Part of that attempt at humor included my noting that one of Ice Cube's chief attributes is his abundant use of the nonword "nigga." Later in the piece I suggested you -- meaning the suburban whites who had been attending the Lolla shows elsewhere -- take along a "nigga" to translate Ice Cube's lyrics. I was trying, perhaps a bit too desperately, or maybe too subtly, to ridicule the notion that whites, or anyone not familiar with ghetto life, could possibly embrace the hard-core realities often explored by Cube, an uncompromising guy with plenty of (valid) beefs. Jill Tracey, editor of News & Gossip, a brand new local publication, didn't see it my way. This is what her magazine published in response: Excuse me, but is this 1992??? It appears as though Greg has lost his mind. Is he crazy? We suggest Baker walk up to a black man on the street and say, `Nigga, translate what Ice Cube is saying' and see what happens. The only place this word is used nowadays by white writers is in Klan literature. WE fully understand rappers take creative license with it, but it was not appropriate in print. But what we want to know is how did it manage to get by the editors?

Maybe the (white) editors were busy listening to their N.W.A. albums. Or maybe they realize that if the word is evil, then it's evil whether it is being used by a black speaking to blacks, or a white speaking to whites, or a black speaking to whites.... Words don't hurt people, racism does.

I suppose there's some validity to the suggestion that it's dandy for, say, Success N Effect (an Atlanta-based rap group you white people will be hearing much about eventually) to musically address George Wallace with these words: "He let them crackers decapitate a nigga/Now he's going to be tried by a trigger happy nigga," but it's racist for me, or some other whitey, to say that racism is unfair and my home niggas should fight it with all means. But -- and this is a big but -- who says I'm white? And who says you're black? I mean, how far have you traced your genealogy, mandingo? In deeds and action, many white people are, through no manipulation, just de facto, more black than Michael Jackson. There we go making a distinction again, and that's the real problem.

The other day I was riding the train downtown and there was this dark-skinned young man onboard wearing a porkpie hat and red muscle shirt. He kept looking at me, at my forehead it seemed, and I wondered if I was bleeding or something. Couldn't figure it out. As I was walking through Government Center, sweating from the heat, I took off my cap and fanned myself with it. I looked down at it and noticed that it was from Luke Records, with a colorful "I got shit on my mind Luke Solo" embroidered on the front. Was the guy on the train looking at me because I was a paleskin wearing something that represented a black cultural experience? Or did he just like my hat?


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Greg Baker