Response to “The Unbearable Whiteness of Indie” by Sarah Sahim

unbearable whiteness

Author: Sarah Sahim

Publication: Pitchfork, 2015

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.

19 thoughts on “Response to “The Unbearable Whiteness of Indie” by Sarah Sahim

  1. Sarah did nothing wrong.

    It is impossible for me People of Colour to be racist, racism is a result of power + prejudice. There is clearly a problematic theme in the music industry that isn’t quite ready to embrace black music.

    Notice how Kanye rightfully pointed out that Beck beating Beyonce made no sense (which it didn’t) and people backlashed on -Kanye-, not the music industry? Look up all the reviews for Beck and Beyonces album. How the hell did Beck win again? Why are people of colour not winning awards at the same rate as whites? Did you see the Oscars this year? It was basically a celebration of white people. We’re sick of it. White music is very anachronistic at this point. I’ll take FKA Twigs over St. Vincent any day. Kendrick Lamar over Sun Kil Moon any day of the week. The whiteness of music is a bore, for kids on YouTube comment section and right-week radical boards to discuss, not true fans of music. Music of Colour is the music of our times.

    And yes, I am a white male (though non-binary/gender fluid) and am self aware enough to see what’s going on here. When it comes to People of Colour issues it is not my job to pick up the megaphone, but to follow the orders of People of Colour in power positions and help add a little Colour to this white world we still live in.

    Please go back to /pol/. I want /pol/ to leave. Leave this poor woman alone.

  2. Type your comment here


    undefined:

    Sarah did nothing wrong.
    It is impossible for me People of Colour to be racist, racism is a result of power + prejudice. There is clearly a problematic theme in the music industry that isn’t quite ready to embrace black music.
    Notice how Kanye rightfully pointed out that Beck beating Beyonce made no sense (which it didn’t) and people backlashed on -Kanye-, not the music industry? Look up all the reviews for Beck and Beyonces album. How the hell did Beck win again? Why are people of colour not winning awards at the same rate as whites? Did you see the Oscars this year? It was basically a celebration of white people. We’re sick of it. White music is very anachronistic at this point. I’ll take FKA Twigs over St. Vincent any day. Kendrick Lamar over Sun Kil Moon any day of the week. The whiteness of music is a bore, for kids on YouTube comment section and right-week radical boards to discuss, not true fans of music. Music of Colour is the music of our times.
    And yes, I am a white male (though non-binary/gender fluid) and am self aware enough to see what’s going on here. When it comes to People of Colour issues it is not my job to pick up the megaphone, but to follow the orders of People of Colour in power positions and help add a little Colour to this white world we still live in.
    Please go back to /pol/. I want /pol/ to leave. Leave this poor woman alone.

    nice meme :^)

  3. Reverse racism isn’t real
    Reverse racism isn’t real
    Reverse racism isn’t real
    Reverse racism isn’t real

    Say it to yourself each day

    Black people can’t be racist against whites. “But that’s not how the dictionary defines racism!” The dictionary was written by WHITE people you fucking idiots.

    Reverse racism, categorically in line with santa and the tooth fairy.

    A Person of Colour degrading/assaulting someone based a white person based on the fact they’re white isn’t racist. There is no institutionalized power involved.

  4. Hey Matt, sorry that /mu/ is shitting up the comment section right now. I thought this article was very well thought out and I’m pleasantly surprised to find out that a website like this exists. Keep on the criticism of criticism.

  5. Type your comment here


    undefined:

    Reverse racism isn’t real
    Reverse racism isn’t real
    Reverse racism isn’t real
    Reverse racism isn’t real
    Say it to yourself each day
    Black people can’t be racist against whites. “But that’s not how the dictionary defines racism!” The dictionary was written by WHITE people you fucking idiots.
    Reverse racism, categorically in line with santa and the tooth fairy.
    A Person of Colour degrading/assaulting someone based a white person based on the fact they’re white isn’t racist. There is no institutionalized power involved.

    Racism is racism. You’re just trying to justify your racism.

  6. Wow. Now my progressive friends, tell us again how “people of color” can’t be racist… yawn.

  7. “White music is very anachronistic at this point. […] Music of Colour is the music of our times. And yes, I am a white male.”

    Somehow you believe that by virtue of your skin color, you have nothing to contribute to society. Congratulations on hating yourself. Congratulations on speaking in meaningless and nonsensical generalities.

    “it is not my job to pick up the megaphone, but to follow the orders of People of Colour in power positions”

    WTF. Sarah Sahim is one person. Her opinion does not represent the opinion of everyone with skin colors other than white. In fact, in her article, she slams other people of similar racial background (such as Bat for Lashes and a fellow in Vampire Weekend) for not being racially crusading enough for her taste. So whatever the fuck are you supposed to be achieving by bowing down to the opinion of this one person of color Sarah Sahim over the opinion of Bat for Lashes? Which one is it your job to bow down to? It’s so very confusing to figure out whose ass to kiss while groveling in a self-loathing puddle of your own piss.

    Here’s the deal: I also happen to believe it’s a good idea to listen to people of color discuss their opinions and experiences. However, it’s not my job to mindlessly accept whatever anyone with a skin color darker than mine says. Sahim’s article is full of nonsensical statements which form no coherent argument. It’s merely a tantrum. I am more than willing to listen to other opinions of other people of color on racial problems in the music industry. Sahim, however, doesn’t seem to have much of substance to say. I gave her a chance by reading her article and she wasted my time.

  8. Bravo, mate. I do wish the bowels of Tumblr weren’t vomiting on your comments section, but if that’s the price of getting this piece, it’s worth it.

  9. Yes , this is my biggest issue with all of this. Thank you for expressing it. The original article this is all based on is so very flawed and no one can dare question it because it’s about a serious issue and written by a person of color. Stuart Murdoch is getting plied on because of a few knee jerk reactive tweets he made responding to an article in a major publication that plainly says that he makes his artistic choices from a place of “racial exclusivity” which is pretty much code for “he a racist” at least with a lower case r but racist none the least… How would you like to read that about yourself ? People are calling his responses a meltdown” which is insane.. like he is Mel Gibson or something… By the fourth tweet he made he was already starting to cool down and starting to try and figure it out & he has made more positive and apologetic tweets about the subject than derisive ones.
    People still want his head though and want to analyze his few tweets way more than they want to analyze the original article. If you ask me I couldn’t get past this part from the piece where Sahim questions the casting process of God Help The Girl.
    “We are open to Eve’s nationality (e.g. British, French, Australian),” read Murdoch’s casting call for the lead character in the Belle & Sebastian bandleader’s blindingly white film, God Help the Girl. One does not imagine he meant the native Aboriginal population of Australia when envisioning his perfect leading lady; the cast is entirely white.”
    Really. ? First off I think if you mentioned the word “Australian” to even the most PC person in the world their first thought would not be an Aboriginal person. Nor would anyone think immediately of a Native American if someone if someone said “American”
    Also why in the hell would he want to cast a Aboriginal person for the lead role in a movie about an indie pop band based in Glasgow ?? It doesn’t make any sense no matter how you look at it. It’s just indicative of the grasping for ideas this article displays and like it’s said here there is a story to be told on the subject & there is an issue to be raised but people just can’t seem to see how poorly conceived the original piece was. One could argue at the very least it’s got people talking so in some ways that’s enough but I don’t buy it & we should have higher journalistic standards.

  10. “you know, all my life I’ve heard that white people can’t dance. I don’t believe that. I don’t think it’s so much that white people can’t dance; it’s just that they like certain musical instruments. That instrument, my friend, is electric guitar. It speaks directly to the soul of the white person. They find it irresistible.” – Dave Chappelle

  11. Spot on. There may be a truth to the points Sarah was trying to make, but I was annoyed by her agument. It was so facile, so poorly reasoned, and so misdirected. There was no focus to it either; it came off as a gripe born from some ignorant viewpoint that ignores much deeper complexities and arguments. It doesn’t address why anything is the way it is, or extend its points to set terms on why something is negative. It lists complaints and gets upset and nothing more. I will say that people claiming that her taste is too “white” overlook that that would be consistent with her point. If there are hardly any “non white” acts, there is no choice but to be white if one enjoys indie. This, of course, opens up several new questions: Should we care about the “race” of an act? Does that affect their value? Should we specifically promote a band because of its race, background, or ideology? What are the factors that influence this disparity? Cultures naturally point its people toward the sound of its culture. Are we looking then to break down musical walls or cultural contexts that may divide?

    In the same breath, I’ll say this: Reverse racism doesn’t exist. It’s true that racism requires power. Prejudice does exist. Prejudice and ignorance are very real. This is not about the issue. This is about Sarah casting blame in some instances unjustifiably and immaturely. Generalizing any race detracts from arguments for equality of any kind, even if the race is the one “in power.” We can’t accept that; we are merely trying to undermine the forces that discriminate and disenfranchise, not the essential humanity therein. If we choose to entertain a unifying argument that we’re all human and that should equal the abolition of hate, we must look towards destroying power structures and not blame those born into them. Race needs to be addressed, but not like Sarah’s article and her putative views seem to suggest (if they say anything at all). This ignores so much of what creates issues in both the minds of individuals and the greater cultural landscape to begin with. And while I’m on my high horse, being a minority also does not give you special status to criticize. I am Native American, and I do see this as giving me an authority otherwise undeserved or lacking. Justice, as it should always be, is impartial. Perhaps I’m far off on this. Still, hopefully, it’s food for thought.

  12. It’s kinda of funny that the exact same criticisms you have of her article (that she’s angry, crass, not well thought out) are the exact same ones she makes that whites typically have of outspoken POC musicians (i.e. angry black woman). It’s a double standard, as an outspoken white person on social issues can pretty much say anything regardless if its well thought out. There is no “angry white person” troupe. If you think you can write a better article about the Whiteness of Indie, go ahead, you seem to have some ideas of what would be better. I’m sure since you’re white, you’ll be able to write a piece that is more palatable for white audience’s to digest (Again another main point from her article).

    Furthermore, the reason Sarah can’t name any non-white Indie artists is because they are pretty much filtered out before they can achieve any notoriety. White people don’t want to hear a song about “brownness” or “blackness”. That’s kind of obvious though. However, when a white artist co-opts “exoticness” as the case was with Vampire Weekend and Paul Simon, it’s cool. That’s what the main point of her article was: the filtering of “foreign” for mass consumption by whites.

  13. YoRapper writes: “the exact same criticisms you have of her article (that she’s angry, crass, not well thought out) are the exact same ones she makes that whites typically have of outspoken POC musicians (i.e. angry black woman).”

    I see plenty of angry, crass, poorly thought out writing by white people of all types — including celebrity musicians — and have no problem with calling it out and condemning it. You’re making another inflammatory generalization that’s useful for nothing other than preaching to a choir of fellow believers.

    “There is no ‘angry white person’ troupe.”

    Trope, I assume you mean. You would be utterly wrong. There is an expression called “redneck.” I assume you’ve heard of it.

    “the reason Sarah can’t name any non-white Indie artists is because they are pretty much filtered out before they can achieve any notoriety.”

    Nope. Pitchfork is pretty much “indie central.” When, after reading her article, I went through their reviews and news sections, I found dozens of non-white indie artists she neglected to mention.

    “when a white artist co-opts ‘exoticness’ as the case was with Vampire Weekend and Paul Simon, it’s cool.”

    Paul Simon: king of the “indies.”

    You’re pretending such musicians never receive criticism for this. I just did a Google search on the words Diplo + appropriation and got 95,300 hits. I know for a fact that many of the people complaining about and/or questioning his cultural appropriation are white.

Comments are closed.