Intercultural competence is a grand concept that involves many pieces. One important piece of intercultural competence is the idea of race. Race and culture have been socially tied together to the point where we see race and assume culture. This carries a major influence on how we interpret culture and how different groups live together as a society. In 2016, Kendrick Lamar engaged the nation with his powerful performance at the Grammys. The reason his performance was so powerful and engaging was because he passionately rapped about the brutal truth of being Black in America.
Kendrick Lamar’s performance can be linked to many important academic theories on race and culture, specifically in America. To understand culture and race in America, one must look back at its foundation. America’s history is one full of racial degradation and horrific abuse justified through racism. From mass genocide of the native people of this land to abducting Africans and forcing them to be the backbone of the American economy as slaves, America was founded on a racial caste system. Being Black in America has meant being on the lowest level of that racial caste system.
Although American society looks different than it did during its foundation in many ways, there still exists a racial caste system. Michelle Alexander examines this historical and current racial caste system in the book Mass Incarceration is the New Jim Crow. (Costello) Alexander ties the common thread of slavery to Jim Crow era to today. Today that racial caste system is still quite strong. Instead of enforcing that racial hierarchy through slavery or discriminatory laws, it is perpetuated through mass incarceration. Black people in America are disproportionately targeted for crimes and given harsher sentences than White people.
Through mass incarceration, the racial caste system in America is reinforced today. Kendrick Lamar displays and attacks this historical discrimination in a powerful way during his Grammys performance. The performance opens with Kendrick leading a group of Black men chained together as he walks to the microphone. With his hands bound by chains, striking images of slavery are invoked. Around the chained together men are large cages resembling prison cells. It’s all such vivid imagery and an unsettling portrayal of the reality of what being Black in America has meant and means today.
Kendrick ties together the link of mass incarceration and slavery just as Alexander did in her book, only he does so through performance. Kendrick raps “justice ain’t free / therefore justice ain’t me” (Genius) taking a stand against the racist mass incarceration occurring in America. Kendrick stands on the stage in chains with Black men around him and shows what the racial caste system of America does to people today. In a system that judges and gives opportunity by race, it is easy to be disheartened and want to escape the system completely. It’s not as easy as simply escaping the system.
Those who the system abuses still must often work within the system because there is no alternative. This is part of the problem of being a person of color in America’s racist system. Wanting to escape but having to work within the system is tremendously taxing. This is especially true for Black Americans. Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks addresses this complex dilemma. “The points of his book centered around the contradiction of being black but needing to adjust to a world defined by whites. ” (Newby, et. Al) For an academic like Fanon, there was little to no taking off his “white mask. A Black artist in today’s America, like Kendrick Lamar, has the opportunity to publicly denounce any white mask and be proud of his Blackness in a society that tries to equate Black with lesser. Kendrick Lamar’s Grammys performance is an ode to Blackness and an unwavering shout for equal treatment and an end to America’s degradation of its Black population.
Kendrick raps to a majority White national audience, “My hair is nappy, you know it’s big, my nose is round and wide. You hate me don’t you, you hate my people. Your plan is to terminate my culture. You know you’re evil. I want you to recognize I’m a proud monkey. (Genius) Kendrick embraces stereotypes of Black men and puts his pride in his Blackness on full display. Instead of letting the pressures of being Black in America tear him and his identity down, Kendrick stands up for himself. He denounces White dominance and fights back against the constant degradation of Black people in America. Frantz Fanon furthered the dialogue of the complex identity challenge Black Americans face trying to fit into a White society. Kendrick Lamar denounces trying to fit into this White society and sends a message of pride and appreciation of Black American culture and existence.
In front of a massive audience, Kendrick stomps on the “white mask” White American tells its Black population to wear. We, as individuals, navigate society with many faces for various scenarios. Interacting with friends is different than interacting with coworkers which is different than interacting with strangers and so on. We bring these faces for different situations based on how we perceive the other person. Erving Goffman describes the different faces we put on for different social interactions as “face-work. ” This can be viewed as a positive or negative or neutral depending on the context.
How does this face-work materialize in interactions between people of different race in America? Given the current and historical racial division, facework because of race is often present. There are countless situations where the racial make-up of those one is interacting with can determine how much or what they say or don’t say. Kendrick Lamar’s Grammys performance, while engaging and critical of America’s racial division, is an example of face-work due to race. In Kendrick Lamar’s Grammys performance, he displays to everyone watching the ugly truth of the treatment and status of being Black in America.
While Kendrick does not hold back, he is censored. His performance is a compilation of several of his songs. One of those songs is Alright, which features the lines “And we hate po’ po’ / wanna kill us dead in the streets fo’ sho. ” For his Grammys performance Kendrick drops those lines entirely. Why is that? It’s clearly face-work, changing of behavior or what is said based off who one is socially interacting with. The most obvious reason is that Kendrick is performing to many White faces. Many of these White faces would not relate to or understand Kendrick’s lines, perhaps they would even be offended by them.
Kendrick performed the same song but with the above lyrics at the BET Awards, and he did so while standing atop a police car. (Fader) This is a sad example of how face-work is used because of race. Face-work is used constantly, and it clearly is because of race in some situations. A key reason why people of color feel the need to do face-work for White people is the concept of White fragility. Racial division in America is so stark that just talking about race can be uncomfortable. At least it can be for some people. Robin DiAngelo describes the conditions of talking about race in America and what that means for White people.
The condition is described as “White fragility. ” White fragility is the mentality that many White Americans have due to an insulated social environment that builds expectations of racial comfort for White people and an inability to tolerate racial stress. This insulated environment and lack of racial stress leads to defensive behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the situation when racial stress occurs. These behaviors are counteractive to an open dialogue about race and work to reinstate a White racial equilibrium. DiAngelo)White people in America experience this fragility often and major moments like Kendrick’s work to expose this. Kendrick Lamar’s Grammys performance is full of realities born from racial degradation as well as examples and denouncement of society-wide disenfranchisement of Black Americans. His performance is engaging and full of life, so why is it that near the middle of the performance when the camera pans to part of the audience (all those shown are White) they are standing expressionless? And at the end of the performance, while much of the audience is clapping, many of the White audience members have no emotion on their faces.
The most obvious answer is that Kendrick is putting White America on full display and that White fragility is showing itself. Undoubtedly this was the reaction of many White Americans watching at home who knowingly and unknowingly reinforce America’s racial caste system. Kendrick’s performance exposes the reality of White Americans inability to tolerate racial stress. His performance does not ask for the help of White Americans, he calls them out for the system that has been created and reinforced to disproportionately damage Black Americans. In doing this, Kendrick provokes and exposes the reality of White fragility.
Kendrick Lamar’s 2016 Grammys performance is a passionate and powerful message about race in America. Race is tied to culture and is a major influence in America. Kendrick’s performance highlights important social issues of mass incarceration, “white masks” as a Black person trying to exist in White America, it shows how face-work comes into play in regards to interaction between different races, and it exposes White fragility. Performances like Kendrick Lamar’s work to counteract America’s racist system and give Black Americans a strong, empowering voice that must be heard.