• Conversations on Diversity

    A blog by Eboo Patel, Mary Ellen Giess and Tony Banout that looks at identity and diversity issues from multiple angles.


Hip-Hop and Higher Ed

The battle ethos versus the safe space approach.

October 1, 2019

One of my favorite hip-hop tracks of all time is “Phony Rappers” by A Tribe Called Quest.

It’s a classic battle rap. The Tribe crew takes on all comers, freestyling (inventing spontaneous rhymes, the smarter the better) against young upstarts on the streets and trains of New York City.

Here’s a sample of the lyrics:

Yo, I was riding the train
And this Puerto Rican kid said simple and plain
Let's battle …
Now check it, check it out, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, that's what he said
Then I came back and just fucked up his head

LL Cool J’s “Momma Said Knock You Out” is another classic of the genre.

There are at least two areas of American life thoroughly dominated by black and brown people -- hip-hop and sports.

A battle ethos, of the sort described above, is at the center of both.

Check out this video of Richard Sherman (then a cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks) talking about going up against the wide receiver Michael Crabtree.

Now that’s a battle video.

And it’s a pretty standard attitude in competitive sports. Watch all those Gatorade and Nike commercials and think about the slogans: find your rival, we ready for y’all.

This is all pretty recognizable to me. The unofficial motto of my freshman-sophomore high school basketball team was “Come strong or don’t come at all.” Translation: if you’re going to drive the ball to the basket hoping for an easy shot, expect to meet a slew of defenders looking to make you earn it.

The four black players on the team were the ones who coined the phrase, and the ones who showed the rest of us what it meant to live up to it. They were not shy about how they saw matters: we may be in Glen Ellyn, but we are not going to play white basketball. We are going to be tough, strong and smart.

You don’t get much whiter than Glen Ellyn in the 1980s, and yet nobody on the team wanted to play white basketball. It was the Jordan era -- everybody knew excellence when they saw it.

I’ve been to a handful of hip-hop battles (it’s not my preferred aesthetic, but over the years I’ve had a bunch of friends who love the scene, and I’ve tagged along here and there) and hundreds of basketball games, and I can say for sure that the battle ethos is not principally about disrespecting your opponent or even, in the final analysis, intimidating them.

Quite the opposite, actually. It’s a sign of respect for the art form/game, and an approach that is supposed to bring out the best in everyone. You see this demonstrated by the fist bumps and hugs after nearly every battle.

If we were to begin with the observation that the battle ethos is at the center of the two spaces in American life where minorities not only thrive but dominate, and ask ourselves a question: Given how white the academy is, what new designs might we propose to shift away from this whiteness? You might say, let’s borrow something distinctive from the spaces where minorities dominate. How about the battle ethos?

A question: Is there anything in hip-hop or athletics that feels like a safe space, the way safe spaces are currently construed in higher ed?

Another way of asking this: Are there areas of American life where safe-space approaches seem directly linked with helping minorities thrive, or dominate, in the manner black and brown people dominate in hip-hop and sports?

I can’t really think of one.

I don’t think there’s been a battle in the history of hip-hop where the principal hope of the participants is to catch the other out on the use of a canceled word. The goal is to spit a smarter rhyme. It’s an approach that makes the participants better.

A thought experiment: If we want to create spaces in the academy where black and brown people thrive, why not borrow the genius of the spaces where thriving is already taking place -- the battle ethos of hip-hop and sports?

I’ve actually seen some of this. My first job was at a school where urban minority high school dropouts were studying for their high school equivalency degrees. One of the teachers emphasized that taking a test was like engaging in a battle -- go eye to eye, do your best, don’t back down.

I don’t mean anything crazy when I say “battle ethos.” Nothing along the lines of gratuitous insensitivity or insults. I just mean more emphasis on hitting winners when you return serve rather than hoping your opponent commits a foul. Why not more vigorous discussions in seminars rather than the hypersensitivities generally associated with political correctness?

Doesn’t the battle ethos have a better track record of nurturing achievement in certain communities of color than the safe-space approach? Isn’t the battle ethos better preparation for high achievement in the academy -- think dissertation defense? And isn’t it closer to the way many important professions operate -- think competitive bidding on a contract or the adversary approach in the law?

Worth mulling, no?


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