unbearable whiteness

Pitchfork, 2015

Author: Sarah Sahim

Writing Disorders: Scorn Disease, Ambiguity Sickness, Jargon Palsy




Sarah, I try to avoid wading into racial politics. Brighter minds make better navigators in the murk. But when the choice came down to writing about a slapdash Pitchfork article on race or just another album review with too many adverbs, I chose the murky route.


I’d like to think you wrote this screed with good intentions, not just for extra SEO clicks from the guilty and the outraged. “Whiteness” appears 11 times after all. I can usually be persuaded of just about anything so long as the arguments hold water. But yours were so weak, so crudely fashioned that I’m inclined to think the racist musical dystopia you painted is just an exaggeration of your own narrow personal irritations. The content was disappointing enough without Pitchfork’s logo emblazoned overhead — that was just sour icing on a bitter cake. This is a publication that seems perfectly willing to hitch any cloddish op-ed to its incomprehensible cycle of selective outrage and praise so long as it pushes buttons without leaving a bruise.


So allow me to retort.


Let’s start with the basics, Sarah. There’s no focus to your article. I figured with a headline as provocative as “The Unbearable Whiteness of Indie” you’d tunnel into one patch of ground with interviews, hard numbers, or at least corroborative stories from other affected listeners. All you did was tease in that direction. After spending your first two paragraphs castigating a Scottish musician for the heinous crime of not featuring a dark enough woman in a movie he wrote and directed recently, you write this:


“While Belle and Sebastian aren’t the only examples of perpetuating Whiteness through indie rock, this movie serves as a microcosmic view of what is wrought by racial exclusivity that is omnipresent in indie rock.”


Omnipresent. That’s a strong word to tie on one example, even if it is a “microcosmic view.” But it doesn’t even matter. After another paragraph you’re off in so many different directions that I don’t think you even knew what you were arguing other than White = bad.


Let’s look at some of the examples you chose to illustrate your far-flung complaints about this general scourge of Whiteness: Major Lazer (cultural appropriation), Bono (white savior complex), Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift (…icons of White aspiration?). Other than Major Lazer, those artists are about as indie as chicken soup is corned beef. The example you used to support the ill perception of an artist of color threatening a white “space” is the fracas over Kanye West headlining the Glastonbury Festival. Wow, that’s so indie that it’s…not at all indie. Imagine I wrote an article called “College Baseball’s Steroid Problem” and used the examples of Frankie Ratcliff, Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, and Alex Rodriguez to argue the point — an amateur buried in the pros for stronger effect. That’s what you’re doing here.


Let’s go back to Belle and Sebastian for a minute, since apparently you’re a “lover” of their music but thought it best to publicly shame the frontman as a self-absorbed racist instead of sending a letter or email outlining your concerns and objections.


“A grand total of two people of color have graced their album artwork.”


I think it’s a little flimsy to gripe about the visual cover of something purchased to be heard, but let’s run with it. What about white indie bands that have never even featured a person on their album artwork like the xx? Are they also perpetuating “Whiteness” in indie rock because they made the artistic decision by their own grown-up selves to also not feature a person of color? Maybe you think that’s a goofy example, Sarah, but to me it’s only a slight extension of this arbitrary shaming.


After you finally mention two actual white indie bands in your shortest paragraph with a halfhearted jab at Pitchfork, you start the second half of your article with this:


“I can count on one hand the prominent performers in the independent scene that look like me.”


With that I figured you were going to refocus your argument. But of the four musicians you cite under a very broad definition of “independent scene,” you chose to focus on M.I.A. and Heems, rooted in rap, and then try to make the case that their messages are not taken seriously in a musical genre historically dominated by young African-Americans by comparing them to…three white rock musicians aged 46, 61, and 54 respectively.


“The price of being outspoken about race — the price of speaking their truth — for Heems or Dap, for M.I.A., is much higher than it is for any white musicians with a message, be it Kathleen Hanna or Kim Gordon’s mass appeal white feminism or Bono, whose career is foundationally built on his white savior complex.”


Sarah, let’s forget that major-label Bono had a career before he drove to Africa, because I think the bigger issue is your contention about the price of music with a message. I don’t know if you have functioning eyes, but the hip-hop landscape isn’t that heavily laced with the horrible Whiteness you’re describing. So it seems odd that you’d step outside the relevant music scene to make such a heated point unless the point would fall flat if you didn’t. If anything, musicians of color are LAUDED for being “outspoken about race” in hip-hop. And oddly enough, many musicians of color are also remarkably insulated from certain criticisms by prominent music publications. While we’re on the tangential topic of feminism, Earl Sweatshirt and Future can toss the word “bitch” around like a pronoun to the apparent indifference of critics on the site that ran your article because the surrounding words are deemed sufficiently clever. And those are just two examples from the past week.


Sarah, regardless of how scattered your argument became, I kept coming back to one thing: motivation. What’s the POINT of this article you wrote? Who are you trying to help? What are you trying to accomplish? You name four prominent performers who “look like you,” but you never so much as mention a struggling band of “browns” you know and love who’ve been actively shut out of consideration by racist music labels because they don’t fit the marketable concept of “Whiteness.” There’s nothing like that.


But who needs clear, tangible evidence when giving the IMPRESSION of an “omnipresent” problem will attract just as much if not more attention? You give the impression there are “masses of talent,” artists with skin color running the gamut from Korean milk to Sudanese sable, lined up at the doors of every independent record label in the U.S. and elsewhere, doors that won’t yield because the password is “Caucasian.” But you don’t name any of them.


Sarah, I’m not suggesting there isn’t something worth investigating here, just that you did a crappy, needlessly divisive job trying. Maybe there are clearer, more practical reasons for a lot of white people in indie rock beyond nebulous buzzwords like “microaggresions” or “sanctioned participation,” and some of those reasons may well be rooted in legacies of racism. Maybe other socioeconomic factors exert a strong causal effect on development of musical interest and aptitude. If children of color are more likely than whites to attend schools with gutted music programs and if a higher share have trouble finding safe creative space to practice in the confines of broken neighborhoods, that’s legit. That’s tangible, something potentially quantifiable and well worth investigating, something I think a lot of people would absorb with passionate interest and want to help change. You could have ultimately written an inspiring article about how we as human beings can foster musical aptitude and appreciation — the roots of musical success — in ALL people, because music is such a powerful force for good in the world.


But you didn’t do that. You wrote an mean-spirited article in the mold of so many “pressing issue” pieces today: Two pages of doomsaying and shaming, then a feeble conclusion that ends with something along the lines of “more must be done to address climate change”:


“it’s important to seize and act on precedents being set”


“Visibility of people of color in independent music is absolutely paramount for the genre to evolve”


Let’s look past your lack of tangible SUGGESTIONS for how to remedy the injustice and focus on what you define as “visibility.” Is Dengue Fever a Cambodian band because of the singer’s Khmer heritage? Is Bloc Party a band of color even though it’s now half-white and half-black?  And who’s to say that one’s race or ethnic background automatically equals more vibrant, quality music? What if a second-generation Indian-American plays the most vanilla kind of uninspired rawk that makes Pitchfork writers groan but a white kid with a strange fondness for Malayalam pop music creates something weird and wonderful and changes the course of an entire genre? In that case, does “visibility” help, hinder, or just have a tenuous connection with musical outcome even if the latter falls under your umbrella of cultural appropriation?


Sarah, I don’t expect you’ll even read this far before leaving to angrily tweet about me, but on the off chance you do, let me end with this. This issue, just like most involving hard topics like race and gender relations, is much more complex than articles like yours make it out to be. And if you’re truly sincere about a cause, there are far better ways of inspiring others to blaze the path forward than with the long shadow of thin words.

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