What if we went into these lyrics with a totally open mind?
A few weeks ago, rapper Macklemore released a song called "White Privilege II." I was ... intrigued.
As a white person who loves hip-hop and also tries to be really in touch with conversations around race, diversity, and privilege, I was excited to see what the reaction to such a bold song would be. And I wasn’t disappointed.
There was a lot of ... reacting. And talking. And thinking. And that’s a good thing!
Some loved the song (a song by a white artist about an important topic that that was accompanied by a website stating that he, his collaborator Ryan Lewis, and their company are committed to supporting black-led organizing and anti-racist education). Others hated it for very very good reasons, most having to do with the fact that a white guy was being heralded for saying "groundbreaking" things even though people of color have been saying the same thing since forever.
Needless to say, as with most conversations around race — particularly in such a crazy moment in American history — the song was quite controversial. So why did Macklemore do it?
He told Rolling Stone:
"It's easier, as a white person, to be silent about racial injustice. It's easier. On paper. But it's not easier on the whole, because injustice affects all of us, whether we know it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not. "
Makes sense, right?
But now that the really important debate about the fact that he did the song at all has cooled off, I found myself sad that some of the really important ideas in the lyrics may have gotten lost in the sauce.
Regardless of what you think about Macklemore as an artist, or how wary you were to even listen to the song, here are nine times in the lyrics when T-R-U-T-H got served. Because truth is a good thing.
(You can listen to it as you read if you like!)
1. Awkwardness is totally normal if you're white and protesting alongside Black Lives Matter activists and other black liberation movements.
"Pulled into the parking lot, parked it
Zipped up my parka, joined the procession of marchers
In my head like, 'Is this awkward? Should I even be here marching?'"
Why is this so important to note? Well, Ben (Macklemore's actual name) is a seasoned activist.
But even for him there's still some discomfort, some second-guessing, some "am I doing this right?"-ness about taking his place as an ally and supporting the movements that he believes are important and are led by non-white people. And that's OK. Awkwardness is where life happens. (Says me. Lori.)
The more you talk about it, the more prone others are to say: "Oh, OK. Just because I feel awkward, that doesn't mean I should stop!" There are a lot of different ways to positively affect the cause. Maybe marching is your thing. Maybe it isn't. But in any case, acknowledging that discomfort is normal is a good reminder to us folks who want to show up for the people and movements we care about.
2. It's time for white people to acknowledge cultural appropriation.
"You've exploited and stolen the music, the moment
The magic, the passion, the fashion, you toy with
The culture was never yours to make better."
The term cultural appropriation is everywhere these days. Every time you turn around, someone is being accused of it and people of color are having to explain what exactly it is. But Macklemore — even as he grapples with what it means to be a popular white rapper, gaining success in a genre created by black and brown people — makes the point that ... guess what? It may be complicated, it may make some of us have to own things that we've done wrong, but as white people, we need to acknowledge it.
Jezebel interviewed Jamila Woods, a collaborator on "White Privilege II," about the idea of addressing cultural appropriation. She said, "I thought it was interesting to think of that sort of intersectionality of a white artist in hip-hop, and cultural appropriation, and how white people can be involved in black liberation struggles."
(In case you are confused about the phrase, here's the Cliffs Notes: No one's culture is a costume. So if you're wearing, using, or exploiting a culture as a performance or a "trend" ... reflect! You might be appropriating that culture — and that's not cool.)
3. You can't really "fix" anything if the whole system is broken.
"It's all stolen, anyway, can't you see that now?
There's no way for you to even that out."
Truth moment: No one has all the answers. Ending racism is really complicated because the entire system that we live in has been based on values and events that make it hard for everyone to be treated equally. So let's just admit that, shall we?
As Macklemore told Rolling Stone, "I can continue to be safe, and to rest in my privilege, and to not speak up, and the system perpetuates itself — or I can try to engage in the conversation, knowing that I don't have all the answers, knowing that I have so much to learn."
And personally, chipping away at a system that's broken is exactly what makes me feel like I'm helping. So even if it's clear I don't know how to fully fix the system that's hurting people, it's nice to do my part to disrupt it and stop the hurt any way I can.
4. A lot of us are blind to the experience of our fellow Americans.
The song also features these real quotes from real people:
"So, they feel that the police are discriminating against the ... the black people? — I have an advantage? Why? Cause I'm white? (laughs) What? (laughs) No. — See, more people nowadays are just pussies. Like, this is the generation to be offended by everything. — 'Black Lives Matter' thing is a reason to take arms up over perceived slights. — I'm not prejudiced, I just ... 99% of the time, across this country, the police are doing their job properly."
For those of us who are aware of the realities of racism in America, those quotes are pretty astonishing. But there's no question about it — a lot of people truly aren't. And these attitudes are a huge problem all over the country. It's even a problem in Macklemore's own fan base.
5. Not taking action is also an action.
"I've heard that silences are action
And God knows that I've been passive."
Macklemore said the person told him, "You have a platform, but silence is an action, and right now, you're being silent. You're not saying anything about what's going on, and because you're a white rapper you have perspective and an insight onto these issues that you need to be speaking about. It's very important that you engage your audience."
Whew. Talk about some hard truth! Doing nothing is actually doing something. It's important for all the kind, compassionate, genuinely good-hearted people who are sitting on the sidelines not fighting racism because they simply aren't sure what to do to know that fact. You are doing something. The question is, are you doing the something that can make the world better?
6. There are huge advantages to being white in America. It won't kill us to acknowledge that! Really. We should try it.
"I can book a whole tour, sell out the tickets
Rap entrepreneur, built his own business
If I'm only in this for my own self-interest, not the culture that gave me a voice to begin with
Then this isn't authentic, it is just a gimmick
The DIY underdog, so independent
But the one thing the American dream fails to mention
Is I was many steps ahead to begin with."
Once again, Macklemore got really personal here, acknowledging how his own career had benefitted from his race. He's not the first "rap entrepreneur" (hello, Jay Z) — but he's celebrated for it and rewarded for it. This sort of unbalanced praise and support for people with the same level of achievement and ability but different skin colors (tbh, NO ONE can touch Hova, but bear with me) — it doesn't just happen in rap or just in hip-hop or just in music. It happens to people of color every day, in every scenario, and he's leading by example here to show that the first baby step to stopping injustice is to acknowledge it.
7. Celebrating black culture doesn't end racism. It's simply not enough.
"We want to dress like, walk like, talk like, dance like, yet we just stand by;
We take all we want from black culture, but will we show up for black lives?"
Our culture loves to celebrate black identity, music, and dance, but it falls silent when things get real. A recent poll found that over half of white Americans saw Black Lives Matter as "a distraction from the real issues." Um ... no.
8. There's a reason it's Black Lives Matter, not All Lives Matter.
A lot of people still don't really understand what Black Lives Matter is all about. And it's usually those people who insist that "all lives matter."
Macklemore tries to explain with a great metaphor:
"Black Lives Matter, to use an analogy, is like if ... if there was a subdivision and a house was on fire. The fire department wouldn't show up and start putting water on all the houses because all houses matter. They would show up and they would turn their water on the house that was burning because that's the house that needs the help the most."
9. A more just society requires risk.
"I think one of the critical questions for white people in this society is 'What are you willing to risk? What are you willing to sacrifice to create a more just society?'"
I love this. Because at the end of the day, this song is a challenge. Even in his imperfection as an artist, even with all of the controversy that the song has sparked, the goal is really to ask people this simple question: What would you risk?
Maybe it's risking feeling awkward at a protest. Maybe the risk is something like supporting affirmative action. Maybe the risk is just getting to know someone from a different background than you. If you haven't risked anything, personally or publicly, odds are that you're not doing all you can to actually make equality and justice a reality. So ... maybe it's time to start?
Look, Macklemore's song isn't going to solve racism. Songs can't do that. People barely can!
But the song does absolutely have a lot to teach us. And it's as good of a place as any to start learning how to do better and be better.