Singing Along with SAE

By now, everyone has heard about the racist chant by SAE frat members at the University of Oklahoma:

The national office of the fraternity disavowed and disbanded the local chapter. The university itself shuttered the house and expelled the two students seen leading the chant. Everyone seems intent on quarantining the incident as an isolated outbreak, sad and embarrassing, but just some lamentable drunken frat boy hijinks (though the national frat has since admitted the chant was probably learned at a national leadership school they hosted).

Last week, one of the chant’s leaders, Levi Pettit, publicly fell on his sword. The carefully worded apology will probably be taught in future PR classes. It could have been written by crisis manager Olivia Pope, presuming she would work for someone like Pettit, which is highly unlikely (but wanna bet the event will be worked into a future Scandal plot?).

Pundits like Rush Limbaugh, along with the hosts of Morning Joe, put the blame on rappers — is there anything that can’t be blamed on rap? — arguing that White kids would never say that word if they had not heard it in rap songs. As if rap invented that word. Still, this might be a valid argument if the apologists were not focusing on the word in order to avoid addressing the chant’s endorsement of lynching. Rap has addressed lynching . . .


. . . as did Billie Holiday in “Strange Fruit” . . .

. . . but hardly as an endorsement.

This blame the victim response was quickly turned into a satiric Twitter meme: #RapAlbumsThatCausedSlavery. And, as always, Jon Stewart put the whole story in perspective on The Daily Show. Maybe if we laugh hard enough we can keep from crying.

In the middle of all of this rapper Waka Flocka Flame canceled his scheduled show at SAE. But what I found surprising is that he had played the fraternity the previous year. Which leads to an interesting question: Why would racists book a rap artist? Of course, racists enjoying black music goes back to the minstrel shows that became so popular in the mid-1800s. Performers would blacken their faces with burnt cork and perform over-the-top versions of supposedly authentic “coon songs” sung by slaves on the plantations. Later, when black performers formed their own minstrel groups, the stereotypes were so in place that they, too, corked their already black faces.

Was Waka Flocka Flame just a modern day minstrel show for SAE? Is this how rap’s majority white audience relates to the music? Maybe Spike Lee’s Bamboozled was not nearly as exaggerated as we thought, or hoped.

In the middle of the initial outrage, another video surfaced. The SAE “house mom,” Beauton Gilbow, was captured chanting exactly the word she had earlier denied ever hearing any of her charges say:

She explained:

“I have been made aware that a video of me that is circulating on social media and in the news. I am heartbroken by the portrayal that I am in some way racist.

“I have friends of all race and do not tolerate any form of discrimination in my life.

“I was singing along to a Trinidad song, but completely understand how the video must appear in the context of the events that occurred this week.”

Which brings us back to the “I was just singing along” defense (closely related to the -a vs. -er defense). Is this a legitimate defense? Are white rap fans allowed to sing “that word” when a song containing it is playing? Turk says no:

And even if they sing along when alone, would they also do so in front of a black person, especially one they did not know?

Many would argue that if you feel the need to ask that question at all, you already know the answer is no, but just to clear it up:

Of course, whether or not rappers themselves should use that word, whether or not that word’s racist history shall ever be overcome is a whole other question.

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