“White Privilege II”: old news or important step forward?

graphic: Nina Zhong

graphic: Nina Zhong

“What if… I’m aware of my privilege and do nothing at all.”

Macklemore’s single “White Privilege II” is a disoriented, confused, and ineffective effort to bring light to a serious issue affecting not only the music industry but society as a whole—white privilege. The message itself is nothing new, but what makes the song so interesting is the fact that Macklemore—a popular, mainstream, white rapper—is handling a topic that many people have trouble talking about. He talks about the idea that black citizens have been systemically and institutionally oppressed by both the government and society, that being white comes with a set of privileges. These inherent advantages include the ability to walk down the street without being labeled “dangerous” by police, not be afraid of encountering racists, and not worry about others being afraid of you. Macklemore argues that white privilege is very alive and probably one of the biggest obstacles to overcome before the larger issue of institutional racism can be properly addressed.

But there is nothing significant or eye-opening about Macklemore’s portrayal of white privilege, because it contains no useful insights. Instead, he just reiterates the definition of white privilege, its history with rap, and other races’ opinions on the matter. He doesn’t mention what any legitimate solutions to white privilege could be, how to properly address it, or how to talk about it with others. The song is just a stretched out public service announcement screaming that such a problem exists. In fact, Macklemore’s suggestions for change come off as corny or unaware, as he thinks that, for example, his “[reading] an article” will actually help. These half-hearted attempts detract from Macklemore’s credibility and from his voice as one of the few white rappers addressing white privilege. He spends too much time on the outsider’s point of view on the whole issue; as a result, the song seems to show that he doesn’t have any opinions on the situation as a whole.

But the truth is that Macklemore does, in fact, possess strong sentiments against white privilege when he argues that “white supremacy is our country’s lineage, designed for us to be indifferent.” He even recognizes his own abuse of his privilege, recounting times he stole ideas from black artists and looked back without consequence. But this perspective is overshadowed by the apathetic voice he maintains for most of the song. One of the only useful bits of the song is an analogy comparing the Black Lives Matter movement to a burning house, as “if there was a subdivision and a house was on fire. The fire department wouldn’t show up and start putting water on all houses because all houses matter. They would show up and they would turn their water on the house that was burning because that’s the house that needs the help the most.” These short segments help solidify Macklemore’s understanding of the the topic because he makes it evident that white privilege and abuse is indeed a problem in the recording industry. He  recognizes that he “[is] many steps ahead to begin with.”

However, Macklemore isn’t taking advantage of his position as a popular white rapper in order to get his opinions across. The song is too long and drawn-out, so it isn’t going to be played on radio stations where the majority of people can hear it and learn about the problem at hand. Instead, it panders only to people who are conscious about the debate and not those who really need to be hearing the song. Since the song provides no new ideas or solutions, it becomes useless to its only demographic. Had the song been catchier and more radio-friendly, like many of Kendrick Lamar and Killer Mike’s songs, it would have attracted a larger audience that could spread the word about white privilege. Not only this, but Macklemore should focus more on new ideas rather than recapitulating the details of this issue as if his listeners don’t know anything about it.

Regardless of this, Macklemore should be praised for taking the initiative among white rappers in discussing the problems of white privilege. The message itself is incredibly important and a worthwhile idea that needs further discussion, but Macklemore simply fails to effectively spread the word about white privilege to the majority of Americans. The song is a clumsy step toward a more equal music industry and society, but nonetheless, it is still a step in the right direction.

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