As a nonbinary person, I sometimes feel like I live in constant fear of my favourite artists doing something that disrespects my identity so egregiously that I can no longer justify supporting them. That’s why my stomach dropped when I first heard about the controversy surrounding the song “Auntie Diaries” on Kendrick Lamar’s newest album.
In my mind, confronting the song was a moment of truth. Though I had listened to Kendrick for years, a part of me always thought that he was probably transphobic. After all, he’s spoken openly about being religious and described growing up in a community rife with toxic masculinity. It wasn’t a stretch to assume that he was probably less than supportive of the LGBTQ+ community, but ignorance is bliss, so I had purposefully avoided seeking out evidence of his views.
Nonetheless, I gave the song a listen and my first thought was that the song wasn’t, necessarily, that bad. Though I saw how the use of the f-slur could seem gratuitous, and though the misgendering and deadnaming did make me feel a kind primal fear that is rare in my day-to-day life, I recognized these choices as being in service of a story.
Let me start by saying that I don’t think “Auntie Diaries” expresses support for the trans community, nor do I think it was meant to do so. A song that repeats the f-slur a whopping 10 times and misgenders and deadnames the two trans people it mentions over and over again could not possibly be meant for trans people, many of whom might associate this language with past trauma.
It’s not hard to imagine why trans people, who already lack representation in media, might have a hard time interpreting a song in which a cis man talks about his struggles with transphobia as being made for us, especially when the stories of his trans relatives are absent as a result.
However, thinking of it as a ‘pro-trans’ song is an uncharitable approach to both the song’s goals and its ultimate effect. Of course Kendrick wasn’t going to write a song for trans people — he’s not trans! But that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t speak on the subject at all.
For me, “Auntie Diaries” is the only type of song that Kendrick could have written that would add productive value to conversations on transphobia and trans rights. It is an ugly, brutally honest exploration of how our prejudice and hatred is rarely a choice.
While it’s difficult for me to empathize with Kendrick’s transphobia, I do understand what it’s like to be socialized into hate. Growing up, everyone is fed a variety of narratives on groups with which they might not have a lot of contact. As a result, we sometimes do or say things that are discriminatory. But by realizing that these are mistakes and refusing to let them define us, we’re able to focus on the source of those mistakes and attempt to work against them more effectively.
Facing your prejudices might make you uncomfortable — it always makes me uncomfortable — but that’s also kind of the point. No one wants to hear or think about the small racist or transphobic things we do just because we don’t know any better. Nor does anyone want to know about the non-profits created by former neo-nazis that help deradicalize white people and heal them from the trauma — yes, trauma — that led them to or was inflicted by white supremacist groups.
Kendrick is confessing to those socialized prejudices on “Auntie Diaries.” For example, the way he misgenders his trans relatives is significant. At a younger age, when his concept of the human being has not yet been solidified, he switches between using he and she pronouns for his trans uncle — the titular “auntie.” Then, in the second of the song that chronicles his later years once he has been socialized with hate toward LGBTQ+ people, he consistently misgenders his trans cousin.
In these examples, I don’t think Kendrick is excusing his transphobia, nor do I think he’s justifying it. Rather, by thinking critically about the cultural background that structured his thought patterns, he is hopefully moving toward becoming a more empathetic and understanding person. Like myself, he recognizes that while he might not be at fault for his ignorance or flaws, he is at fault if he fails to think or do anything about them. However, I fear that people will misinterpret my approach to this topic as a strict belief that we shouldn’t hold people accountable or that discrimination is not wrong, which isn’t the case.
Excepting actual white- or cis- tears stories — which are solely meant to evoke sympathy for someone being called out for discrimination — stories about people working through their socialized prejudices are important didactic contributions to progressive conversations. Such didactic stories should be more widely accepted because they maintain that our actions and beliefs are based on our psychology, the initial shaping of which is often out of our control. By acknowledging this, we will be more prepared to tackle the root causes of systemic issues rather than preoccupying ourselves with individual actions.
Of course, my own opinion is never enough for me, and so, after listening to the song, I sought out the opinions of other LGBTQ+ people online. I emerged with more sympathy toward those whom the song has hurt and their rage at the way that some cis people have responded to the piece.
I find the opinions that trans people should feel empowered by the song, or that they should be grateful to Kendrick for deigning to talk about them with even a shred of positivity, incredibly condescending. Sure, Kendrick’s use of the f-slur occurs in a different context and aims to make a different point than its use in most Hip hop music. But it’s a slur regardless of the context, and the group that it discriminates against has a particularly rough history with this genre of music. ‘Excuse’ me if I fail to see a slightly different use of the f-slur as empowering or progressive.
It’s also quite ironic to me that some people have responded to LGBTQ+ criticism of the song by claiming that we’ve misunderstood the song. I mean, think about it: Kendrick released a song in which he tries to own up to his prejudices against the LGBTQ+ community, only to have cis people rush to his defence when said community tries to hold him accountable for what they believe to be a transphobic song.
By doing so, cis people especially absolve themselves of the need to think critically about “Auntie Diaries,” Kendrick’s transphobia, and even their own prejudices. If “Auntie Diaries” is meant to start a conversation like so many people claim, then it seems to me that this response is the exact opposite point of the song.
This is why it’s particularly hard for me to accept that “Auntie Diaries” is a clear sign of progress for the hip hop community’s relationship to LGBTQ+ people. My hope is that the song ushers in discussions about socialized prejudice and leads to us tackling systemic social injustices in a more effective way. However, I fear that Kendrick’s path to trans acceptance will instead overshadow the experiences of LGBTQ+ people, as is so common, and result in our community being told to shut up and sit down once again.