For the duration of January 2016, it was the foremost topic of conversation. Seemingly each day meant another story about white privilege in the news. Watching this happen is exciting, but also overwhelming in the way it is whenever a new idea is introduced to the mainstream. From DeRay Mckesson teaching Stephen Colbert about the concept on The Late Show to Mark Ruffalo considering a boycott of this year’s very white Academy Awards on the basis of said privilege, it’s seeping into most corners of society, and quickly. The chatter has continued into February, most notably around how brash black and white quarterbacks are judged differently, in both success and failure. White privilege even made its way into the presidential race, when Hillary Clinton was asked in a forum what white privilege means to her and how she’s benefited from it. Clinton’s response could be described as “a collection of words.” While long, her answer was not good; clearly caught off-guard, she told a rambling story about babysitting for migrant farmers that ran out the clock but didn’t really connect with the question she was asked. But there was something refreshingly honest and earnest in her attempt. It was like watching someone try to hit a home run, only to strike out after realizing mid-swing that they’ve never played baseball. But even a clean, highly mulled-over answer to a question like this—the right answer—wouldn’t necessarily mean someone has actually dealt with her or his own privilege. Again, it’s nothing more than words.
In that moment, we got raw Hillary Clinton, someone who still has a long way to go in dealing with white privilege, just like the majority of white people—and the majority of privileged people in general. And even though her answer was messy, at least she avoided the three most common pitfalls in discussing one’s own white privilege: pretending it doesn’t exist, saying it only applies to “some” white people (i.e., not them), and trying too hard to convince other people that they “get it.”
It was Clinton’s answer that raced back into my head when I first heard the song “White Privilege II” by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, on January 20, two days before its official release. The almost-nine-minute track is the follow-up to his 2005 song “White Privilege,” but to call it a sequel would be an oversimplification—it’s like graduating from high school and then graduating from college. The song is filled with scenes, from Macklemore struggling to figure out his role as a protester, to Macklemore playing the role of his critics, to Macklemore playing the part of his fans, some of whom have misguided opinions on the world. A handful of people were sent early streams of the song by Macklemore’s reps. I don’t know everyone who got a stream, but none of the people I knew who did were white. It was clear what was happening. The day before the song was released, “White Privilege II” emails were beginning to be traded. So, what’d they ask you? Wait, they hit you up about that, too? No one seemed to be insulted or taken aback; it was just funny. It was so Team Macklemore. The anxiety over how the nonwhites would perceive the song was understood and valid, but still nothing short of adorable.
The night before the track’s release, I spoke with two people who were involved in making it. Both were black, and both were happy about the song’s existence; or at least I assumed as much based on management’s willingness to make them available for interviews. The first was Dustin Washington, a Seattle-based community organizer and anti-racism advocate who runs the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. Washington said he’d met Ben (as he called Macklemore) over a year ago, after one of his reps reached out to ask how the rapper could get involved. As a precondition, Washington required that Macklemore attend a training session, “Undoing Racism,” with members of Youth Undoing Institutional Racism, which he did. Washington explained that his role in “White Privilege II” was mostly that of an adviser, helping to hone the song’s message for maximum positive impact in the anti-racism space. Washington says he sees Macklemore “on a journey to see himself as an anti-racist white organizer.” Journey is the word that hit me, because that truly was the best way to describe what the song represents.
The second person I spoke with was Jamila Woods, a singer and poet best known for her dreamy vocals on Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment’s 2015 rap hymn “Sunday Candy.” Once she got past the WhitePrivilege2.com talking points, Woods explained what it was like to be in the studio with Macklemore and Lewis—going to Seattle having never met the duo, filled with the skepticism of anyone who has seen Macklemore stumble publicly on race issues. But her fears were allayed. Her suggestions were listened to, she says, and she never felt like her blackness was being used as a prop. Discussing her vocals near the end of the song, Woods says, “I was really inspired by Audre Lorde. We were constantly watching things, pulling up YouTube videos of different conversations, reading articles. The idea of hip-hop not being a luxury came from the Audre Lorde ‘Poetry Is Not a Luxury’ essay.”
When people are taking leaps out of their comfort zones like this, be they artists, politicians, or just individuals having those first conversations, you can tell when they haven’t sought feedback from the right people—the people most comfortable in the space that causes others the most anxiety. Part of that “journey” Washington mentioned is getting to a point where, by virtue of your inner circle, you can wisely get someone like Woods in the room when you’re taking a second stab at tackling white privilege—especially in a climate in which so many people are hoping that you do it poorly.
The day the song was released, the response came in three main forms: Some people attempted to engage with it as a think piece in song form; others wrote it off as garbage before even listening; and much of the internet focused on the most gossip-worthy kernel from the song, the Iggy Azaela “diss”:
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
You’re Miley, you’re Elvis, you’re Iggy Azalea.
Azalea didn’t like it, and took to Twitter to say so. Macklemore defended himself to Rolling Stone: “It’s an unpacking moment of internalized criticism and self-doubt, and ‘What have I done,’ and letting the criticism infiltrate who I am. ’Why am I insecure at a protest?’ And I think that people get put into boxes, and the conversation around cultural appropriation—I was at the forefront of that, rightfully so. And that conversation also included Miley Cyrus and Iggy Azalea, and that’s why their names are on the record.” The uproar continued, though, and spilled over into a Twitter spat between Azalea and Talib Kweli (“Hip hop come from oppression and struggle that u don’t experience,” he told her), and a TMZ interview with rapper Machine Gun Kelly (who is white and isn’t mentioned in “White Privilege II”) in which he said, “Race is not an issue. Race is an issue for people like Macklemore. I’m comfortable in my own skin. I can’t help other people be the same way.” (He later backtracked on those comments.)
So much of what happened immediately following the song’s release shows the journey of the Macklemore critic. When Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s The Heist was nominated for the 2014 Best Rap Album Grammy alongside Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.D city, Macklemore was on Black America’s Most Wanted List. The assumption was that while Kendrick absolutely should have won, he would probably lose—because America. In the back of many minds, we wanted Macklemore to lose—but we also wanted Macklemore to win, to further prove to any doubters that life still isn’t fair, and that white privilege is alive and well.
So when Macklemore did beat Kendrick, white privilege was the only plausible explanation, and even Macklemore knew it. Macklemore was gracious in his acceptance speech, but then he went a step too far by apologizing to Kendrick in a text message, and then Instagramming that text for all to see. When asked about it, Kendrick responded, “When he sent it to me, I was like, ‘Okay, I could see him feelin’ that type of way’ because he’s a good dude. But I think for confirmation from the world, he probably felt the need to put it out there. He didn’t need to do [that].”
In the wake of all this, black people were mad at Macklemore, but white people were embarrassed. For many black people, Macklemore was just another person benefiting from white privilege, and there was no need to waste energy singling him out. But for white people—especially ones who considered themselves racially awakened—he represented their worst nightmare. Because seemingly every time Macklemore does anything, and is inevitably criticized for it, he makes many nonwhites question whether white people who “get it” really exist. He pops up, and suddenly, white people who have carefully crafted that image of “I’m white—ugh, white people are the worst, right?—but trust me, I get it” are exposed. So of course some of Macklemore’s biggest critics are the white people often referred to as woke.
The sheer premise of woke is comical, since it most certainly is a myth: Once a white person has fulfilled the necessary requirements to prove a true understanding of their white privilege, they are anointed (typically by black consignees) woke. You are an elevated, “awakened” white person. The term is the evolutionary advancement of down, a once-popular way to describe a white person who understands, or is even well-versed in, certain aspects of black culture (see: Julia Stiles by the end of Save the Last Dance). While down implied the sheer knowledge of things, woke is almost this assumed, inherent understanding. One can get there in a variety of ways: a racially savvy conversation on Twitter (that certainly could have just been a private text message); a selfie of one wearing a James Baldwin T-shirt while reading Just Mercy on the train; a lengthy Facebook post about how mad one is about that thing on that day; or questioning the intentions of lesser “woke” white people. It’s funny because, in actuality, there are few better examples of white privilege than white people crafting their own perfect “woke” narrative and having it work. Or bringing nonwhite people quickly into their inner circle and using them as a stamp of authenticity. Or thinking they can defuse skepticism in their ability to grasp their own white privilege with one action—a song, a conversation, a speech, a tweet—and actually succeed.
Grasping privilege should be messy, because there’s nothing clean about reverse-engineering one’s entire racial understanding. The most important part of the process is the trial and error. But for the “woke” white person (not too different from the rise of the self-proclaimed male feminist), there are no public mistakes, no mishaps, no fumbles—you just suddenly “get it.” And while these flawless, highly curated “woke” narratives should raise huge red flags that say, “Wait, what’s really going on here?” instead they’ve been used to exemplify how to be a good white person in this white society.
For years, we’ve put Macklemore through a particularly tough ringer—one that at times might not have even been fair. But it’s a necessary ringer. Because it’s the process of applying responsible skepticism. It’s like we’re telling him, “You’re getting better, but come back next year, and let’s see what you’ve got,” like he’s Red from The Shawshank Redemption, making annual appearances before the white privilege parole board. It’s rarely graceful, but every time Macklemore does or says anything involving race or his whiteness and gets criticized for it, he goes away and comes back a little wiser. Is he there yet with “White Privilege II”? No. Does he need to be put on a pedestal for making this song? No. But is this song a net positive? Yes: for the head start it might give young white kids in figuring things out, and for Macklemore’s ongoing journey, and for being a warning about the snap judgments we make about other people’s understanding of their privilege.
Naturally, all of this leads to the question: What, in practice, is a white person actually supposed to do, and how are nonwhite people supposed to respond? So many of these moments, these conversations, these dialogues are important, are inspirational, and can make it feel like we’re headed in the right direction. But then what? If there were a simple answer, we might already have a better, more just society. But that’s not how it is, mainly because the way forward requires everyone to give something up if they want to gain something in the distant, uncertain future.
As a black man, I can attest that it feels good at times to have an enemy, a scapegoat, someone to point at when things don’t seem to go our way, racially. In a perfect world, white people just get better on their own, without any changes in my behavior. But that’s never going to happen, so we have to let white people be messy if it’s part of a necessary journey. No, this doesn’t mean coddling those who have no real desire for change, nor does it mean giving free passes for sheer ignorance, but it does mean allowing for imperfection. Public imperfection. Dealing with one’s privilege shouldn’t have to happen behind closed doors. Nonwhites have long bonded together over the assumption that white people will never “get it.” And as strong—and at times important—as that unified distrust can be, it’s no longer worth the cost of low expectations producing even lower results. Having the green light to say whatever I want about white mistakes made in public, with whatever words, in whatever tone, with minimal hesitation is one of my true black privileges. It’s something nonwhite people do because it’s one of the few remaining privileges that makes our lives easier. But, as therapeutic as it can be, it’s something I know I have to gradually learn to let go of if I want things to improve.
As for whites, what needs to be given up is pride and comfort. White privilege is like global warming—it’s very real. With every passing year, the present continuously overwhelms, constantly ignoring the lessons from the past, in order to feel some degree of progress. But issues between whites and nonwhites in America from generations ago are too cyclical to pretend that anything has been buried, that anything has been forgotten. Many of the old points of tension are still here, in large part because white people still don’t feel connected to the terrible acts of the past and are still waiting for those embarrassments to disappear from the collective consciousness. But no one’s going to forget. Which means, at some point, white people will have to give up the delusion that the playing field has magically leveled, and actually go through the difficult process of really figuring out what it means to be white, and what you want it to mean for you in the future. In that, it means accepting the fact that white is a race. That the long-existing privilege of distancing oneself from perceived “bad seeds” who are white is just that: a privilege. No one else gets that luxury, so as uncomfortable as that may be—learning how to live under the negative broad brushstroke of whiteness (and not “some” whiteness)—just never forget how long you’ve benefited from that even broader brushstroke of positivity.
Progress has long been measured in how different groups of people relinquished some comfort and learned how to exist around one another. But it’s deeper than that now; true progress is how everyone relinquishes some of those same comforts and learns how to deal with themselves. Of the many issues at play, one the biggest holding us all back is resentment. We live in a culture of finger-pointing, and both racial pride and racial identity have long surrounded not letting the other side win, or watching as the other side crashes and burns. When a black person screws up in a traditionally white setting (or vice versa), there’s a sense of validation in the distrust that kept the space so homogeneous for so long. Sometimes we’d rather be right at the detriment of our future than be proven wrong for a better tomorrow. It’s the shibboleth of race in the sense that we don’t fully know why we want the other side to falter so much, but that’s how it’s always been (at times, to everyone’s disservice), and that’s what keeps us comfortable, so that’s how it’s going to continue to be.
The only thing that’s changed, truly, is that nonwhites have more agency to blame back. But is that the victory? In some ways, yes; but in actuality, there’s really no winner in a stalemate. And that’s where we are right now: white people waiting for everyone else to stop complaining; everyone else waiting on white people to realize there are plenty of things worth complaining about. It’s a tug-of-war, and everybody’s pulling on that rope, but no one is going to win anytime soon. It’s tiring, but so far, no one’s giving up. But maybe one day we’ll all just let go of the rope at once and see what happens.