In a recent interview with Anderson Cooper, Eminem posed an interesting question: Why does he [Eminem] seem to be the focus of intense media scrutiny when it comes to his homophobic and sexist lyrics? Eminem wondered, is it be cause he’s white? That is, do people pay particular attention to his lyrics (as compared to other, black rappers) because he is white?
“I felt like I was being attacked…. was being singled out. I felt like, ‘Is it because of the color of my skin? Is it because of that that you’re paying more attention?’
Eminem’s question provoked a bit of an outburst in the media that I think reveals some interesting things about how race is dealt with in mainstream white media.
Personally, I never really felt that Eminem was the brightest bulb in the bunch and viewed this as an explanation, though not an excuse, for his ignorance and lack of tolerance. This was crystallized in his 2002 single “Without Me” when he rapped his misunderstanding of basic bodily functions:
Cuz I’m back, I’m on the rag and ovulating
If you want to get technical here: that’s not how it works. But it could explain how he managed to have a child out of wedlock.
Cooper also bought into Eminem’s self-proclaimed street smarts (he dropped out of high school after three attempts to complete the ninth grade failed) that manifested into a love of vocabulary, as the rapper discussed his talent for wordplay. He believes that “orange” is a one-syllable word.
Huffington Post’s response, while less caustic, is no less aggressive.
Eminem went on to say that while he throws around the word ‘fa**ot,’ he has no problem with anyone and each parent needs to be responsible for their own kids.
50 Cent recently made comments that were construed by some as anti-gay, and he did not get a free pass because he is black.
Eminem’s speculation–is this happening because he’s white–could be taken many ways. In the context of hip-hop and Eminem’s career, however, I think it’s fair to point to Eminem’s song “Sing for the Moment”, where he confronts the situation of white kids listening to and modeling themselves on a white guy who is so heavily connected to “black music.” In the song’s first few lyrics he raps:
These ideas are nightmares to white parents
Whose worst fear is a child with dyed hair and who likes earrings
Like whatever they say has no bearing, it’s so scary in a house that allows
His thoughts are whacked, he’s mad so he’s talkin’ back
Talkin’ black, brainwashed from rock and rap
He sags his pants, do-rags and a stocking cap
His step-father hit him, so he socked him back, and broke his nose
His house is a broken home, there’s no control, he just let’s his emotions go…
Eminem has always been well aware of his position as a white rapper in a black dominated art. His first hit, “Slim Shady”, mocked people who were shocked by his whiteness, and while he is definitely no anti-racist advocate, he certainly demonstrates a clear understanding of what effect his whiteness has on his popularity, his acceptability, and the middle class reaction to his class and race infiltration of their world through music.
As such, it is possible to interpret Eminem’s question as a critique–more specifically, as a critique of the racism of the media. That is, mainstream white focused news doesn’t pay attention to certain issues unless they can sit condemnation on them or they are connected to the issues.
An example is Kat Stacks and how black feminist blogs and black blogs generally were discussing the situation for weeks—whereas there was limited if any coverage on white mainstream media. But when a black man inflicts violence on a white woman [OJ Simpson on his white wife] or when black people supposedly vote against pro-gay legislation, the media then supports attacks against the black community for being “socially conservative.”
The white mainstream media seems to be aware of the critique in Eminem’s question and has chosen to represent the critique as defensive posturing on Eminem’s part rather than to actually acknowledge it. Jezebel’s headline stated, “Eminem: I was singled out as a misogynist and homophobe because I’m white.”
Huffington Post’s headline was not much better: “Eminem on ’60 Minutes’: If I Was Black I wouldn’t be Called Misogynist, Homophobic.” Other headlines ranged from personal blogs quoting major media’s headlines to the San Diego Buzz’s completely misleading “I’m attacked because I’m white.”
By positioning Eminem’s critique simply as a statement rather than a question, by focusing on speculation around Eminem’s skin color rather than the follow up “is that why you’re paying attention?” the media has managed to divert the potential spotlight of a critique from itself back on to Eminem.
The media no longer has to answer to the racist way it ignores communities of color until something scandalous or relevant to itself happens. It does not have to confront the irony of never presenting homophobia, sexism, or violence in the black community in a complex or even consistent manner–but feeling perfectly free to lecture black people on their “tolerance” of various -isms. It doesn’t even have to answer to the question Eminem posed–does mainstream media only pay attention to him because he’s white?
Interestingly, one of the few posts/articles that actually confronted Eminem’s question in a way that left the integrity of his question intact is Davy D from Davy D’s Hip Hop Corner (the other, which makes an argument similar to Davy D’s, is at Clutch, a site that caters to black women). Because Davy D doesn’t back away from the critique that is inherent in Eminem’s question, he comes to some vastly different conclusions than mainstream white media does. After outlining several historical cases where black rappers were and continue to be intensely targeted and even boycotted by the mainstream white community (including Eminem’s own mentor, Dr. Dre of the infamously Congressionally targeted NWA), Davy D concludes:
When Def Jeff and Turbo B got clocked all of rap was called into question. When Buju Banton was called all of Jamaica and its culture was called into question. When Em was called out it began and stopped with him. We didn’t make the connection with Eminem being a white man born in the US who may be part of and ultimately influenced by a culture that includes everyone from conservative politicians to overzealous Evangelists who routinely bash the gay community. Bottomline in spite of his hard upbringing there are major institutions in this country that have afforded Eminem a few privileges he himself might not recognize and certainly didn’t acknowledge during his interview.
Compare the responses from the black community to Huffington Post’s defensive, “yes we did call out 50 cent!” (which Jezebel also asserted), and you get an alarming refusal to self-reflect and a disturbing lack of historical knowledge on the part of the white communities’ own protests. The group on the brunt end of targeting and attacks always remembers things that the attacker quickly “forgets.”
Eminem is not a “good guy” in the traditional sense. He certainly deserves the critiques of homophobia and violent sexism as well as the pointed assertion of white privilege. He is a complex guy, however, as is hip-hop. And he is capable of using that complexity to continue the scathing critique of white mainstream media that the hip-hop community formed decades ago. That mainstream white media is so deft at deflecting that critique through racism with a heavy does of classism thrown is is depressingly normal and sadly, not surprising.