On Reflexivity and Auto-Ethnography: One Part Race, One Part Hip-Hop, One Part Basketball, Mix… By Ron Mower

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I have been recently engaging with the concepts of reflexivity and positionality, in addition to postmodernism’s questioning of the nature of reality, truth, and history. In finding and interpreting meaning, representation, and image, I find myself always thinking about cultural meanings and expressions through the lens of race, and contemplating them in terms of my personal experience and the theoretical paradigms I am now adopting. I love the idea of contextualizing power relations by positioning the researcher’s own identity politics within the realm of the empirical to provide greater depth of analysis and a sense of transparency. As an ongoing project, taking some shape in an eventual dissertation, I want to conduct an ethnographic study of White youth’s appropriation and/or engagement with Black culture in the physical and ideological spaces of basketball and hip-hop. As these topics are central to my lived experiences as well as my research interests, I also want to explore the methodology of auto-ethnography to complement my overall work. What follows in this blog is my first attempt at writing reflexively concerning a few snippets of my life experiences and how they have impacted my ontology and epistemology as a researcher, why I choose to read and write about race, hip-hop, and basketball, and what I hope to accomplish…

“Let’s be honest. All this fascination with hip-hop is just a cultural safari for white people” (Kevin Powell, Newsweek, 2003).

       rakim I still remember my first exposure to hip-hop when one of my older cousin’s friends let me borrow his cassette tape of ‘Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’. While not deciphering the social and political messages in Melle Mel’s lyrical wizardry initially (being only 7 or 8 years old after all), I felt drawn to the style, presentation, and visceral sound of the beat that differed significantly from the Pink Floyd and Rolling Stones I was accustomed to hearing around my parents. After stumbling upon this ‘new’ musical genre, I actively sought out more and more; Rakim & Eric B., Slick Rick, Public Enemy, Tribe, De La Soul, EPMD, NWA, etc. Certainly this “fascination” arose from the fact that the music itself was so powerful; it seemed able to cut to the core of lived experiences, expose injustices, and express an oppositional and countercultural politics. Plus, it was so damn infectious; hard hitting beats, bass lines, and drum kicks, all blended perfectly with the stirring rhymes of street poets that embodied a proud, strong Black sensibility and the reality of urban life. When my older stepbrother, deeply entrenched in the underground hardcore punk rock scene, gave me his Public Enemy album, “It takes a nation of millions to hold us back” I began to realize the force with which hip-hop could communicate the Black experience, but also illuminate oppression in a rebellious manner that attracted a diverse range of young listeners. Chuck D spoke volumes to my consciousness concerning the plight of African Americans and the unequal structures in society arising from white supremacy. I internalized these logics and it greatly influenced my behavior and social relationships. Of course, it is only now that I can articulate the contextual meaning behind these memories since, in the moment, I just knew that I loved hip-hop, basketball, and anything involving Black culture. As I think back to my lived experiences, informed now by critical race theories and the knowledge of my ontological and epistemological assumptions, I can understand the rationale with which many commentators have associated white consumption of Black culture as nothing more than a passing interest in a commodified cultural exotic.

          While hip-hop originated out of the Black experience, retaining that cultural relevance and point of legitimacy, many believe white suburban youth to be the primary consumers of hip-hop (a claim reputed by Kitwana; 2005) stemming from the introduction of SoundScan in 1991 to track volume and point of purchase (leading to assumptions about class and race based on where albums are purchased; Watkins, 2005). In exploding many myths about hip-hop, Kitwana (2005) discusses the concept of concentric circles to describe the level of engagement white youth have with hip-hop, their socio-economic background, understanding and support of Black cultural politics, and interaction/proximity with Black people. As a youth, while my friends and I emulated the performances, and adorned the markers of Black masculinity as they were communicated through the medium of hip-hop, the fact that my circle of friends were mostly Black and Latino also justified in my mind that I could, in a Goffmanesque sense, perform my sense of self in what I perceived to be, an authentic way.

          In addition to hip-hop, basketball represented a pedagogical space for absorbing authentic expressions and cultural values of Blackness growing up. Quite simply, it was just what we did on an everyday basis and I quickly learned how to navigate the space in a manner that provided me unfettered access and acceptance by my peers. Taking cues from the older players in my neighborhood, I learned how to play what is commonly referred to as a streetball style of play; the highly emphasized importance on handling skills, explosive drives, and a highly aggressive, fast style of play. I also learned how to demean my opponent with words although I was never that great at it. At a relatively early age, I became more aware of my whiteness in encounters on the basketball court. If I was able to pull off a move uncharacteristic of typically “white” basketball, I was awarded with tremendous respect, often at the expense of my non-white defender who was criticized for being “schooled” by a white boy. As the atypical participant, and in the innumerable conversations and interactions that occur daily on the court, I also became more conscious of the trials and travails facing Black males; the expectation and social pressure to embody and exhibit a tough exterior and laissez-faire attitude toward a world that has rejected and oppressed them—described as “cool pose”; a historically derived defense and survival mechanism for African Americans in an unequal and oppressive society (Majors & Billson, 1993). While never being able to fully comprehend the lived experience of my Black peers, I glimpsed the pains they endured from single parent homes, siblings in prison, and teachers and authority figures that wrote them off as lost causes. In a society that is so quick to conflate Blackness with hip-hop, basketball, and criminality, is it hard to imagine the perception and internalization of these improbable routes to social ascendancy by Black youth? Such pursuits offered a unique and countercultural source of identification, identity, and self expression; something I think several of my friends used to get them through the realities they faced, yet such neat packaging of the Black experience, particularly within the commercial avarice of consumer culture, denies the beautiful complexity and diversity of a people and their heritage.

          Nevertheless, in my regular engagements with these particular pursuits—basketball, hip-hop, and regrettably, some criminality—I noticed how seamlessly they tended to flow together within the structure and lifestyle my friends and I were a part of. They all seemed to embody a source of collective rebellion and opposition to what we saw as oppressive. Occasionally, I think that maybe my initial attraction to hip-hop, basketball, and Black social circles was that it defied the expectations of my family and challenged the dominant, historical perceptions that Black is unsafe. I once remember convincing my Mom to buy me a Cypress Hill t-shirt when I was 12 years old and then having my Grandma make her take it back when she saw the Black and Latino men depicted on the front. From that and several other experiences, I recall feeling hurt and appalled at the subtly racist attitudes held by some of my family members; it made me question the construct of race, its implications, and the credibility of those who I trusted.

          In the neighborhood, I was never challenged by my peers for “acting Black”, a term I now find problematic for its essentialist meaning, but rather, on a few occasions, found myself being scrutinized by other Whites for what they perceived to be a seemingly disingenuous performance. I once got into a fistfight with another White kid at school because he called into question my legitimacy, implying that I was pretending to be something I was not. Conversely, I recall an experience as a very young kid in my neighborhood hanging out with two of my friends nearby a group of older boys. After a while, one of them asked me if I wished that I were Black. Since being in a group of all Black males gave me a unique sense of belonging, and perhaps, feeling that Black was cool and given the situation, I replied that I indeed wished that I were Black. I was subsequently respected more and deemed to be the “cool” white boy. While not comprehending the gravity of this exchange and my position as a White male at the time, to me, that moment symbolizes the beginning of my interest in the African American experience, racial inequality and oppression, and the complex nature of race relations in contemporary America. As a teenager, and in various situations with my peers, I increasingly came to realize my position of privilege in society as a White male. I noticed that I was always treated differently by police officers, store clerks, security guards, teachers, and adults in general when compared to my friends. In many cases, I became the liaison or voice for my friends because if necessary, I could use my Whiteness to pacify the obvious uneasiness of the 7-11 clerk when we walked in, to speak with police officers after an incident and be believed and treated with some degree of dignity, to convince teachers that we had a good reason for walking into class late, to approach white people for bus money and not have them clutch their purses.

          As I think back to some of these memories, it also brings me to a conflicting realization; since I had a keen sense of racial politics and how to navigate between the expressions of Blackness and Whiteness, was my engagement with Black culture merely an utilitarian act stemming from a “fascination” with hip-hop and basketball? As I have gotten older and been acclimated to the mainstream pursuits of higher education, has the fact that my overt expression of Black cultural signifiers decreased over time a sign that, according to hooks (1992), I was simply “eating the other” and consuming and appropriating Black culture? As noted by Yousman (2003), “Blacks have neither the desire nor the option of adopting “Blackness” only when it is convenient—they must experience both the pleasure and the pain of being Black in America whereas White youth can opt for only the pleasures associated with Black music and other cultural creations” (p. 387). Stemming from my youth, I knew that I could easily alter my speech, walk, gestures, or clothing to fit with the social situation; in job interviews, finding an apartment, or applying for a loan, I can easily meet the expectations of mainstream America; my friends however, had to first deal with stereotypical assumptions about their race despite similar backgrounds, education, and ability to present themselves according to mainstream (read white) norms of dress and behavior.

            All of this brings me to my conflicted feelings of hope and cynicism concerning the future of race relations in our country; particularly within the culturally ubiquitous spaces of basketball and hip-hop in youth culture. With the obvious allure and prominence of Black culture in sport and entertainment, how will the commodification of Black culture, its consumption amongst white youth (still accounting for the reception and consumption by Black youth as well), affect interracial relationships in education, housing, employment, and other spheres of social life? Kitwana (2005) notes that, “the real test of white kids and hip-hop is what happens with police brutality when the white officers policing Black and Latino communities are those same young whites who grew up on hip-hop?” (p. 4). While I am hopeful for the potential of white hip-hop kids to challenge the old racial politics, the resurgence of the New Right, white nationalist groups, and spectacular consumption of mythologized Blackness calls me back to the realization that Black culture has historically been, and continues to be, pillaged and (re)presented for white consumption (hooks, 1992; Yousman, 2003; Watts, 1997). In this sense, the relationship between “Blackophilia and Blackophobia” in the cultural economy of late capitalism cannot be ignored as we continue to witness a racially divided America in all facets of social life (Yousman, 2003). Nevertheless, as I basked in the feeling of collective hope and camaraderie downtown the night before Obama’s inauguration, I could not help but to feel truly optimistic in the thought of what the next generation’s racial politics will entail and if hip-hop and/or basketball can play a progressive role in influencing young people to shift mainstream consciousness and challenge systemic racial inequalities beyond the cultural nodes of music and sport.

References

hooks, b. (1992). Black looks: Race and representation. Boston: South End Press.

Kitwana, B. (2005). Why white kids love Hip-Hop. New York: Civitas Books.

Majors, R. & Billson, J. (1993). Cool pose: The dilemmas of Black manhood in America. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Watkins, C. (2005). Hip-Hop matters: Politics, pop culture, and the struggle for the soul of a movement. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Watts, E. K. (1997). An exploration of spectacular consumption: Gangsta rap as cultural commodity. Communication Studies, 48, 42-58.

Yousman, B. (2003). Blackophilia and Blackophobia: White youth, the consumption of rap music, and     white supremacy. Communication Theory,13(4), 366-391.

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