Joyner Lucas' "I'm Not Racist" has people reevaluating the conversation surrounding race.
When Donald Trump took office, it served as the catalyst for a cultural shift. Many of Trump’s loyal base seemed to gravitate toward Trump’s more Nationalist tendencies, and the social climate following his election has felt increasingly volatile, especially with regards to race. Movements like “Black Lives Matter” emerged to raise awareness of police brutality, prompting many on the other side to counter with their own “All Lives Matter” movement; as if Democrats and Republicans weren’t dichotomous enough. The past year has been thick with permeating tension, with talk of border walls, anti-immigration bills, and genuine race riots popping off in Charlottesville. A woman, thirty-two-year old Heather Heyer, even lost her life after being run down by a white supremacist.
Despite the widely recognized public narrative, it’s unfair to say that people are more divided than ever before. There are plenty of positives to be seen; diversity is on the rise, and for the first time in decades, the Grammy Award best album nomination did not include a white male. Sexual harassment is in the midst of being openly discussed, and the perpetrators are being systematically weeded out of powerful positions. Social media and the internet have played a big part in raising awareness to these issues, and myriad voices have banded together to rally for united causes. However, the internet era is the definition of a double-edged sword. While there are plenty of benefits, it often feels like we’re witnessing the death of empathy in real time.
The now-disgraced Louis C.K. once spoke about phones being a contributing factor in stunting empathic growth; he used the example of a child calling another child fat in real life, and being forced to live with the guilt upon seeing the “fat kid’s” face crinkle into a mask of despair. A straightforward picture, yet an effective one. And while Louis CK may have masturbated his way out of the Nation’s collective good-book, his point remains, at its core, a valuable one. Take race, for example, though any sensitive topic applies.
Think of how many times people have engaged in online discourse, firing off some of the foulest, most insensitive words in the book. It doesn’t take long to find some aspiring edgelord hiding behind a computer screen, firing off racial slurs, rape threats, and death threats around with reckless abandon. Those on the receiving end often have to condition themselves to shrug it off, seeking comfort in the fact that these people would most probably bite their tongue in any real-life encounter. How often have you seen a random political thread on Facebook and read through the comments, unable to ask yourself anything other than “who are these people?”
Those who do brazenly back up their more controversial viewpoints in a real-life setting often do so in a high-tension environment, like a protest or a political rally. And while protests can be an effective means of making a statement, they often find people moving as one amorphous, albeit opinionated blob. The nuance of discussion, and more importantly, the mutual respect of debate are lost in these such environments; nothing gets solved if one party simply screams “I’m right” louder than the other. Others will watch it unfold from behind a screen, quietly agree with the party that most closely aligns with their views, and move along, mind unchanged.
And that’s why Joyner Lucas’ recent video I’m Not Racist is so powerful. If you haven’t seen it, it’s only a matter of time before you will. The clip has already landed Joyner a feature on CNN, whose article endearingly describes the video as being “peppered with racial stereotypes and cuss words.” More importantly, they label it the “brutal race conversation nobody wants to have.” And while they’re right about the first part, they’re wrong about the second. People want to have this conversation. The overwhelming response to I’m Not Racist is a testament to that.
Consider the word conversation, which implies more multiple parties. From the jump, Joyner sets the table with two polar-opposites. The first, a white, bearded, “Make America Great Again” hat-sporting male. The second, a young, dreadlocks-sporting black male. The pair sit across from one another, alone in an otherwise empty warehouse. There is strong emphasis on eye contact, from the opening shot until the piece’s resolution; the cinematography ensures that the “debate” is already intimate, almost uncomfortably so. The discourse proceeds to play out with all the intensity of a rap battle, and both actors recite Joyner’s bars with a convincing and powerful physical performance.
When the white man recounts some of his issues with the black community, Joyner somehow manages to remain more-or-less neutral, presenting the arguments from a place of rationality. Perhaps misguided rationality, but rationality nevertheless. The same accounts for the black man, who eventually rises to reveal his own life experience, reflecting on the slavery embedded within his family, as well as the isolation and fear he sometimes feels in modern society. It’s completely unfiltered, and the evocative, yet nuanced blend of unfiltered emotion and logical rhetoric is a testament to Joyner’s skill with the pen. People may very well watch I’m Not Racist and find themselves reluctantly agreeing with points from both perspectives. In fact, early reaction videos and extended think pieces seem to showcase exactly that.
It’s appropriate that Joyner essentially ended the year with this video. With a New Year often comes a desire for “resolution,” and while many opt to stick with “start going to the gym again,” the mere concept of resolution suggests a willingness to change. Of course, there are certain things you can’t change. A white person will never be able to experience what it’s like to be black, nor can a black person experience what it’s like to be white. And while these inherent differences have caused a fair share of tension throughout history, they have also brought immeasurable benefits to North American society and culture, and deserve to be celebrated.
So what is Joyner’s ultimate message here? The video’s ending has yielded a somewhat divisive response; some felt inspired, some were more cynical, and others even found the idealistic conclusion corny. As the two hug it out, are we supposed to accept that they will now go through life as changed men, having reached a nirvana of racial understanding? It’s doubtful. People aren’t liable to undergo epiphanies at the drop of a hat, nor should they be expected to. Yet maybe the next time that fictional white man’s counterpart thinks of dropping the n-word, he’ll think about the hurt in the other man’s eyes, and ultimately choose to refrain. And maybe, the baby steps are as important as the sprint.