Das MentalistPosted: August 8, 2011
“I’m counting Jacksons with black friends/ I’m counting tens in Benzes with white friends/ Wonderin’ if suicide’s a largely white trend/ Google it later and confirm that, aight then.”
- Das Racist, “Puerto Rican Cousins”
That line hurt.
Das Racist is a hip-hop group. They are, depending on your barometer, either moderately popular or moderately obscure. They’ve gotten nice reviews from the New York Times and NPR. They’re the sort of group that, if you’re a rap-deprived white boy like myself, you hear about from reputable news sources and check out in order to sound more worldly. From what I’ve heard of them, they have staggeringly clever lyrics coupled with amateurish beats. I liked them okay, and I suppose that counts as an endorsement.
I won’t say that claim that listening to them is always comfortable. As suggested by, you know, their name, Das Racist is heavily interested in racial issues, and if you are of European descent and possess something of a social conscience this stuff is about as pleasant as a slowly-tightening vice grip on your junk. It’s sort of the opposite of how old white people like to huff and bluster and claim that racism, like the unicorn, is a creature of antebellum times; I’ve noticed that the whitest kids I know have a kind of sadomasochistic attraction to art that demonstrates the bleak racial inequalities of contemporary America. I’m talking about Chapelle’s Show, The Wire, even Stuff White People Like. I watch The Wire because it’s really well-written contemporary fiction, and because I want to better understand the vicious inequalities that exist in the same country where I enjoy my relatively sheltered upper-middle class existence. But I sure as hell do not enjoy it. It’s like Catholic indulgences, modern self-flagellation.
So white boy listens to inflammatory hip hop, hears about racial inequality, feels uncomfortable, tries to be a better and more just person and more aware of racist power structures as a result. Straightforward enough, yes?
Until you bring up suicide. And for the record, that was Das Racist, not me.
We’ll start the fact that Das Racist’s Google skills are apparently pretty fucking dire and that suicide is not, in fact, a largely white trend. Suicide is actually a multinational, multiethnic festival of diversity, trending among poor Indian farmers, and in Japan, and South Korea, and among African-American teens. I imagine that last fact may stun you. I mean, it’s not like black men ever consider suicide, right?
Now: I understand that Das Racist guy is apparently so proud of his skill with our nation’s most beloved search engine that he wrote a fucking song about it. And he should be! But as a helpful tip for next time, please spend more than four seconds on research, and include both footnote citations and an annotated bibliography.
Race and suicide are both staggeringly complex issues, and both cause ridiculous amounts of misery in the world, and I do not want this post to turn into “hey, you know how white people commit suicide like this [swallows expensive pills, hangs self with expensive tie] while black people commit suicide like this [shoots self in face with a gun]?” What I’m trying to get across is that mental illness does not discriminate, that whether you’re black or white or red or tan depression will still make you slit your own wrists. The universality of mental illness across race and culture is almost beautiful, an affirmation of our fundamental unity as a species, except for the fact that people are killing themselves.
Moreso than the factual errors, I’m bothered by the implications of the lyric. One of the literary kung-fu techniques I learned up at Swarthmore is the “close reading”: how subtle insinuations and juxtapositions can color the meaning of a particular line. So let’s consider how the rhyme about suicide reads in context. When we talk about counting bills in nice cars with white people, as opposed to counting different denominations with black people, we suggest for the reader that we are addressing the topics of race and racial privilege. (Additional lyrics, like “Try to save the world like Bono / Be the token brother in an ad for Disaronno” and “Nice guy on the train is steady mean muggin / On the Upper West Side like Jews do, one line” confirm this). So when you bring up suicide in the context of white privilege, when you talk about white people killing themselves right after you talk about them driving Mercedes, then you are suggesting a direct link between white privilege and mental illness.
Conflating suicide with white privilege – perhaps intentionally, perhaps by accident – suggests that suicide is a direct result of privilege. And that plays into the myth that psychiatric illness is an invention of the wealthy, intended to glamorize ordinary problems while justifying prescription drug abuse. It is not. Mental illness is real. It destroys lives indiscriminately, across the planet. When you have these kids suggesting that, in fact, it is just a White Person Problem, then you minimize it and make it more difficult for afflicted people of any race to seek help. It is stunning that someone would think suicide would be an appropriate subject to drop into such a flippant song, and that they would make such misleading statements without backing them up, and most of all that no one would call them on it.
So yeah, I’m honest-to-God a little offended by that lyric. Legitimate, message board ranting, album-burning (were such a thing possible in our digital age) offended. That said, I think it’s important to be exposed to work that challenges and even offends us, even it is deliberately inflammatory, because it gives us the opportunity to clarify our beliefs and to practice constructing an argument. I am grateful for Das Racist, and their moronic, bullying lyrics, because it helps me to prepare for conversations I will undoubtedly have with others.
So in conclusion, fuck the following phenomena in no particular order: Das Racist, mentalism, racism, and suicide. Let’s be kind to (i.e. not kill) one another, and ourselves.