The artist Macklemore recently released a song called ‘White Privilege II’ that was immediately received with mixed opinions from fans and fellow artists alike. For those needing context, Macklemore is a white rapper that emerged a few years ago when his song ‘Thrift Shop’ blew up on the radio. He is also notable for his pro-LGBTQ song ‘Same Love,’ and his apology to Kendrick Lamar for winning the Grammy over Kendrick’s album, ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city.’
The song is Macklemore’s exploration of his position and privilege in a society that often favors white skin, his acknowledgment his privilege and musings over his discomfort and sense of “is this okay for me to do?” Personally, there is nothing wrong with this. Is it out of the blue? Sure. But is it worth getting mad or offended over? No, not really. Macklemore has caught a lot of heat in the past for his success, with arguments arising that his whiteness and resulting palatability allows him to succeed where other, arguably better, rappers might not. Many white rappers and musicians who appropriate or borrow from black culture have received backlash for their lack of public support for black social causes, such as #blacklivesmatter. Macklemore, however, has been seen in protests and appears to be pretty aware of his privilege to the point that it gets awkward when he seems to constantly apologize for being white.
But if Macklemore expected resounding praise from the black twitter population, he was so very mistaken. I should preface that, naturally, Twitter consists of a diverse body of peoples and opinions, not all who form a unified worldview on issues like this. But apparently there was enough backlash to get a Buzzfeed article out of it, so I suppose it’s worth discussing. Claims arose that Macklemore was exploiting the race and diversity issue and that his concern was insincere because ultimately, his white privilege would ensure that he would profit off of the song, whereas other black artists speaking on the same issue in the past have been cast aside as “bitter” or “playing the race card.” While there is an aspect of truth to this argument, the question remains, what, then, do people really want? White artists are often criticized for not taking part in social movements, but then accused of insincerity when they do. We criticize apparent allies for not acknowledging their white privilege, but mock these efforts when they appear, leaving no space for any real progress.
Ultimately, I believe that a good number of people simply don’t know where to put their anger. The problem isn’t with Macklemore and most people recognize this. Is it Macklemore’s fault that fewer people listen to J Cole Jazmine Sullivan than Macklemore and Adele? Of course not; White privilege isn’t something that can be attributed to an individual. Like racism, it is a systemic issue.
The issue of diversity and predominance of white performers in entertainment spilled into the acting sphere, resulting in the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, noting the lack of diversity in the 2016 Academy Awards nomination list. Deniers of the problem claimed that the Oscars aren’t racist and that perhaps the black actors this year just weren’t as good as the white ones. Some went as far as to claim that giving nominations just to hit a sort of color quota would, in itself, be racist. Now, first of all, there’s been an odd focus on black actors whenever the topic of inclusivity arises. Under-representation is real for all People of Colour, and not just black actors. It’s important to remember the exclusion of Asian, Latin American, Middle Eastern, South Asian, and Native American actors, and not solely place a focus on black actors. But despite the fact that I think Straight Outta Compton deserved more Oscar nods, or that Michael B. Jordan deserved a nomination WAY more than Sylvester Stalone did, the point might be valid. At the end of the day, the opinion on performance is relative. Someone might think Jason Mitchell’s performance was just average, and while that opinion is very clearly wrong, it is still valid. In reality, the majority of people tweeting about the Oscars haven’t seen the majority of movies up for an award. So how can an argument be made about who deserved a nominated in place of another?
While it is true that the academy lacks diversity in both voters and nominees, that’s not the only issue. Compared to the vast number of white directors, actors, and producers in Hollywood, the pool for people of color remains incredibly shallow. Even if you were to suggest actors of color that could have been nominated, you’d stumble after about six names. And that’s not because these actors aren’t talented, it’s because the roles aren’t there. The solution shouldn’t solely consist of campaigns for the nomination of more non-white actors; it should be fighting for the creation of more roles and opportunities: Fixing the system and not the result.
Ultimately the issue of race in the entertainment industry is incredibly complex and multi-faceted. In the same way, it cannot be fixed by changing one aspect of an awards show, the brunt of the blame cannot be placed on an individual artist. Macklemore’s statements might be unoriginal, but he is hardly the devil he is painted to be. Lasting change can only come about through trial and error, and as longs and these artists continue to try, we as the viewing public should be a little more forgiving of the ways in which they might err.