“Hey. I’ll pay you $2 if you can play at least one song by a black person,” my friend said to me during our shift last week, where I manage and control the auxiliary cord.
I take music very seriously and curate my playlists with meticulous attention to detail and flow. It was a Sunday opening shift, and it felt like a “Ur Dad’s Playlist” kind of morning.
The playlist, one I like to say I am proud of, is made up of songs I grew up hearing. Hits like U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name,” The Police’s “Roxanne” and The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” remind me of my parents, who played these songs in the kitchen when cooking or in the living room from the new surround-sound stereo when guests came over and dinner parties quickly escalated into dance parties. These are the songs of their youth and the melodies of their college days doused in nostalgia.
Play at least one song by a black person. The words hung in the air as I let go of the coffee shuttle, watching steamy brown liquid fill the cup. I looked up, dumbfounded. My friend gave me a pointed look. I tried to search for words to respond to this declaration. How should I respond? There was no justification I could make, nor would it have been appropriate to try. Was I so ignorant?
I trudged home with a bad taste in my mouth. I felt as if my friend picked a fight, calling me out on my own inherent whiteness, even if his own knowledge about me was limited. The current climate of our country leaves us constantly in a state of questioning. We triple-check everything. Did I use the right gender pronouns? Am I being inclusive? Can I support this cause without appearing partisan? Is this statement politically correct?
Today more than ever, we watch our words and actions and their consequences. In the disjointed society we live in, we believe it is more important now than ever not to offend, whether intentionally or not. The act of playing only white artists may not explicitly exacerbate the racial divide, but it does beg the question of what it is we are missing in the conversation of race.
Regardless of my own background, the fact of the matter is that I was oblivious to a glaring omission. This was not about me at all. I had no aim to create a playlist that was not diverse, nor did I deliberately choose mostly white artists. I crafted this playlist based on my knowledge of a particular time in my life and my parents’ lives.
But the fact that the playlist lacked music by black artists never occurred to me. And that is a privilege I was not aware I had — the fact that this awareness is not something I have to worry or think about.
According to Virginia Polytechnic and State University researcher Christine White, “the primary function of music is that it creates for us a particular self-definition, a particular place in society.” Unconsciously, we create and align our identities and non-identities in our music taste, creating symbolic boundaries.
Especially at Georgetown, we are often on the defensive when evidence of our privilege seeps through. But often, we act unconsciously. No matter how many times we take the Harvard Implicit Bias Test to prove we do not lean one way or the other, we cannot relate to the achievements or the hardships of all people.
As a result, we will make mistakes. But instead of pretending, in place of defending, we should take this as an opportunity to actually learn about the world around us — its history and its inhabitants. I am not going to try to immediately compensate by blaring the Jackson 5 or Otis Redding, but I will take the time to research that which I do not know and incorporate that into the future.
Caitlin Karna is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. UNMASKED appears every other Friday.
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