A few years ago, a friend of mine showed me "The Color of Fear," a documentary released in 1994 structured as a round-table discussion about race relations in America. Along with Chinese-American director Lee Mun Wah, the discussion included two African-American men, two Mexican-American men, two Asian-Americans, and two Caucasians. Initially, the exchange goes as expected, with the participants of color describing regular racial struggles they face such as the Japanese-American man sharing his frustration with constantly being mistaken for the last Asian person someone met or a black man addressing the insecurity he felt as he drove through the American South. As a person of color witnessing this conversation, nothing was a real surprise to me. Driving anywhere south of Northern Virginia feels like a wicked time portal and I also have to admit that when I was younger and less sensitive to these issues, I joked that "Asians all look alike."
Amid all of these personal accounts of marginalization and discrimination, a white participant in the round table goes for the "just pull yourself up by your bootstraps" card, claiming that life wasn't really that difficult if you didn't psych yourself into believing that race held you back from grabbing certain opportunities.
This film is more than 20 years old, though this is pretty much how conversations about race still end up and how people of color are expected to deal with it: Take your oppression with a smile because the instant you speak out against it, you're seen as crazy or perceived as desperately reaching. Living in this skin, dealing with the multigenerational layers of trauma that come with it, and being shrugged off as if the issue is in your head is an insult of the highest order.
The kind of white obliviousness seen in "The Color of Fear" played out in the Baltimore music scene recently following the publication of Jana Hunter's article, "White Privilege and Black Lives in the Baltimore Music Scene," for Pitchfork which explored how white privilege affected the structure of Baltimore's DIY music scene. The piece was praised but locally it was met with plenty of frustration from white members of the scene who took issue with the article and Hunter's bold, mindful assertions. "Increasingly, I saw my life here as parasitic," Hunter writes. "I find the rent to be cheap here because I am white in an oppressed black city. The feelings of lawlessness and freedom exist for me because I am white in an oppressed black city."
A focal point of that article was Baltimore club-bending rapper, Abdu Ali, a friend of mine and a collaborator on local parties and shows. Ali spoke about what it meant to be a black artist in town and what opportunities he felt he was not receiving because of that. "Baltimore musicians of color don't really make it here," he says. Like the white guy in "The Color of Fear," Hunter's piece and Ali's quotes were dismissed as "complaining" or worse, which had the affect of proving Hunter's point: Too often, white Baltimore is blissfully unaware of how it benefits from white supremacy and won't accept it no matter how cogently and sensitively the information is presented.
In his new book, "Between The World And Me," Baltimore-bred author Ta-Nehisi Coates describes people like this as The Dreamers: people who refuse to accept their privilege and the source of it—calculated oppression of darker people around the world. Such people, out of frustration, aim to make oppressed people appear delusional when the reverse is true. Baltimore is run by the dreamers, especially the music scene. Hearing older black people from the city talk about the fun they had at Choices, Odell's, Godfrey's, and even back to places like the Sphinx Club on Pennsylvania Avenue brings a sense of pride and joy, but it is simultaneously very sad. These places where black people and other people of color could congregate are virtually nonexistent in Baltimore today—especially ones that are centrally located and easily accessible to most. From throwing shows and even just attending them, I've noticed that when young black people do come together in central areas, it's typically met with some resistance by law enforcement and/or neighborhood residents. The sight of black youth in mass is sadly threatening to a lot of people, yet these shows rarely have any violence or major disruption to the natural order of things.
The contrast in this city is laughable. The punk shows and parties given by predominantly white art-school kids with drugs, noise, and mass groups of people everywhere either go uninterrupted or when they are shut down, it's usually with the same force as a mother making her child to go to bed. I also noticed this disconnect as a Charles Village resident for nearly two years. Living next to Hopkins frat boys who blasted Top 40 music through the night (usually every night) while they sat on their porch, drank themselves to the point of needing ambulance assistance, and walked over to Wyman Park to pass around spliffs, I experienced something completely foreign to me: a neighborhood with police around to actually protect and give people the benefit of the doubt. This was something I didn't experience growing up in East Baltimore. Well into their 20s, whites are allowed to be "just kids" while blacks of the same age and younger cannot throw a rap show and smoke blunts without being intruded on.
Speaking out against discrimination is not pleasurable. Stressing that black lives matter, while unifying, is a dark reality that we have to deal with and a tiring one; even slain lions get more sympathy than our victims. Thankfully, the days of being quiet seem to be over now that the majority of American people have access to voice their concerns online, contributing further to social-justice awareness. Hunter and Ali's comments started a local conversation that isn't going to stop. In an attempt to keep that conversation going I reached out to local musicians of color who want to be heard and have their realities valued about their experiences in the Baltimore music scene. (Lawrence Burney)