Ira's Reviews > Losing My Cool: How a Father's Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-Hop Culture

Losing My Cool by Thomas Chatterton Williams
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Oct 26, 2011

did not like it
Read in October, 2011

I first heard of Thomas Chatterton Williams' book, Losing My Cool on a public radio program (To the Best of our Knowledge). I was a bit disturbed by Williams' thesis, that “hip-hop culture” is the source of serious problems in the US black community, especially because he played down racism as an ongoing problem. I was more disturbed by the fact that the white host appeared to lap up Williams' ideas.

I am a white Jew, and as such I think it's my responsibility to denounce racism, like it is the responsibility of all caring people. If anything, white people have a greater responsibility to fight racism, because the privilege of our skin means other white people (who are after all the beneficiaries and arbiters of racism) are generally more likely to listen to us. Thus, I feel moved to respond to Williams, whose book, I fear, only plays to white people's tendency to believe racist arguments.

His book is a memoir, recounting his experience growing up in what he calls “hip-hop culture,” reflecting on his relationship with his father who is an intense book reader and collector, and describing his eventual changes in values and priorities and understandings as he moved away from “hip-hop culture.” He describes how his peers, even from a young age, rejected books as uncool, while idolizing famous rappers and lusting for material possessions, and concentrating on, even obsessing about, clothes and jewelry. In high school he describes a misogynist, superficial atmosphere, where boys and girls used each other for sexual and material favors as a matter of course, where he felt compelled to hit his girlfriend when confronted with evidence of her affair, and later to fight the other man, in order to save face.

These personal experiences are no doubt valid, but the conclusions Williams draws are not. What he is ignoring is that these are not symptoms of black culture in particular, but rather of the broader culture of this country. We don't have to look far to find widely respected white people who promote sexism and the treatment of women as “just bitches.” Eminem comes to mind if we restrict ourselves to hip-hop. We could broaden just to include rock and roll and spend years listing bands with white members who have treated women as less than human in lyrics and their personal lives. We might look at other forms of media (controlled by whites, generally) and find America's Top Model's constant humiliation of young women, or the constant pressure to have a perfect body, where perfect is defined by the media (controlled by whites). Of course the far uglier side of the problem is the millions of white men who commit rape and abuse or murder their wives and girlfriends.

Materialism, similarly, is symptomatic of the broader culture. The PR industry spends hundreds of billions of dollars every year to bombard us incessantly with advertising exhorting us to buy anything and everything, enticing us with promises of sex, love, happiness, coolness, family affection, whatever will make another sale. Williams would be hard-pressed to explain how suburban whites who accumulate multiple cars, large homes, tons of plastic toys and hair-driers not to mention clothes and furniture are not every bit as materialistic as the black people he describes. If Williams' childhood atmosphere exuded materialism, what must it have been like for the (white) person he dubbed “Playboy,” who grew up with servants, multiple homes around the world, and complained about the food at the fancy restaurants he ate at every night?

Anti-school and anti-intellectual attitudes are also common among white people. Dismissing the “smart” kids is an age-old tradition: we have a whole vocabulary (nerd, geek, einstein) to insult and marginalize the kids who want to do well in school. Furthermore, According to Tim Wise, who cites the National Center for Education Statistics, there is no evidence that black kids in general are less academically inclined than white students: “43 percent of black fourth-graders do one hour or more of homework per night, as do 45 percent of whites and 47 percent of Hispanics. In fact, black and Hispanic fourth-graders are both more likely than whites that age to do more than one hour of homework, with 18 percent of Hispanics, 17 percent of blacks, but only 15 percent of whites putting in this amount of study time daily.” He also cites statistics showing that, on average, black parents actually spend more time helping their children with homework than white parents.

I agree with Williams that these are horrific and destructive values. However, to pin them on “hip-hop culture” without acknowledging their prevalence in the broader culture allows some people to blame the ills of racism on “black culture.” Williams at many times implies that systematic discrimination came to an end with Jim Crow, although he never says so explicitly. The problem is that the gaping reality of disparity between blacks and whites demands an explanation. Black people have higher rates of unemployment, are far more likely to be imprisoned, die sooner, have higher levels of stress, have lower levels of education, among many many other problems that are simply worse for black than white. This reality lurks in the background of the book, and unfortunately, Williams makes it all to easy to blame “hip-hop culture.”

To do so is racist, unless we are willing to blame sexism and materialism among whites on “Eminem culture” or “AC-DC culture.” It's not fair to blame black culture for black problems unless we do the same for whites. Also, it is ignorant of the facts to claim that black people are more materialist, more sexist, more anti-intellectual than whites. Though I'm not sure that Williams blames an amorphous “black culture” for the problems he describes, it's easy to fall into that trap (as many people who argue similarly do). This is racist because there is no universal “black culture.” Black people are diverse and varied: some valuing school, others dissing it; some valuing women, others dissing them; some valuing material goods excessively, others not. This is one way to be racist: treating people not as individuals but as indistinguishable members of a group.

Wiliams at one point espouses more openly racist views. He explains his choice of “shirts and sweaters and trousers or jeans that fit” over sagging jeans or basketball shorts because he “wanted to look like a man and not a kid,” that he no longer wanted to look like he “was about to stick up a 7-eleven.” This is not fair. Most people who sag their jeans are law abiding citizens who never “stick up a 7-eleven,” and Williams knows this. It's not right to say that people look inherently more childish if they dress a certain way—it's in the eye of the beholder. We're all taught that wearing a tie around your neck is a sign of formality and seriousness. And it is, as long as we all agree that it is. But its not hard to imagine a society where people think it looks silly or uncomfortable (I already do think that.) Why is either view more or less valid? I don't judge Williams for his style, I only ask that he offer others the same courtesy.

Still, Williams may be right that he has seen people damaged and limited by the social context of materialism, sexism and anti-intellectualism that he describes. But to blame “hip-hop culture” in the way that he does, claiming that systematic racism is dead, only serves to obscure understanding of the problem. If instead we look at the broader culture, we can see that these problems are not a black problem, but a problem for all people in the United States. Unfortunately, we are also left with the uncomfortable reality of disparities between black and white: if we can't blame black culture, then perhaps all the claims of discrimination are worth investigating.
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Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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message 1: by Sony (new) - rated it 1 star

Sony You said everything I was thinking. But much more eloquently.

message 2: by Ira (last edited Aug 03, 2013 08:36AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Ira Sony wrote: "You said everything I was thinking. But much more eloquently."


I'm glad I'm not the only one who had those thoughts.

message 3: by Jeff (new) - added it

Jeff Norton Word.

message 4: by Ira (new) - rated it 1 star

Ira Up!

message 5: by Autumn (new)

Autumn Thank you.

message 6: by Ira (new) - rated it 1 star

Ira you're welcome.

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