Sunday, June 19, 2005

White Ghetto Tourism

I found this frank and well-written essay by Michael Stephens on about virtual slumming among namby-pamby middle-class white boys who want to be hard via cultural diffusion through gangsta rap and video games like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. The basic gist of Stephens' argument is that American society isn't that violent compared to this expat's London and therefore like the English bourgeoisie before them who paid bodyguards to walk with them through London's seedier sides, young middle-class white men are doing the same thing, but behind the safe confines of home and their manicured streets.
The American middle class is encouraged by advertisers and manufacturers to eliminate, not just danger, but the slightest inconvenience from their world. They drive Hummers equipped with satellite navigation and invest in home security systems to cocoon themselves in an atmosphere of absolute predictability and safety. Since 9/11, this tendency has only increased. Yet inside the SUV and the home in the gated community, the preferred entertainment ranges from gangsta rap to video games like Grand Theft Auto to TV shows like OZ.

The popularity of gangsta rap among middle class, white, youth exemplifies the middle class hunger for safe danger. How can teenage boys whose lives outside school are spent being chauffeured to and from soccer practice, identify with the worlds described by 2Pac and 50 Cent? The fantasy projection of white youth raised in ultra-secure environments into the gang-bangin', Glock-totin', ho-slappin', world of "the hood", through the portal of countless gangsta rap records, is a new form of virtual slumming.
Stephens then nails the psychology behind middle class whites love of "thug culture," despite the protestations of critics who allege its inner city reality. (How would they know?)
The "realism" on some gangsta rap records is often praised by critics as providing an authentic portrait of inner city life, but for the white and increasingly middle class black consumers of gangsta rap, this realism serves the same purpose as the finely detailed scenes in video games: it makes the vicarious experience of a fantasy universe more vivid and engrossing. For most consumers of gangsta rap, the streets of Compton are as remote and unreal as the landscapes of Doom. To a few sensitive listeners, gangsta rap may be a genuine communication across social and racial boundaries, but for most, gangsta rap is an aural roller coaster ride, carefully designed and precisely detailed to simulate the vibe of urban black poverty for the entertainment of white ghetto-tourists.
When I argue against gangsta rap and its cultural norms and mores, I usually receive that look,which means how dare I judge another lifestyle or that I'm crossing some boundary into racism. But to me, its those who defend the gangsta lifestyle who are doing the greater disservice. Gangsta rap is a bastion of homophobic, misogynistic, and violent tendencies. To be honest, I don't care if you lived that lifestyle, it's wrong -- simple as that. Defenders of gangsta rap, whether they are cultural critics or "whiggers," basically condone a key tenet of racism -- believing different rules apply to this group because of the melanin content of their skin.

When white kids copy thug culture they do two disservices. First they bring a "tough guy" mentality into their homes and schools that condones hatred for gays, using women as a receptacle for their loving donations without any respect for her or her feelings, and a fetish for violence.(Obviously all this already exists in our suburbs, but I've never seen it glorified to the degree that gangsta rap does.) Second, they lose touch with those inner-city, poor blacks that are struggling to get out of that place and culture for something more approximating their privileged backgrounds. How ironic is it that the sixteen year old bumping to the new 50-Cent album craves the fantasy of thugging while many a sixteen year old black kid in Harlem or Compton craves everything that white kid takes for granted.

As hip-hop historian Kevin Powell said, "Let's be honest, all this fascination with hip-hop is just a cultural safari for white people."