Some of the best – and some of the worst – writing I’ve done has been in a fit of pique and/or passion, with words spilling out onto the page faster than I can reflect on the full extent of their meaning. Or meanings, I should say, because it’s a rare word and a rarer sentence that doesn’t admit a multiplicity of interpretations.
I didn’t mention it in yesterday’s piece on racial stereotypes, but I used to know Kreayshawn’s mother. It’s been a long time since I saw or talked with her – maybe not since Kreayshawn was an infant or little girl – but we used to move in the same punk rock circles, and had a number of friends in common.
If I’d been more aware of this, if I’d have stopped to think it through, would I have written about Kreayshawn in the same way? Probably not, and I’m a little ashamed to say that, because ideally, writers who set out to tell the truth about the world should, as Joseph Pulitzer said about newspapers, “have no friends.”
I don’t think he meant we were fated to live solitary, alienated lives – though it can sometimes feel that way – but that we can’t afford to play favorites, give one kind of treatment to those we know and like, and another to those who exist only as anonymous media presences.
For 1980s punk rockers, Maximum Rocknroll, especially its letters section, functioned like a low-tech version of the internet, filled with endless shit-talking and Talmudic examinations of hopelessly arcane principles. Accuse a band of charging a dollar too much for its shows or records, suggest that their lyrics lacked the appropriate sensitivity to the crucial issues that consumed us, and you could set off a firestorm of charges and countercharges that sometimes rose – “sunk” might be the more appropriate word – to threats or even acts of physical violence.
As author of a monthly column in MRR, I was often in the middle, if not the instigator-in-chief, of these disputes. I was quick to judge, quicker to criticize, and did not always bother to have all the facts in my possession before I let fly with my opinions.
As a result, there was always somebody, if not several somebodies, mad at me about one thing or the other. I figured that went with the territory, and didn’t think too much about it until the first time I really upset someone in my own immediate circle of friends.
He had editorialized against the gentrification of San Francisco’s Mission District (yes, the argument has been going on that long) and I pointed out that he, having recently moved into a large warehouse in the Mission, was himself part of the process he was criticizing. He called to complain, and when I didn’t immediately see things his way, slammed the phone down with such anger that he broke his hand.
We became friends again, but it took a while, and I began to reconsider – something I’m still doing today, almost 25 years later – just where to draw the line when it comes to offering advice and opinions, whether to strangers or friends. Some people follow the course – a course, incidentally, which has often been recommended to me – of having, or at least expressing no judgments at all, of simply accepting that different people view the world in different ways, and embracing the diversity.
Others maintain – and I guess I’ve always leaned more in this direction – that we have our critical faculties for a reason, and that we have both a right and a duty, to use them. “I try to keep an open mind,” MRR’s Tim Yohannan used to say, “but not so open that any old crap can fall in.” If no one points out what’s wrong, this view holds, how can we expect it to be righted?
The trouble is that most of the time none of us knows with any certainty what is wrong and right, especially since a great deal of what goes on in the world falls somewhere between those extremes. This is how I’m feeling today, in the wake of some very strong reactions – both positive and negative – to my Kreayshawn article. It’s inevitable that this will happen when one wades into the thicket of race and class issues, as I should know, since I’ve been tackling this subject, from a variety of standpoints, ever since my 1980s MRR days.
If I should have learned anything over those years, it’s that I need to be extremely judicious in my use of words like “racist” or “racism,” perhaps so judicious that I banish them from my vocabulary altogether. I’m not sure who first said it, but it’s been observed that these days, with the n-word having become such a conversational commonplace that it’s lost much of its sting, “racist” has, at least in some circles, replaced it as the ultimate insult.
Maybe I was subconsciously thinking of this when I deployed such heavy verbal artillery against Kreayshawn; maybe it was a cheap shot on my part because I felt unable to come up with the words to say what I really meant. I don’t know: what I do know is that I was wrong to accuse Kreayshawn of being a racist, at least in any normal sense of the word.
I still feel – and feel strongly – that some of what she says and does has the potential to do great harm, and that whether or not she’s aware of this, it needs to be talked about, broken down, studied and understood. I don’t doubt that she’s an intelligent woman, and her friends and family tell me that she’s a kind, gentle and loving person as well.
Put it that way and I almost – almost – feel bad for bringing the subject up at all. But while I’ll cop to being wrong for hauling out the r-word (it might have been more accurate to say that her glorification of ghetto stereotypes provides fuel for real racists), and wrong for trying to psychoanalyze her reasons for acting the way she does, I’m standing by my main point: that with great power comes great responsibility.
Kreayshawn needs to recognize that she’s becoming a major role model – she probably realizes this anyway – and that the words, images and attitudes she employs have real effects on real people. It’s been pointed out – and it may be true – that I’m not knowledgeable enough about hip hop to critique her style and flow, but that’s not what I’m here to do.
The values I’m talking about transcend musical and cultural genres. What I’m hoping is that Kreayshawn will use the ability and opportunities she’s been given to step up her game and lift people up with her instead of dragging them down – and letting herself be dragged down – to the basest street level.