We have all been in a room with a person that starts a conversation with the caveat of, “I’m not racist,” before going on to say something racist.
They believe that because they don’t categorically hate members of another race, they are of a different category. They think that they are simply keeping it real, revealing the truth, and it’s not their fault that this scathing truth is attributed to another race. They, of course, deliver their sermon without thinking about the historical, political, and legal forces that created the reality they think they’re revealing.
We argue with them. We debate them. Sometimes we even change their minds. But do we ever leave those conversations knowing them? Is there any point to even trying to better understand them?
Last Thursday, rapper Joyner Lucas released a video for “I’m Not Racist,” a track in which he inhabits the mind of both the defensive “I’m not a racist, but…” white man and the Black man who gets to respond.
Lucas, who hails from Worcester Massachusetts, is a relatively obscure rapper (he’s signed to Atlantic Records and released his debut album, entitled 508-507-2209, earlier this year). But the video he released on Thursday went viral, racking up close to 9 million views by Monday morning.
In the video, a white guy in khakis and a “Make America Great Again” hat acts out the first half of the song. Lucas’ voice comes out of this man’s mouth, making his frequent, impassioned use of the n-word especially jarring. A Black man with dreadlocks sits across a table from him, then replies.
This depiction sets the tone clearly; this video is going to be about the tensions, ideologies, and beliefs that led to a Trump presidency. The twist is that even the white man is speaking from the point of view of a Black man — it’s Lucas’ voice we’re hearing — and it’s a Black man imagining the inner life of a white man with total disdain for Black people.
Lucas hits all the typical main points of the “not a racist” guy here. He begins with the line, “I don’t have pity for you Black nigga’s that’s the way I feel / Screamin’ ‘Black Lives Matter’,” bringing to mind all the people who say “All Lives Matter” or, worse, miscategorize Black Lives Matter as a hate group, willfully misunderstanding the movement.
The MAGA guy goes on to complain about white people not being able to use the N-word as freely as Black people do. He bemoans how often Black Americans bring up slavery considering they weren’t around back then, despite the decaying foundation that rooted us with in this country. He brings up taxes and government assistance as if government aid is exclusive to the Black community (it’s not) and goes on to criticize the Black community for committing crimes of poverty.
He also mentions that since he knows a handful of Black people personally, he’s clearly not being racist. He adds that he has better whiter idols than the likes of 2Pac (the song isn’t perfect) and falls into a litany of how Black people blame everyone and everything but themselves.
For Black Americans, these are the types of critiques of our culture that we have to swallow every day. We are up against these kinds of people in nearly every space we enter outside our own personally curated circles. Sometimes it just feels good to acknowledge all the pain and the source, even if that involves simply stating it out loud.
But what makes this verse so powerful is that it’s a pretend perspective — that it is ultimately coming from a biracial man who identifies with his blackness. Lucas has a white mother and black father. Given that, it’s a fascinating choice to use two actors, a black man and a white man, instead of himself to carry out the song’s visuals.
This video may call to mind for many a 2013 collaboration between Brad Paisley and LL Cool J, titled “Accidental Racist.” Paisley and LL Cool J’s song, which is about the social missteps between white and black people, was essentially mocked by all. “I’m Not Racist” by Lucas isn’t landing without mixed reviews either. The Very Smart Brothers said “it doesn’t need to exist” and according to Vulture it’s exhausting. VICELAND’s Desus and Mero dubbed it just another rap song about racism while ridiculing the track.
“I’m Not Racist” does pit two sides against one another, and in a sense it is giving the more dangerous rhetoric some elevation. The white guy’s verse was noticeably crafted with more strength and thought than the Black man’s verse, fueling some of the criticism around the song. But that dangerous rhetoric is complicated by the identity of the person behind it. “I’m Not Racist” is like a racism cosplay, if you will — Lucas is trying on a persona’s costume and performing as them.
The video ends in a hug after the two hash it out. Okay, no, you cannot solve racism in one conversation and you cannot solve it in a hug. But watching the black man and the white man hug after saying their piece felt cathartic. Lucas isn’t presenting a perfect conversation, and he isn’t presenting a perfect end to that conversation. But he is suggesting at the very least that there is something worth saying to each other.