O’Keeffe: Learn from “Formation,” listen to Beyoncé’s wisdom on race



Beyoncé in American Idol in 2002.

About a week ago, Beyoncé dropped “Formation” and the internet exploded with praise, critique, celebration, pushback and analyses. The music video, its imagery and lyrics are a treasure trove of information on the black experience in America and what it means to celebrate black culture that white Americans have so much to learn from.

I am so very privileged: I am a white woman from an upper-middle class neighborhood, attended a good high school and shared a healthy dinner with my family each night. Of course my family and I have endured hardship, my parents are divorced and my great-great grandfather was a convict shipped to Australia. Nonetheless, we have benefitted in more ways than we could ever imagine by the pigment of our skin.

It is so very important that we admit our privilege and realize that we, as white people, inherently experience the world in a very different way than people of color. While I will never truly know or experience life as a person of color in America, I should not remain ignorant. Rather I, and we, should seek knowledge, insight and appreciation of the inherent differences between those who are privileged and marginalized in our country. When we do this, we develop more meaningful relationships, have fuller, richer experiences and help foster a society that loves, respects and values each of its member as an individual, not a stereotype.

Music, in its storytelling capacity, is a perfect place to jumpstart our knowledge, insight and appreciation. Via lyrics, instrumentals, performance and music videos, artists are able to speak their truth, share their experience and spread their message. I first realized this in 2008, when my feminist mom nodded her head in agreement to the honesty of Beyonce’s “If I Were A Boy.”

Within the lyrics of their songs and imagery of their music videos, Childish Gambino, Jay Z, Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar (some of my favorite artists) share their life experiences and reflect on institutionalized racism in America. By actively listening and digging into the meaning of each line, we as white people can learn so much. (I suggest the annotations on Rap Genius as a starting point.)

In “Hold You Down,” Childish Gambino explains how racism is still a fixture within our society. This song could easily inspire a SAGES class. One line though has always stood out to me: “White kids get to wear whatever hat they want, when it comes to black kids one size fits all.” I can be a nerd, athlete, class clown, hipster, any combination of these things or none at all and our society will respect that.

Society does not grant that luxury to our black peers. They are pigeon holed into stereotypes. We live this lyric more often than we would care to believe: My friend, while attending another university, was often assumed to be an athlete on campus. After semester upon semester of this, he felt that as a young black student he did not belong on campus but would have been welcomed as an athlete.

Jay Z takes these harmful stereotypes a step further in “99 Problems.” The second verse is a fictionalized exchange, based off true events, between Jay and a police officer. The officer pulls Jay over for “doing 55 in a 54” and asks Jay if he is carrying a weapon since “I know a lot of you are.” Jay knows that the officer acted on the slightest infraction; the real reason Jay was pulled over was “cause I’m young and I’m black and my hat’s real low.” The officer acted on racial profiling and straight up racism (“a lot of you are”), which is still a problem today.

Additionally, the song acts as a stark reminder that this exchange would never happen to me: I can set cruise control to 8 miles over the speed limit confident that I won’t be pulled over, because the officer will give my white face the benefit of the doubt.

For many of us white people, talking about race is hard. We often take talk of privilege, marginalization, black empowerment and Black Lives Matter as a personal assault. We imagine that these conversations lead to actions which undermine our accomplishments, devalue our own hardships and unfairly demand our assets.

Kendrick Lamar blatantly states this in “The Blacker the Berry.” The lyrics say, “You hate me don’t you? You hate my people, your plan is to terminate our culture?”

Rather than get angry and begrudge Lamar for playing the race card again, we need to listen and ask ourselves why Lamar is saying this. We need to recall our privilege, remember our inherently different experiences based on race, and continue to listen, read and pursue the truth behind this question.

Thankfully for us, Lamar immediately responds in the next verse, “It’s evident that I’m irrelevant to society that’s what you’re telling me, penitentiary would only hire me.”

Our funding, laws, actions and content with the status quo often treat black citizens as second class. The statistic that one in three black men will spend time in prison and the pattern of differential prison sentences favoring whites speaks volumes of the irrelevance Lamar speaks of.

These artists have taught me so much about race, my own privilege, socioeconomics, systemic racism and topics I never knew I didn’t know. They are just one of the many ways I seek to further my knowledge, insight and appreciation.

One of the greatest repercussions of my whiteness is that I am not forced to contemplate race because I am not harassed by police, pigeonholed as a stereotype or still seeking reconciliation after the enslavement of my ancestors. However if I want to be part of a more equitable society and a more just America, then I must begin to learn and listen about race.

Now I request you, my white peers, to actively listen to and learn from Beyoncé’s newest music video “Formation.” Watch the video at least once, soak in the powerful imagery, analyze the lyrics and follow up with critical analyses and celebration of the song. “Formation” isn’t for us or about us, but that shouldn’t stop us from listening.

You and I have a lot of learning to do, why don’t we start with Beyoncé?

Heather O’Keeffe is a fourth-year student studying biomedical engineering and minoring in sports medicine. As a kindergartener she used to make sandwiches with Trix yogurt.