By now you've heard of Macklemore's "White Privilege II." Maybe you haven't actually heard "White Privilege II," I can't blame anyone for skipping a nearly nine-minute magnum opus of racial self-reflection, but you've undoubtedly heard of it. It's everything you'd assume a song called "White Privilege" would sound like from Macklemore: almost painfully earnest, a litany of questions that question his questions, an attempt to step out of the spotlight that of course places him firmly in the spotlight.
You don't need me to break down the abyss of complexity that is Macklemore's place in hip-hop and popular culture, you clearly have an internet connection, it's been done. But if there's anything resembling a consensus about "White Privilege II," it's been that while Black people won't hear anything they don't already know, if it prompts conversation among White people that could only be a good thing. Unfortunately, I don't think that's a particularly well-founded hope. Having spent literally every second of my life as a White person in America I've learned a few things about White people in America, and as a general rule White people in America do not sit down with a group of their friends and kick off a conversation with, "So, did you guys hear that new Macklemore song? I don't know about you, but it really made me question some things." Most White people are simply going to ignore the song because it's easy to ignore and it's going to take much more than even the most powerful of Mackles to push them from their comfort zone into some of the most treacherous territory imaginable.
And if you hoped that at least White music writers would wade into waters the average person wouldn't, that largely hasn't happened either, not yet. As I've looked through many of music's more prominent sites, I've seen that a simultaneously shocking and not-at-all-surprising percentage of the in-depth commentary on "White Privilege II" has come from Black writers.
Complex's piece was written by Justin Charity, Noisey's was penned by Craig Jenkins, Fader's came from Hanif-Willis Abdurraqib and HipHopDX's from Andre Grant. XXL and The Source have so far declined to write any real commentary on the song, electing instead to report on the reactions of others, and Rolling Stone's post similarly avoids any real commentary. Pitchfork's reaction was done by kris ex, Stereogum's by Collin Robinson, Vulture's by Dee Lockett and my Twitter timeline has recommended additional articles by Michell C Clark and David D but few others. So while the internet is a far vaster place than I can encompass here and I'm sure some have tackled the song on a level beyond mere reporting, for the most part, there's been a near silence from White writers in the wake of Macklemore's latest.
I have to assume the reason so many White writers are seemingly avoiding "White Privilege II" is that same reason I avoided writing this because to write meaningfully about this song is to place yourself inside the same treacherous labyrinth Macklemore's trying to escape. Get it wrong and you'll be reviled. Get it right and....there really is no "right." Even with the best of intentions and most aware of awarenesses, you'll still be hit with charges of self-congratulation and appropriation that you'll be unable to defend yourself from. No, the smart move is clearly to fire off some tweets and sit this one out.
And if you are White and find yourself writing about this song, the move is obviously too, as we say in the journalism profession, thinkpiece the shit out of it. You're not Macklemore, so make it about Macklemore, make it about ideas, concepts, anything to put some distance between yourself and what you write. That way if anyone attacks your piece, they'll be attacking your piece, not you. Almost impressively, both Spencer Koprnhaber at The Atlantic and Forrest Whickman at Slate, two of the only White writers I've been able to find offering in-depth commentary, managed to write approximately 1,000 words each on every facet of a song titled "White Privilege" without once writing two simple words—"I'm white."
Time and time again, especially over the last two years, Black writers have been pressed into action when they'd assuredly rather be writing about anything but another dead Black body, another acquittal. Sometimes they wrote to try to explain their lives to the White world, sometimes they wrote only for themselves, but it often seemed like they felt an obligation to go once more into the fray. I've worried that not contributing writing of my own might make me seem complicity silent, but I've largely chosen to use whatever influence I have to point people towards those Black writers—the last thing the world needs is White rap blogger's thoughts on police brutality. But if there was ever an open door, an opportunity, for White music writers to reflect publicly, openly and honestly on what it means to be White and privileged, to pick up the baton, this was it. So here I go; run Forrest, run.
I've spent the last 72 hours debating how to write this piece, I've probably subconsciously been writing this piece in my head for years, and I'm no closer to cracking the code than I was when I started, not without drifting off into that ultimately meaningless thinkpiece territory. So instead of any analysis or commentary, I'm going to share a story, because at least my own life is the one thing I know is true and real.
Junior year of high school, I'm behind the wheel of my sweet, sweet Pontiac 6000 LE with the passenger's side door that only opens from the inside. I'm speeding. Not Fast & Furious level speeding, but undeniably speeding. If I remember correctly, the cop tagged me going 48 in a 30 zone. The cop. That cop. Fat, mustached, he seemed like he was pulled directly out of a Law & Order casting call, right down to his name—Officer King. I came around the corner at a svelte 48 mph and out of the corner of my eye saw Officer King leaning against his motorcycle, radar gun gripped tight by sausage fingers. I immediately hit the brakes and dropped down to a pedestrian 30 mph, praying he'd see that I'd been properly scared into law abiding and let me drive on - my prayers were not answered. As soon as I saw those flashing lights in the rearview I pulled over and prepared to eat the speeding ticket I deserved.
Officer King had other ideas. Thinking I was in for a ticket and a lecture, I was almost shocked to see King slide off his bike and come running at the car, a lead pipe of a flashlight in his right hand even though it was the middle of the day. In my memory, he had to hold his belt up as he ran, but that's such a cliched image I'm not sure if it really happened. That flashlight came knocking on my driver's side door as he demanded to know why I had run. "Why'd you run? Why'd you run?" He kept repeating it like some sort of furious prayer. Run? I slowed down when I first saw him, pulled over immediately as soon as he was in my rearview mirror.
"If I search this car I'm going to find drugs, right? Get out of the car," he ordered. Up until now I had sat there speechless and reeling, but now, hopped up on a dangerous mixture of teenage righteousness, a liberal upbringing, and adrenaline, my mouth fired back. I hadn't run, he didn't have any reasonable suspicion that I had any drugs in the car (I didn't), and so no, I wasn't getting out of the car and no, he couldn't search it. And then, in a blur, I found my sternum pressed against the hood of my car and charges of evading an officer hanging over me like a guillotine.
Weeks later Officer King failed to appear at the preliminary hearing. I explained my side of the story to a judge, prostrated myself appropriately, and the charge was dismissed. It was that simple. I don't know why King was a no-show, maybe he knew he was wrong, maybe he had been called away to something more important, or maybe he just didn't give a shit. Regardless, the feeling of relief was knee-weakening. Even that young I sensed how a conviction could have derailed my life for years, and the lesson I walked away with is just how easily, almost at a whim, the police and legal system could unjustly lay ruin to a life.
Years later, as I watched the Ferguson protests unfold, a new truth sunk in about that old experience. I wasn't just lucky to have had the charges dismissed, I was lucky to be alive. I was lucky, privileged, to be White. If I was Black with a cop charging up to my car, furious that I had "run" from him, would I have ended up like Michael Brown or Walter Scott or Eric Garner or Sandra Bland or Freddie Gray or Tamir Rice or Laquan McDonald or that teenage girl at Texas pool party or or or or or or or? Or maybe I wouldn't have been beaten or killed, maybe I would have languished in jail for three years without ever even standing trial like Kalief Browder.
And even more powerfully, as I watched Black parents grapple with how to protect their children from police brutality, I realized that I could still continue to tell my daughters that if they ever find themselves in danger they should run to a police officer, convinced any cop would be more likely to help them than harm them. My most powerful fear, the one that makes my throat close, is that my children will be harmed. To not fear for your child's life at the hands of the police, to fundamentally trust that justice would be served—what an undeniable, heart-shattering privilege.
While that experience with Officer King was personally powerful it's also extreme, far easier to write about because it's a story with a neat beginning, middle and end. To list all the other large and small ways my life has been made easier because I'm White would be a far more exhaustive, endless and messy business. Almost everyone who would hire me for a job looks like me, I can buy Band-Aids without wondering if they'll match my skin color, I can ensure that my family is able to drink clean water, I can easily avoid talking about race whenever I choose. It's a long list. A very long list.
In my ceaseless experience being White, when White people recoil at the idea of their own privilege, it's because they're so profoundly unused to being categorized. From our earliest days, we're told that we're special, unique snowflakes, that all of our dreams are possible, that the only limits placed on us are the limits we place on ourselves. We expect to be recognized as a purely individual human being without any connection to race so completely, so absolutely, that it never even occurs to us that we hold that expectation— all fishes unaware they're even swimming in water. And so when living in that bubble of individuality, of course, it feels unjust to be held accountable for the actions of others. Certainly, we don't bear any responsibility for the events of history, we didn't personally own slaves, we didn't personally shoot that boy. And we didn't choose to be White. To blame us for the privileges that automatically come along with the fact of our birth is unfair. Being inescapably tied to millions of people you might not share anything but an artificial racial construct with is fundamentally absurd, but it's the very tangible reality of every person of color in this country, and so White people need to fucking get over themselves. I'm working on getting over myself. None of us are innocent.
Guilt is a good thing, it means acknowledging you're a part of a wrong, but it's only useful as a starting point, not an end. Macklemore seems to be searching for some magic combination of notes and lyrics that will absolve him of his own sins and the original American sins of his Whiteness. In many ways, I'm doing the same. But the truth is that the debt I owe for my privilege is far too large to ever be paid back, and as quickly as I might be able to withdraw from it, more accumulates. I can listen completely, be perfectly enlightened, march, protest, raise my children to be better, but I'm under no illusion that anything I ever do will ever be enough, this article certainly isn't enough.
The truth is I don't know what to do, I don't know how to fix this. I only know that the worst thing is to hide, which isn't bravery, it's non-cowardice. And so if my burden is a life spent attempting to atone for the countless benefits of being White and always failing, that's no burden at all.