Entertainment & Culture
Salty Niggas and Bitter Beckys: Black Art and The Phenomenon of White Uncomfortability

I don’t believe most of what I read on the internet.

I am a skeptic. Even when someone presents a benign, obvious internet story, I–at the very least–Snopes it, to make sure it has some truth behind it. Otherwise, I’d be immersed in a sea of anxiety about would-be gangbanging murderers every time I flashed my high beams or teenagers subverting breathalyzer tests with alcohol soaked tampons. Those stories never turn out to be legitimate, and even when there is a modicum of truth behind them, the problems are never as widespread as the forwarded email or local news anchor makes them out to be.

Similarly, what the internet’s thinkpiece writers and social justice warriors deem as “growing outrage” is usually confined to one or two lone kooks. I didn’t believe anyone was really mad about Starbucks changing their holiday coffee cups or Harriet Tubman on the twenty-dollar bill. It was hard for me to buy the fact that a rational adult could be upset about a Beyoncé song or a joke by a late-night comedian. I chalked it all up as fodder for pundits who needed to fill tv segments on slow news days. No one–I thought–really sweated stuff that small.

Until I met one of them.

A couple of days ago I was in a car with two young women (who happened to be white) who wanted to play a joke on their male friend. They grabbed the car’s auxiliary cord and began blasting tracks from Beyonce’s Lemonade. As they gushed over the album’s personal narrative and discussed the postmodern themes of the accompanying longform video,  I watched the guy’s face turn increasingly sour. When he could no longer hide his disgust, he burst into a rant about how Beyoncé was one of his favorite artists until she “did that pro-black stunt at the Super Bowl.” He went on about how Knowles was so powerful and influential, so he couldn’t understand why she would alienate… Then he stopped.

I don’t know if he stopped because he couldn’t express himself, had no more to say, or was just halting his speech before he offended me. Whatever his reasoning was, I was just excited to finally meet one of the much-speculated-about white people who were outraged about a pop album. After all of the Fox News segments and think pieces, I had finally seen one in person. Now I believed.

A couple of days later, Larry Wilmore hosted the White House Correspondent’s dinner and ended the evening with a monologue that roasted politics, Washington racism, and Don Lemon. Although he was hilarious, the room was awkwardly silent during much of his set. By the time Wilmore reached his climactic closing–congratulating the President by lauding him with, “we did it, my nigga,” you could feel the heebie-jeebies spreading around the room filled with the Washington elite. It was one of the most awkward, uncomfortable scenes ever televised. And it was glorious.

I like when performers make people uncomfortable.

The goal of an artist is to inspire emotion. So often, middle-of-the-road, hack comedians take the easy way out with dick jokes, and pedestrian poets pen trite, formulaic songs and poems about love and happiness. Anger is as valid an emotion as the warm fuzzy feelings of beauty and infatuation. Tears are as credible as laughter. When an artist reaches a peak level, they often produce a nuanced, realistic perspective that requires introspection and inspires internal conflict. Artists sometimes do that, and if Black art is unapologetic and genuine, it is supposed to do that. A Black artist can’t portray truth without weaving in the pain of Blackness. If it is genuine, then, by definition it can’t help but make white people uncomfortable sometimes.

Last week, a segment of white women were in uproar about Beyonce’s use of the term “Becky with the good hair.” They were genuinely offended. They deemed it racist, and insensitive–which may be the most epic display of privilege ever. To those women, the denigration of a specific white woman is unacceptable–even if it is just in the context of a pop song…

Even if the singer is referring to her husband’s mistress.

Even if the song is supposed to be angry.

To them, Black people are being whiny when they object to the exclusive application of the term “thug” to describe black men or “hood” to describe a minority neighborhood, put privilege have left them so thin-skinned that they cannot reconcile the fact that a disparaging phrase for white women even exists, let alone used behind their backs. That the expression contains connotations that remind them of the collectively carried burden of the European beauty aesthetic and the societal hierarchy of an American racial totem pole that holds white women as pure and more valuable is really difficult to accept. Beyonce’s feminist anthems are cool, but when she gets too Black, it gets uncomfortable.

Perhaps nothing is more emblematic of this than the word “nigga.” While there is a valid debate among Black people about the use of the word, its social acceptability and the generational split on its popularity, it still engenders white uncomfortability.

Whenever White people are allowed into the debate about the “n-word,” there is always a section of the argument entitled “Well then… why can’t we say it?” I contend that is the essence of their uncomfortability–there exists something in the universe that is off-limits to them.

Even the contingent of Black respectability politics-players said that Wilmore’s use of the word was inappropriate. Al Sharpton–the “bloodsucker with the good hair”– who white America thinks of as the defacto leader of Black America, and Black America thinks of as the evil emblem of what’s wrong with Black leaders, thought it was “in bad taste.”  He felt the white people squirm. He smelled the sweaty indelicacy of the moment, because it made bloviating poverty pimps uncomfortable too. He knows the white uncomfortablility, because if Al Sharpton make white people uncomfortable, he wouldn’t be getting checks from the network who also fawns over Donald Trump, kicked out Melissa Harris Perry for being too “woke” and gets exclusive interviews from Koch brothers.

They don’t mind “nigga” in rap songs and “hood” movies, but when it rears its head in the mainstream, it is just like “Becky…” The word carries the luggage of the history of white supremacy and reminds them of the historical injustices perpetrated by their people–not necessarily their specific forefathers, but by their compatriot look-alikes. Not only is “nigga” a reminder, but it is a door marking to a culture and history inaccessible to them.

That’s why “Lemonade” was an affront to America. Beyoncé whispered to the little white girls getting into formation that she liked “negro noses” and afros. She recalled Katrina to the people who had swept into the ugly past. On the day when America gathered around tv sets to watch its annual gladiator battle, Beyonce brought up Black Panthers. She recalled negro heroes who carried guns on their shoulders. She equated a not-so-distant icky past with the current situation, and it is not flattering to them.

That’s why the room at the White House Correspondents Dinner was so quiet. The moment was cringeworthy to them because Obama didn’t cringe. He was in on it. Because, at a time when the most accepting, liberal section of supposed truth-tellers had gathered in a room to pat themselves on the back for how progressive and inclusive they were for hiring the Black comedian to sit on stage with the Black President, Larry Wilmore held up a mirror and said “don’t forget, we’re still carrying the scars from those whips.”

That’s why “Beckys” are upset with Beyoncé. That’s why Kendrick Lamar”went too far” at the Grammys. Its why Viola Davis’ Emmy speech ruffled feathers. It’s why the upcoming “Birth of a Nation” is causing trepidation. It’s why Chris Rock’s Oscar monologue made Hollywood fidgety. They want grateful, smiling performers who color inside the lines and are reluctant to offend. They like Black when it is catchy, cool and “urban.” They don’t like reflections of pain and truth.

But sometimes you just have to do it, my nigga.

About the author

Michael Harriot is a renowned spoken word poet, the host of The Black One podcast and the editor-in-chief of NegusWhoRead. He is perpetually just getting warmed up because he has no chill. He is on Instagram and twitter as @michaelharriot

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