When I heard that Macklemore had released a song called “White Privilege II,” I’ll admit that my initial reaction was to roll my eyes. As someone who has witnessed the rise and fall of Macklemore in the public eye, from gentrifying thrift shopping to being inappropriately considered by some to be a saviour of the LGBTQ+ community with “Same Love,” Macklemore’s so-called allyship has been cause for polarized debates on the issue of dominant voices speaking about marginalized people’s narratives.
“White Privilege II” is, essentially, a song about Macklemore. It’s a song about the role that he plays in the struggle for racial equality for black Americans and other people of colour, and it’s a song in which he’s clearly trying to acknowledge the insidious power structures and privileges that lift him up as a white man and condone violence and oppression against black people. Macklemore starts off by admitting that the movement he is supporting is not a movement for him or about him – he is at least self-aware enough to realize that he resembles the oppressor far more than he does the oppressed, and that his presence begs the question, “Should I even be here marching?”
However, in the second verse of the song, “White Privilege II” starts to collapse on itself. The turning point is Macklemore’s calling-out of white artists like Miley Cyrus and Iggy Azalea who have been guilty of cultural appropriation. In perhaps the greatest recent instance of the pot calling the kettle black, white rapper Macklemore thought it was wise to call out other white rapper Iggy Azalea, pointing a finger at her for appropriating the style of music she performs. Don’t get me wrong, Iggy Azalea should be called out a thousand times over for the rampant racism and appropriation present in her music. But Macklemore, too, has profited from the same appropriation of rap, a historically black art form rooted in struggles against oppression and created specifically as a form of expression unique to American blackness. Macklemore has built his empire in the same “fascist and backward” (his words, not mine) manner as Iggy Azalea – but does he acknowledge that his money is just as dirty as hers? No.
Those who face marginalizing experiences as part of their everyday know them better than anyone else.
“White Privilege II” may be Macklemore’s genuine attempt to practice allyship after years of legitimate criticism over his silence on the Black Lives Matter movement, but it meets the same fate as many similar acts of white allyship taking place at the forefront of American media and in everyday life. As sound as Macklemore’s intentions may be, his methods end up reinforcing the dominance of white voices over minority voices on matters of racism. His one song will no doubt garner more page hits and likes than the efforts of many activists of colour who have the same message to spread – if not a better one. Being a white ally in a social justice movement is like being invited to a screaming contest where you’re given a microphone and several loudspeakers, while your competitor has laryngitis.
Leonardo DiCaprio, another popular white man known for sporting this same brand of whitewashed ‘allyship,’ found himself in a similar situation at the Golden Globes in early January. In his acceptance speech after winning Best Actor for The Revenant, DiCaprio spoke about the experiences of Indigenous peoples being exploited for land and capital. “I want to share this award with all the First Nations people represented in this film and all the Indigenous communities around the world. It is time we recognize your history and protect your Indigenous lands from corporate interests and people who are out there to exploit them.”
While DiCaprio’s words were likely sincere, they garnered mixed reactions from Indigenous people and activists around the world. While some applauded him for taking the time to acknowledge Indigenous struggles, others pointed out that his efforts were minimal at best, and applauding him for expressing basic levels of decency results in the continued elevation of white voices while Indigenous voices continue to be ignored. In the days after his speech, DiCaprio donated $3.2 million to Indigenous groups in Ecuador whose rainforests are currently being exploited by massive petroleum extraction efforts. This act was certainly far more effective than his pretty words on stage had been. That being said, there is still more that he could do to elevate Indigenous voices with the power and sway he holds in Hollywood.
DiCaprio’s efforts have been compared to one noteworthy, but little-known, incident of white allyship in Hollywood’s history. In 1973, Marlon Brando was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of character Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather. However, upon winning the award, Brando was not to be seen – instead, in his place came Native American activist and actress Sacheen Littlefeather, who went on Brando’s behalf to reject the award in protest of Hollywood’s treatment of Native American characters on screen. Littlefeather was met with open hostility, and was not allowed to complete the speech – instead, she was ostracized from Hollywood in the aftermath, and was the target of mockery and hatred for decades after the incident.
Despite the vicious fallout from Littlefeather’s appearance at the Oscars, which was unfortunately to be expected in the climate of racism and prejudice against Native Americans, Brando’s act can be seen as a better model of allyship – he took the opportunity not to speak for Native Americans, but instead to give Native American activists a platform to talk about issues in their communities. Brando also took concrete action in support of the cause – he was an active presence in the Native American civil rights movement, including the Wounded Knee incident of 1973, one of the largest violent civil rights clashes in contemporary Native American history.
Being a white ally in a social justice movement is like being invited to a screaming contest where you’re given a microphone and several loudspeakers, while your opponent has laryngitis.
The priority for white allies should always be to make space for racialized people to speak about their experiences of marginalization, rather than talking over them. However, many activists acknowledge a truth that contributes to what some consider the necessity of white allyship: the fact that many white people are more comfortable listening to other white people. Being confronted about race and racism by racialized people is said to feel, to many white people, like a personal attack or accusation.
The desire to temper the voices of people of colour with white voices is not exclusive to mass media; it can be seen as close to home as McGill residences. During Race Project, a new series of mandatory workshops on race, a white facilitator was required to be present alongside a black, Indigenous, or person of colour (BIPOC) facilitator for all workshops. This was, largely, to lighten the burden of emotional labour on racialized facilitators, but also served to assuage the feelings of white students who may be made uncomfortable by discussions of their privilege and oppressive structures. However, in situations like these, the question then becomes: is white comfort being prioritized over the agency of racialized people? And is it valid to perpetuate systems that silence racialized people to make your message more palatable to white audiences?
For many, the short answer to these questions could be yes and no, respectively. These answers are valid. In conducting the deeper conversation about the nature of white presence in anti-racist movements, the most important factor to keep in mind is that the voices of racialized people should be made the priority – those who face marginalizing experiences as part of their everyday lives know them better than anyone else. It is crucial that white allies listen to the instruction and guidance that racialized people may choose to provide, and that racialized people have the agency to be treated as they want to be treated, not how white allies believe they should be treated.
Minority Report is a column that deconstructs racism through an intersectional lens. Inori Roy-Khan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.