Is it Racist When Rich White People Rap?

Dana Perino's rap diss to Jay Z was one of the most uncomfortable moments in television history. Awkward moment aside, was the former Bush White House Press Secretary being racist?
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Ben Cohen
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Dana Perino's rap diss to Jay Z was one of the most uncomfortable moments in television history. Awkward moment aside, was the former Bush White House Press Secretary being racist?
Dana Perino rap

Fan art of new rapper 'Tiny D-Day-P' (aka Dana Perino)

Just as a young black man should be free to sing opera, there's no reason an upper middle class white woman shouldn't have the right to rap. Music isn't owned by any one racial demographic - it is an expression of human creativity and talent to be shared by anyone who enjoys it.

That being said, there is something inherently uncomfortable when people of enormous privilege ironically mimic forms of music created out of oppression. Former Bush White House press secretary Dana Perino's 'rap dis' of Jay Z and Beyonce ranks up there with the most skin crawling moments in television history and opens up the debate as to whether it is a form of racism when rich white people pretend to rap.

Jay Z's controversial trip to Cuba lead to an outcry from Republicans who viewed it as explicit support for the Castro regime, leading the New York rapper to release a scathing and nuanced response in musical form. He rapped:

Ya'll almost want to start a revolution
You know whenever I'm threatened,

I start shooting, bark
Catch a body, head to Houston
I'm in Cuba, I love Cubans
This communist talk is so confusing
When it's from China, the very mic that I'm using
Idiot wind, the Bob Dylan of rap music
You're an idiot, baby, you should become a student
Oh, you gonna learn today
Where the fuck have you been
The world's under new management
The new role model, fuck this Zoolander shit

This prompted Fox News personality Perino to respond in kind with the following embarrassingly crude and silly verse:

Well my name's Tiny D and I'm here to say

I bust funky fresh rhymes in a major way

So I'm white like Casper Got a dog named Jasper

If you don't think Beyonce fears me Go ahead and ask her

So if you love Castro Stick with Jay-Z But if you love your freedom Pick Day-P (that's me)

Jay Z's rap pointed to the giant hypocrisy showed by politicians when it comes to their treatment of Cuba. His line about rapping on a Chinese made mic highlights US politician's apathy when it comes to Communist China, while the tiny Caribbean island is the target of enormous politicization to the point where Americans aren't allowed to travel there directly without government approval.

Perino's rap on the other hand can be translated as follows: "This is how I think black people speak, down with Cuba, Go America!" Or as Max Read in Gawker put it: "LOL, black people."

Perhaps Perino didn't intend it to denigrate black culture, but it's hard to see what on earth she thought she was doing. There's not much point in parsing her lyrics given how childish they are, but she does make reference to her 'whiteness' - a sign that she kind of understands what's going on. Perhaps it was an attempt to reach out to the black community in their own language, or perhaps she really was trying to diss Jay Z and Beyonce. Either way, there aren't enough superlatives to describe how utterly condescending it was.

Scenes like this regularly play themselves out in social situations where privileged white people attempt to 'black it up' or simplify  their speech around people of African descent. My best friend, a highly educated risk analysis consultant is black, and I have watched this happen to him (and other friends) with alarming regularity. While it is deeply uncomfortable for me to watch someone speak to him as if he only understands rap music and sport, I can't really imagine what it is like for him. I wrote a short comedy sketch a couple of years ago that tried to deal with this social faux pas from a black perspective (white people take note: if you do any of the below, stop):

If you're black, you'll understand this all to well. If you're white and don't think it's that bad, just ask someone who's black.

The truth is, rich white people are entitled to spit bars, and Dana Perino probably doesn't hate black people. But there are obvious underlying assumptions when you do something as stupid as challenge Jay Z to a rap battle, particularly when you drop lines like "I'm white like Casper Got a dog named Jasper".

Jay Z is an exceptionally intelligent lyricist who obviously understands politics at a very high level. He has spent his life exposing social truths through verse and made it into an art form. As someone who understands the art of message crafting through media, you would have though Perino would have shown Jay Z some respect. Perhaps Perino could have added some metaphors to her rap diss and exposed some liberal hypocrisy with a couple of clever lines about Che Guevara.

But then you'd have to actually understand Hip Hop to do that, and it's probably a bit too ethnic for Perino.