We need to discuss race in electronic music, and we need a new way to communicate

A social media meltdown reveals some deeper issues in the electronic dance music world – and the ways in which online media are amplifying divisions.

These do need to be things we work on, if we believe in what we’re doing in music, and listening to issues around race is something us white people need to work on, to try to do better. This is relevant to music because it’s relevant to making music a place that’s open.

Humans and technology melted down this week – but that shouldn’t avail us of an obligation to stand up for people, even when it’s uncomfortable.

First, here is what happened in paraphrase – one of this week’s microcosms of breakdowns in racial discrimination and online communication. (Resident Advisor has the full sequence since some content was deleted – no, the Internet doesn’t forget, sorry.) The details and even the incident aren’t really important in any large scheme, but see if you can spot the point where compassion goes badly off the rails.

  • Siberian-born Nina Kraviz got a haircut and took some selfies.
  • NYC-based Frankie Decaiza Hutchinson (among others) talked about why that related to deeper feelings about racism, and why it could be hurtful to other people of color.*
  • Nina Kraviz told Frankie in effect those feelings were unimportant to her, because her perspective on the meaning of her gesture was different, and went as far as turning the accusation of racism the other way, without evidence. (Direct quotes: “I can wear whatever I want!” and “You think that spreading hate, agression [sic], separation, bullying in our scene and validating reverse racism is OK. “)
  • A whole lot of people of color spoke to their own experience about why that could trigger deeper feelings about racism, and why it could be hurtful to other people of color.

*As one reader points out in comments, it’s unclear – and now the tweets were deleted – whether those responses put Nina immediately in a defensive position from which conversation was cut off from the start. That is, there’s the matter of whether the response was immediately calling to “cancel” her straight out, before talking about the issue or considering whether a Russian perspective might be different than an American one. I can’t really evaluate the merits of that, though it’s equally important to appreciate that there are reasons the braids issue is a hot button, even as it’s important to say, if you do want someone to change behavior, you have to invite them to change their behavior, not immediately end their career. (See comments below for a more articulate rendering of that argument; I’m paraphrasing, but I agree.)

Quick review: why would someone be upset about Nina Kraviz in braids? (Hat tip, Noncompliant for compiling these three on short notice, though you could also use Google):

Respect Our Roots: A Brief History Of Our Braids

The Thin Line Between Fashionable & Offensive

How Braids Tell America’s Black Hair History

This should have been the end of it – people of color who have this history can say whatever they want about this as it is about them, and those of us who are white need to listen and try to respond.

But then, in real-time, there was something we’ve seen regularly in social media: a pile on of short, on-the-spot monologues about the writer’s personal opinions, in a crescendo of polarized sides amplifying their own position. Troublingly, many attacks were directed by white people at people of color and people who speak out about these issues. And it’s clear that part of what made this blow up so fast was a torrent of white defensiveness.

Now, what you saw of all of this is highly variable – not only through the very real filter of all of our own biases and internalized racism, but literally what the technology showed you. And this happens fast: the time window to see the originating tweets was roughly 2-3 hours on Monday evening.

Depending on who you follow on social media and how millions of lines of computer algorithms are personalizing that feed to heuristics about your taste, you may have missed this story altogether, or made a gesture that signaled to those algorithms your disinterest, causing them to vanish.

Alternatively, the algorithms’ complex mathematical rules may have bombarded you with an explosion of impassioned comments and chosen which would get priority. This weighting is constructed, as extensive research has shown, primarily to increase engagement and profit, with a questionable weighting on either your well-being or the accuracy and balance of what you’re shown. Even before these reached your brain, they were filtered by statistical machine learning rules intended to maximize your engagement.

And whether by algorithmic weighting or most-recent chronological ordering, the longer these discussions go, the more likely you are to see copy-of-a-copy punditry and waves of frustration than the original discussion, as if you walked in on the end of a barroom brawl.

This also leads inevitably, in any case, to the same claim: “why aren’t xx people talking about yy.” Very often, these mirror a non-online, real ignorance. But rather than helping resolve that issue, social media can present an unmanageable torrent of disorganized information and even actively amplify ignorance, all while distorting timescale (again, realizing that some people are joining a conversation hours or days later than others).

To the extent it seems like discussions on Twitter have gotten more heated since, oh, about 2016, they absolutely have, due to algorithmic changes. Facebook has similar heuristics. Both are intended to keep you focused on these products.

Putting all that aside, whatever did reach your brain was filtered again through years of learned experience about race, which will have been very different based on who you are, what your skin color is, and where you grew up with that skin color. This changes your behavior, which then … feeds back into the algorithms.

We’re dealing with both human and machine heuristics that can be toxic and divisive, and worst of all, they’re locked in a feedback loop. Machines are learning from some of our worst impulses even as we fail to learn to be better. It also needs to be said, this same system is open to outside manipulation – and with or without that manipulation, it skews our perception of one another and of issues.

The technology shouldn’t excuse bad behavior or learned racism and bias. On the contrary – it means that racism and bias have more urgency than ever. If ever there was a doubt, time’s now up to listen to who is marginalized and needs to be heard.

While social media rages away, this also means it’s worth reading long-form content and taking time to consider.

So let’s read:

Ash Lauryn: Keeping It Real… [Underground & Black]

The author, a Detroit-based DJ / writer / radio host, was one of the first to react and one of the first to bear the brunt of a full-on pile on, often from white people (which is a serious sign that something is seriously wrong here, having nothing to do with hair or Russian DJs). Full credit – Axmed of Dutch Dance with Pride posted this; you can find this and other links to their organization on Linktree.

It’s possibly even useful reading the article – and other posts – more than once, to be really aware of the message and unpack our own reactions as well as to process what she says. Sometimes, a re-read can help remove some of our own filters; empathy doesn’t require agreement, but empathy takes practice.

Over and over again, I heard this – while many people focused on Nina’s original hair selfies, they ignored the concerns that it was the response from Nina that was so offensive. Highlighting that bit:

Rather than listen and attempt to have a constructive conversation about her use of the term “ghetto” and cultural appropriation, she jumped right into defense mode. The straw that broke the camel’s back for me was her having the audacity to call one of the most dedicated people to diversity in the scene right now, whom also happens to be a black woman, a racist. That’s the point when I lost all respect.

Also, something I heard many people echo, she talks about why this is so personal (excerpt) – that this is a particular badge of pride in particular because it represents what had been denied:

As a black woman who wears cornrows on a regular basis, I find pride and strength in rocking the style, and it often feels like a form of resistance against the white society that tells me I need to wear my hair straight to be accepted. Perhaps this is what makes the topic a sensitive one, because to me, the style is not simply a fad or a costume for the night- it’s my heritage.

This issue of cultural appropriation clearly isn’t a simple one, because the core of it is dealing with people’s emotions. And much as the right-wing pundits in my native country loves to mock that aspect of it, caring about people’s feelings and how you impact them is the essence of compassion.

And yet, for all the apparent trendiness of the issue, it’s clear the questions of racism don’t get talked about enough or with enough depth. That was the overwhelming message of the frustration with Nina Kraviz I was able to dig through – that this didn’t come out of the blue, but sparked a long-standing, quiet frustration with ignorance and appropriation.

I respect Nina Kraviz as an artist, for her label, for what she’s had to put up with because of sexism and jealousy directed at her. It’s okay to respect someone and to voice criticism. I’m disappointed in her in this case for not attempting to listen to the source of the offense, and I hope she will find a way to undo this damage – there’s plenty of opportunities to do that. I think the point isn’t about her, but an illustration of what we need to do differently. When she finishes her discussion with “I am not a racist. And I hope you know and feel that” – she misses the point. If you rephrase this discussion with “this hurts people, and connects to a history of hurting people,” and the response “no, it doesn’t, I can do whatever I want,” you get at the core of the issue. The question isn’t who is “a racist” or not, like asking if someone is a Methodist or a plumber. We say things, they have consequences, they impact other people.

So the question is whether we listen and respond when that impact is hurtful. This isn’t political correctness; it’s basic human compassion and decency.

Some messages are simple – there is absolutely no reason to argue that Frankie was in the wrong; she defends herself on that:

Some issues this episode has raised are much harder, in that they might not only be uncomfortable to talk about but might require real reflection and disagreement and even radically different viewpoints. I do hope we tackle them, and I appreciate that they’ll take time. I also know plenty of writers have already written extensively about this issue, researched this issue, and they deserve more of a platform and more awareness.

I went back and re-read Frankie’s answers to this site, as she talked about self-care and how she handles social media. It’s also important to note the ways she said at the time social media can be important and productive – and I think we have to listen to those, too. (It’s absurd not to be able to use a medium and to criticize it – I would flip it around and say it’s necessary to do both those things.)

Yes, to Ash Lauryn’s plea that the press and artists need to respond to these kinds of incidents, we damned well better find a way to do it. Yes, folks like me have an added responsibility to educate ourselves on our privilege because otherwise we’re part of the problem.

No, this can’t always happen in real-time, and it can’t always fit on social media, because of the limitations of human health and the fact that social media platforms are moderated by machines, not humans, and the machines’ priorities are set by corporations.

The best I can do is suggest we respond as thoughtfully as we can on social media, and make some space outside social media to have conversations, too. And since the press in the past hasn’t always done a job of opening up space, I hope that independent, open Web media can try to do better. That should mean giving up some space to other voices.

This is not labor to do this in music; it’s a privilege to have the opportunity to share with others access to a medium that lets us channel how we feel. When race, class, accessibility, gender, geography, sexual orientation, and other variables become barriers to music, we’re lucky to have any chance to make any change. So we need to listen to what we can do.

I can’t personally say more beyond that, so let’s just finish on Ash Lauryn’s mix for RA. If anyone says “make it about the music,” don’t worry – the people I quoted here are on that, too:

If people do want to share experience, and if there are other articles to add, please get in touch. You can actually reach me on Twitter, even. (Ahem.)

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