how to listen to Beyoncé if you’re a white rock climber

I had to leave. I filled my white Subie with climbing gear and kale, and headed straight for the desert. I blasted Lemonade as I left the Bay, and slipped into that nofucksgiven kind of car singing when you don’t stop dancing as you pass other people on the highway. Without even realizing it, I played the album on repeat for almost ten hours until I got tired and pulled to the side of the highway somewhere close to Wendover.

I turned off my car. The silence was so deep and still compared to the emotional and spiritual journey that is Lemonade, compared to those lyrics and that message, compared to Beyoncé.

I thanked B for getting me across Nevada. The entire time her voice felt like it was out in front of me, pulling my car through the desert. She warped time in a gracious kind of way and made the drive feel easy. I fell asleep excited to go rock climbing, singing “I ain’t sorry”, and wondering about this whole being a white girl thing.

Why the hell do I love songs about the struggles, emotions, stories, sexuality, spirituality, and culture of something so far from what I am — a black woman in the South? Why the hell does this album give me power and make me feel healed and held and hopeful?

Maybe because it’s because I can identify with the parts of the album that speak to being a woman. Maybe it’s because I too have been lied to and manipulated by men. Maybe it’s because I used to live in the South. Maybe it’s because I know about anger too. Maybe it’s because B is a business woman and she wanted me to blast that shit across Nevada.

But something about that isn’t right. I am overwhelmed with the fact that my femaleness, my experience with men, with the South, with anger is very, very different than Beyoncé’s, on account of I am white.

I don’t know about her anger, her men, her South, her femaleness. I don’t know shit about that because it’s not mine. I can learn about it, and Lemonade has in fact taught me a lot, but once I start thinking that she’s singing to me, for me, about me…that’s when things get dark. It’s wrong. It’s false. And it’s very white of me.

White people have a history of thinking everything is ours and about us, and when something is not about us we claim that we’re being oppressed. Oh god, I know I know, that’s like, so hard to hear but I started with that because I have something even harder to swallow coming up. I’ll offer it to you in the form of a question:

Can you think of something that is truly white, truly ours? You know, besides racism, besides enslaving people, besides regulating things we feel afraid of because of their wildness — the land, female bodies, queer people?

Holy shit! I know, right? What the actual fuck! Surely there is something that makes us who we are besides that kind of shit, right? What about Sheryl Crow? What about Sperry’s? What about Starbucks?

And what about the outdoors? What about nature? White people go outside! Really, we do! We love that shit! Maybe that’s our thing?

Okay, just to be sure, let’s talk about what we do when we go outside. We rock climb. Okay, let’s talk about how we rock climb. We try to get to the top of things. We view mountains as something to conquer, to stand on top of, to bag, to send. Then, after cutting down any trees and bushes in our way (often on indigenous land!), we cling to small fractures (that sometimes we’ve created on our own!) on rock faces and if we do it without falling, we grade it, call it ours, and name it something we find inspring or witty.

In a nutshell, we conquer and name things. You know, for funsies! This doesn’t make us bad people. It just reveals something—our whiteness, our privilege.

Of course, we don’t all climb with this mindset, but this is the foundation of our sport.

The outdoor community is the most privileged group of humans that I can think of. Yes, there are people of color who rock climb, queer people, women, people with bodies that don’t fit into society’s idea of “able”. But as a whole, we are overwhelmingly white. We are mostly straight. We are mostly male. We are mostly able-bodied. In a word, we are privileged. In fact, some amount of privilege is a requirement to even try our sport. And if you’re any good at rock climbing, if you’ve been able to spend years of your life climbing up rocks, then it’s impossible that you aren’t dripping in privilege.

Do you hate me yet? It’s okay, even I hate me a little right now! Is your brain going OH HELLLLLL NO, I worked for all of this and hey now ANYONE can be a climber if they want to and yeah I’ve led a good life but I’ve also been through some fucked up shit and who is this chick to tell me what I am and am not dripping with?

Stay with me. I know this shit sucks. But we, as a community, HAVE to start checking our privilege. Our privilege exists and it’s not going anywhere, but we have to identify it and think about it. We have to do this mostly because it’s really important, but also because we are making damn fools of ourselves.

First thing — our privilege doesn’t give us immunity to suffering. Our privilege won’t save us from going through things that are unspeakable, that leave us swearing the good days are over, that drains the color from the world for years at a time. Privilege and suffering are separate.

We have all been through really shitty things. Most of us climb because of those things, to heal those things, because we don’t know what else to do with all of this shit besides haul our ass up a cliff.

I think that’s awesome. I love that.

But here’s what I don’t love — when we think that art, songs, writing, and quotes that are about something so incredibly far away from us can somehow explain our struggles as white people who climb up rocks.

Not only does it not apply to us, but it isn’t made for us.

The song Freedom is not about that feeling I get when I watch the city get smaller and smaller in my rearview mirror as I head to the desert. It’s not even close. Formation sure as hell isn’t about me and my girlfriends. And I can’t slap quotes and messages from these songs onto my own experiences — even if I’m inspired by them, even if I swear to God that B is singing right to me — because it’s impossible to lift her words out of the larger story of black feminism. I can still blast her songs as I drive to Indian Creek, but I better be highly aware of the irony and I better laugh at myself. I better take the role as a student learning from a teacher. And I better not think it’s about me.

All of this isn’t to say that climbing is bad. I think that climbing is good! Like so good, so gouda, so fun, the best. Climbing has saved our lives, or at least shaped it in a way that feels like a saving of sorts. Transmuting suffering into physical movement in nature with risk and complex decision-making? Wow, rad, amazing, yes please, I’ll take two, tell me more.

But let’s not forget that while the emotions that come along with rock climbing can seem similar to a quote from MLK, to Lemonade — ohmygodholyshit — they are not the same. I want to know about the emotions involved with your projects, because they are super interesting and complicated and so human. But let us know about it without claiming the art about the suffering of someone else, someone not talking about anything close to rock climbing, as your own.

I love rock climbing and I love Lemonade. But I love both of these things and all things from where I’m standing, from what I am, from being white.

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3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. jasoncleghorn
    Jun 05, 2016 @ 11:53:40

    I’m white, Southern and male. I share many of your thoughts and when you said that outdoor people are the most privileged of groups, there was a part of me that agreed inside. You’re super super smart, obviously, and wouldn’t be offended but what would you say if someone thought your thoughts were ‘white guilt’ etc. That concept is odd to me because I’ve lamented the fact that my ancestors owned slaves at worst, indentured servants at best. Ppl have said its your white guilt… But what my ancestors did 150 years ago doesn’t have anything to do with the way that I treat people now… I’m rambling, but great post!

    Reply

  2. 3Up Beth
    Jul 23, 2016 @ 16:25:16

    HOW DID I MISS THIS POST WAY BACK WHEN.

    You stole my thoughts lady. ❤

    Reply

  3. HermitCrab
    Nov 10, 2016 @ 13:14:31

    It’s a hard reality I’ve learned recently that some inspirational artworks cannot simply be appropriated to my own experiences…It is very much a part of my white race and privilege that I can listen to, or read, or wonder at other people’s work and think it’s okay to just quote it or link to it or promote it to all the world to see.

    I’ve always thought mentioning or building off other people’s artwork is the absolute sincerest compliment. Now I realize that that vision is my own ideal- what I want people to do to my own work someday- and it is a very personal ideal that I cannot assume to be the same for everyone.

    Some experiences are inextricably linked to ongoing legacies of oppression and people must be allowed to speak for those experiences, to spread a much-needed perspective. As much as I’d love to compliment many artists, sometimes their messages must be left to speak what they’re meant to speak, until a better day.

    Fabulous article- I’m so glad you wrote it.
    Cheers!

    Reply

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