What Do White Liberals Fear About Macklemore?


Last Friday, after Macklemore & Ryan Lewis released a nine-minute song entitled “White Privilege II,” Jezebel interviewed Hollis Wong-Wear and Jamila Woods, two of Macklemore’s collaborators who helped guide the song. At the end of our conversation, I asked if they had paid attention to any of the reactions online, which had already been swift, opinionated and legion mere hours into its release. Woods replied that she had read a few articles, all of them written by black writers—including one on Blavity, and one on the Fader—and Woods-Wear continued:

It took me like a year to work on this, so I think as a nine-minute song, it comes out of the blue for some people—and I totally understand. I think people need space to talk, or not talk, or listen, or not listen. People can have whatever reaction they want to have to it. It’s not imperative for anybody to have to engage or not engage. I do think it’s interesting—if there are a lot of black critics talking about it, where are all the white critics talking about it?

That last part resonated, and sparked a conversation between myself and my friend, Complex writer Justin Charity, about what we saw as a dearth of white voices on a song written expressly for white people. It wasn’t that music critics weren’t reacting to the song in their chosen medium—they were—but that other than a few notable exceptions, we noticed more dismissive tweets from white critics than attempts at actual engagement.

On an individual level, that is fine; as Wong-Wear said, no one is required to engage. But viewed collectively, particularly within an occupation that by its very nature leans both liberal and outspoken, it was troubling. To explore this notion, and the idea of Macklemore as an avatar for white privilege in general, Jezebel asked some of our favorite cultural critics, both within and outside of the Gawker Media universe, to write about about it. We asked, “What do white liberals fear about Macklemore?”—Julianne Escobedo Shepherd

Doreen St. Félix, Editor at Large, Lenny Letter:

Now, there is no graceful way down the uncanny valley. It’s a fall, and it is steep, and the whole journey occurs without much obvious cognitive awareness on the part of the viewing subject. When “White Privilege II” came out last week, I was bemused watching my immediate white internet crowd, mostly music critics, stumble down the uncanny kicking and screaming, though I’m sure they thought they looked smug.

It would have been one thing if the song was summarily ignored. That might have even made sense, because “musically” or whatever, it’s not that good. Which is exactly why I thought the responses from white rap critics were so revealing. Why are Liberals Afraid of Macklemore’s White Privilege II when it’s apparently toothless, far away from any danger of becoming a cultural touchstone, much less a hit? When its clear subject, white privilege, is so accessible a topic it’s become basically an internet meme? Instead, white critics chose to respond with the kind of knee-jerk, sardonic revulsion or even outright silence that exemplifies another sociological idea: white fragility. The song is devoid of any lyrical elegance yes, but when black people read your takes on black rappers, all awash in mandingo stereotypes and racist idiot-savant formulas and ahistorics, do you think they see sophistication? I think white critics felt very smart in pointing out that putting out a song about white privilege is the ultimate tautology. I think they sounded uncannily like the kind of white person—albeit their leather jacket is a little more distressed, their “rap knowledge” a little deeper, their masthead salaries less than his wealth but four times that of mine—Macklemore knows he is.

White listeners don’t get to have “Alright.” Kendrick wasn’t talking to you, as much as you’d like him to be. “White Privilege II” is the direct address anthem they have earned. I highly doubt Macklemore knew the depth of the nerve he hit with this one—like those critics, I think he only thinks about his own fragility. He’s almost embarrassingly earnest, but as the rise of Trump tragically demonstrates, white people have a hard time taking earnestness seriously. White privilege, in all of its many meanings, universalizes white people. They would prefer to feel special, individual, especially the liberal sophisticants. They hope there is a gulf between them and someone like Macklemore, but the distance is more like an inch.

Jia Tolentino, Deputy Editor, Jezebel:

First, I’m not sure we can assume that white liberals are “afraid” of anything about Macklemore specifically because of the relative silence of white music critics—and, actually, my perception was that there were plenty of non-dismissive tweets from white music critics about coalition-building and don’t tell your best friend to mackle less and all that. I will also say that my opinion on the “conversation” as it concerns Macklemore is likely untrustworthy, as I have inexplicably been unable to find the time to read much of anything about him in the last week.

But I think that white writers not writing about Macklemore’s “White Privilege II” (HELP) can be credited at least partially to the fact that it’s not really within the abilities or discursive purview of goddamn white people—non-music-critic Eula Biss excepted, and a few others—to give any insight on racism that feels in any way central right now. Trying so hard to do so—to be implicitly central, specifically—is already such a bad look on Macklemore, whose song is full of straightforward and credible “insight” but is nonetheless impossibly annoying; it’s hard for me to imagine the look being different on anyone else.

In other words, though the people I know that sincerely fuck with Macklemore are indeed white liberals who deep down feel that equality is important but are essentially too well-meaningly afraid, too uninformed and uninterested, or too straight-up shallow to reckon with anything beyond a vague idea of racism in America, I’m still going to blame Macklemore here. He has, aesthetically as well as in terms of his wildly unimaginative narrative position, modeled this for them. He’s screaming (with the beautiful exception of Jamila Woods’ part) “Listen to me talk for 9 minutes about how unfairly I have benefited.” He is expressing solidarity through an emotional vantage point of remove, calculation and burden, as if it’s a deep fucking struggle to be so fucking woke.

It’s true that white people need to get their shit together about (and mourn, even) the empty morality that they benefit from; it’s true that Macklemore theoretically presents a valuable perspective, theoretically worth serious critical consideration. But in practice, nothing about this song bears the sense of solidarity—which is instinctive, unselfish, and quick on its feet—out for me. White critics get the pass in my book. Macklemore does not.

Rich Juzwiak, Senior Writer, Gawker

I’m not afraid of Macklemore or his songs, but I think “White Privilege II” is entirely depressing, no matter how you look at it. It’s depressing to think that this slapped-together, nine-minute indulgence is the best he and his team could come up with to spark dialogue. This song is not a song but polemic, and there’s little reason to ever listen to it again after the first time (unless you’re working on a think piece about it, and if you are, you’re probably part of the choir that Macklemore is preaching to, even if you aren’t keen on his timbre). There’s nary a hook floating in this puddle of musical flab, thus the hypnotizing quality of pop music (that which could help the subject matter really sink in for those resistant to the song’s message) is absent.

It’s depressing that a man merely acknowledging how he profits from racism while continuing to do so counts as progress. It’s depressing to think that people so want to have their beliefs spit back out at them that Macklemore doing so is satisfying to some. At best, this song is a model for a conversation that people are already having. Even then, it’s just talk that positions the white guy at the forefront and the musicians of color he’s employing behind him. Regarding Jamia Woods’ sung outro, songwriter Hollis Wong-Wear told Jezebel that they aimed to make it “a true collaboration, not just a coda.” Yeah, well, the white guy is still doing all the talking and his experience with racism is prioritized, while Woods… sings the coda.

If you’d like to assume Macklemore is earnest, go ahead. I can’t help but suspect that he is not, that in fact he is making low-stakes claims about his cultural positioning for the image he has to maintain. It’s impossible to detach the ego from any activism, especially that of a pop star, and this song can be read as a heaping dose of self-flattery for knowing better while not doing shit. What are the practical implications of Macklemore’s talking besides…more talking? Social media has, to some degree, systematized racial discourse (acknowledging one’s privilege, or demanding that from another person, is at this point a ritual), and any system can be corrupt by humans. My pessimistic reading of “White Privilege II” is that talk and no action amounts to knowing the right thing to say to placate the woke masses while doing absolutely nothing to change the situation

Say every white person acknowledged their privilege and left the matter in the cloud of discourse, as the ultimately elliptical “White Privilege II” does. If the only action is hand-wringing, doesn’t it all just amount to gloating? Depressing.

Claire Lobenfeld, US News Editor, FACT Mag:

There is a pervasive desire amongst certain liberal whites to be “the only one.” They are usually cishet, but believe themselves to be so well-informed, so perfectly articulate in the lexicon of proper progressive speech, so inclusive, so ahem “woke,” that there cannot be another white as down as they have proven to be. Yeah, sure, they are still the primary benefactors of, well, fucking everything, but haven’t they shown you that they get it? This does not a lick for progress, unless your version of progress is being able to say, “Yeah, I have [insert marginalized people here] friends!”

This kind of person is appalled by Macklemore because he has no insecurity about fumbling his way through progressive ideas. Sure, his music is totally shitty, “White Privilege II” being an especially numbing collage of far too many disparate pieces of voice, horns, beats and more. But at least he had the wherewithal to speak to an audience he knows is uninformed, instead of trying to gain favor for being the Woke White . It is a necessary action to tell other white people about, well, ourselves—not to campaign to be the white person who “gets it.” That doesn’t help anything except an ego. But that is precisely the way forward progress is made—not finding yourself as an ally who doesn’t have to do shit, but as someone who continuously put himself out there, even if it’s clumsy, even if you’re alienating other your friends and family, for the sake of changing at least one person’s mind.

“The only one” doesn’t necessarily need to hear “White Privilege II”—but they do need the fallout from it. The third (and, frankly, totally necessary) verse shines a light not only on to the problems Macklemore’s demographic for only loving rap when it’s made through his “thoughtful” lens, but also for white liberals who seem to think if you aren’t fully on board with the struggle against systemic racism you’re either just a plain old racist or not paying any attention. This reaction makes Macklemore’s song all the more useful; it gives a perspective on politics to people who will listen to them and it also shows us how many white liberals have a hard time engaging with nuanced political discussion because they are afraid of getting assed out. When you are socialized to believe you are always right—whether you want to accept that or not—Macklemore is doing the most awkward of forcing white people to look inward at their own bigotry, in any stripe in may come in. And, for some, that bigotry might be toward people who aren’t possessing the same type of awareness. Giving up on making that change is still giving up.

Justin Charity, Staff Writer, Complex:

I used to live with three St. John’s College grads in a townhouse off North Capitol in Washington, D.C. I love those guys, despite my roommates Adam and Charlie having premiered “Thrift Shop” into my life, on merciless repeat via laptop speakers in the kitchen, for two months before I really started hearing the song in the wild. “Thrift Shop” is fun if a bit maddening after so many spins. As pop concept, the song is clever enough. Mack’s rapping isn’t half bad. (The goofball baritone hook from Wanz is kinda trifling, I’ll grant you that much.) “Thrift Shop,” the single, and its equally impressive music video provide this heightened-but-accurate, PG depiction of privileged renters being frivolous and sincere in their celebration of—trigger warning—hipsterdom. Which is embarrassing.

With “Thrift Shop,” Macklemore sparked a rare wattage of uppity white crisis not achieved since… the series premiere of Girls earlier the same year. That was 2012. Four years later, after having juxed Compton hip-hop apostle Kendrick Lamar for a Best Rap Album GRAMMY, Macklemore releases “White Privilege II.” Here we all go again, casting Macklemore’s comically self-obsessive spiral of white guilt, and his belief in selfie-as-anthropology, as somehow wildly distinguishable from the incompetence of the good, white liberals who seem to resent Macklemore—this piña colada popsicle of a rapper—way more dramatically than any actual black people do. It makes sense: a self-preserving person would strangle their doppelgänger, I suppose. If you consult one of those dictionaries with tiny, stipple pictures included next to entries for e.g. purposes, I’m certain you’d find such a portrait of Macklemore next to the entry for “scapegoat.”

(Read Charity’s “Macklemore’s ‘White Privilege II’ is an Amazing Case Study in White Guilt” here.)

Kara Brown, Staff Writer, Jezebel

We live in a world of rationalized hypocrisy, but one where hypocritical actions can also be useful. I imagine that many white liberals see too much of themselves in Macklemore and to identify with him is to admit their own hypocrisy. To perhaps feel guilty about your white privilege while knowing that there are many times when you don’t even attempt to challenge it and perhaps even enjoy it—just like I’m sure Macklemore enjoys all the money he’s made.

It feels hypocritical to denounce your white privilege while releasing a song and enjoying a career facilitated by that exact privilege. It’s hypocritical to try to spark a dialogue between white people but one that in many ways requires the input and work of people of color. On some level, it is hypocritical as a white man to shine light on issues facing black people by discussing how it affects and bothers you.

It’s also rather annoying. No one wants to be that “woke” white person on Twitter saying, “Hey guys, that song from that rapper you’ve all been clowning on?I think he made some good points actually that really spoke to my own relationship with my white privilege.” Whatever qualities irritate them about Macklemore, white liberals are forced to examine those same tendencies within themselves when listening to “White Privilege II.” It’s coming to terms with the fact that yes, the earnest attempts to be down with black culture can come across as corny and no, a hashtag about white experiences probably won’t move the Black Lives Matter movement forward. Therefore, if they open a dialogue about all the ways they’ve exploited their privilege or bungled their attempts at allyship, they potentially open themselves up to the similar scrutiny and ridicule that Macklemore faced from the exact community he’s trying to support.

Clover Hope, Staff Writer, Jezebel

The opinions I’ve read on “White Privilege II” all seem to agree this is a poor song that’s at least commendable for its effort. I had little desire to dissect it, or to listen to it once or ever again. Macklemore said he kept asking himself: “Why am I making this song?” Why? is what I wondered, too, while listening. Why. Ultimately, he claims he felt a responsibility as a popular rap artist to engage with himself and with “the people that are listening to our music.” I take this to mean the song is “for” his white fan base. This is Macklemore being in his head. And giving us mediocre white art. So the basic answer to why white liberals/critics “fear” (or rather, avoid engaging with) it is because it’s a Macklemore song about whiteness. And that’s a challenging thing to write about when you’re not often confronted with that task, in comparison to critics of color who (along with our white peers) are very often compelled to confront (sometimes bad) art that reflects our reality.

It’s also just not a great song. I have yet to love a Macklemore song. I suspect he’s done at least a little soul-searching and self-reflection. I’m sure he cares on some level about Black Lives Matter and cultural appropriation in his own egotistical, pandering way, and that this is his internal conflict intended to initiate a meaningful conversation between white people about white people. I assume the idea, for the white liberals we’re addressing, is that this type of self-examination is not speaking to them, and so they’re far too removed from its message. But isn’t the lack of dissection exactly what the song is about?

Conveniently, I just finished reading James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, where he writes: “White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this—which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never—the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.” “The Negro problem,” as in America’s racial inequality. The point is white people need to feel the burden for things to change. Jamila Woods kinda mirrored this in our Jezebel interview, talking about the burden of explanation: “I was thinking about, in general, in conversations around race, the burden on people of color to explain and have all the airtime,” she said.

Macklemore is in some way feeling the burden. He’s responded to the assumption that people don’t want to hear a white guy whining about white problems by being both fearless and annoying and doing some form of explanation. Justin Charity had a great line in his Complex piece: “In lieu of absolution or action, Macklemore aspires to wokeness.” Are other white people increasing in wokeness because of this? Is there a white kid who heard it and said, “Damn”? I don’t know. They would have to explain so themselves.

Hamilton Nolan, Interim Deputy Editor, Gawker

My general thought on Macklemore is he could be a decent MC if he didn’t rhyme about all the shit he rhymes about, which is to say, if he had the same voice and flow but was in fact a different person. (It would still be fine if he was white.) My specific thought on this song I think was best summed up by Greg Howard’s headline, “Macklemore’s Problem Is That Macklemore Is Bad.” So I guess I don’t really feel obligated to have a take on a wack song. Talking about race in hip hop is fine and white rappers talking about race is fine but as with everything in hip hop it can’t be wack and that’s the test that this incredibly long ass overly earnest song failed. If I am looking for someone to educate me on racial issues I would rather read James Baldwin than listen to Macklemore anyhow.

Greg Howard, Staff Writer, Deadspin:

As a friend of many white liberals, I can say with certainty that white liberals aren’t afraid of anything. Many aren’t cowed or confused by the term “white privilege,” and I’ve found that generally, the problem is more often getting fearless white liberals to reckon with white privilege beyond merely acknowledging it is a thing that almost definitely exists.

This is precisely why Macklemore’s song, “White Privilege II,” is so bad. Macklemore is a white liberal, and his acknowledgement of his own white privilege is laudable insofar as it’s better to believe black people who have spoken about white privilege for hundreds of years than not. But Macklemore’s song has already come and gone, because it is bankrupt of any real substance. In it, Macklemore is responding to his critics while addressing his fans, many of whom are already white liberals who more or less accept the idea of white privilege. But this isn’t a rock song. This isn’t a country song. This isn’t going to be played at a Trump rally. This song, like all of his songs in which he aligns himself with one oppressed minority or another, isn’t meant to reach any new audiences or change anyone’s mind. He is saying to people who believe in white privilege that he, too, believes in white privilege. Macklemore never calls for any action at all, and he definitely never challenges his fans to do anything about white privilege; he merely asserts triumphantly that he is aware of his own. This isn’t a brave, or groundbreaking, or challenging song. It is a pandering and crappy one.

The thing about this kind of song is that it is precisely mirrors the lite, white liberalism that you find amongst well-intentioned people likeMacklemore fans and Bernie Sanders stans so often enrages people of color. It simply is not enough to signal you acknowledge your white (or straight or male) privilege. This should be the baseline, the start of a conversation that ends with white people making strides to make the world better for other people, rather than the finish. But it’s not, because to do so takes empathy and sacrifice for others, two traits rare even among nominal allies. Macklemore isn’t sacrificing anything by acknowledging his white privilege, and isn’t even displaying meaningful empathy. “White Privilege II” is an empty gesture being bandied about as something else. This is enraging to black people who are enraged about the injustice of white privilege. Some of these black people are writers, and so they wrote. White liberals, however only paused long enough to, in the span of one or two tweets, signal they were aware of their privilege, dismiss any real conversations happening around “White Privilege II,” and move on.

(Read Howard’s “Macklemore’s Problem is that Macklemore is Bad” here):

Contact the author at [email protected].

Image via AP

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