Yesterday, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis released “White Privilege II”–a song about the reality of white privilege and racism in the U.S. It’s a song about how white pop culture loves to use the music, clothes, dances and culture of African Americans … but dismisses the #BlackLivesMatter movement and don’t seem to care about injustice against people of color.
It’s the white rapper’s confession, and a call to his white fans to please, please unplug your ears and listen. To summarize the lyrics, Macklemore says: I care, but I don’t know what to do. And I see how I’m benefiting from this–I’m part of the problem. I don’t have the answers. But can we please just start talking about this? Can we please at least acknowledge that is is a problem?
The response: White pop culture is blatantly refusing to listen. When people of color talk about racism, they are quoted out of context, vilified, and painted in a negative light. But when a white male celebrity like Macklemore talks about racism, I wondered, would white culture listen?
The answer, it appears, is no. They won’t listen. They’ll quote him out of context, vilify him, and paint him in a negative light. That is what white pop culture does when faced with the problem of racism.
When the mainstream media reported this song, they left race out. The story, told over and over again, wasn’t Macklemore releases a song about white privilege but Macklemore disses Miley Cyrus in new song!
I first heard about this song yesterday through this headline:
Nothing about race. Nothing about white privilege. Nothing about ‘Hey, I know this might be uncomfortable, but Macklemore says we might want to have a conversation about race, because racism might not be as nonexistent as we thing it is.’ Nope, it was about how Macklemore called out Miley Cyrus and Iggy Azalea for making money off black culture, while not saying anything when the entire black community feels like they can’t breathe.
But this wasn’t just one article. Many, many major news outlets reported the song with this angle.
Facebook’s trending topics–that sidebar of news stories that tells me the top 10 stories I need to care about in my day–framed it:
Macklemore and Ryan Lewis: Artists Reference Miley Cyrus and Iggy Azalea in New Song, ‘White Privilege II’
If you’ve heard the song, you know that everyone is getting up in arms about one line. One example in a long list of ways racism still exists today. And this one line is the only part of the conversation they chose to focus on.
Look, I get it. The media did what the media does. They had a news story (celebrity releases new song!) and they reported it through the angle they knew would get the most clicks. If you’re a site and you want clicks, you cover: Celebrity pregnancies, weddings, deaths and breakups. Cute celebrity kids. How much weight women gain when pregnant. How quickly they lose weight afterwards. Feuds, fights, plastic surgery and shocking transformations.
They had a news story and they wanted clicks. So they wrote the story in the way that would get the most traffic. I’m not saying the media is racist and intentionally seeking to silence Macklemore.
No, the pop culture media is working within the confines of the system they’re in, and doing what it takes to best succeed in that pre-established system. They didn’t create the rules of internet storytelling, they’re just trying to do well in the world they’re in. They might not intentionally be seeking to silence Macklemore, but that’s the result of their actions.
They changed the conversation. They made it all about the white people involved, and they labeled Macklemore as a fight-starter. In a world where black kids getting shot is a too-common news story, where black society is trying to tackle the topic of racism, and white society remains staunchly convinced that racism doesn’t exist anymore, Macklemore’s song seeks to start an honest, real, painful-but-necessary conversation about race among white people.
And white media’s response? To promptly change the conversation and direct people away from the song’s message.
It wasn’t everyone. NPR, Vulture, Huffington Post, Jezebel…plenty of sites published think pieces in an effort to look more critically and Macklemore’s song and the conversation he is trying to start.
Even in the clickbait pieces, many authors tried to go deeper. They published the clickbait titles they needed, and in the text of their articles–once they’d done their duty and reported the conflict angle–they tried to elevate the conversation. They tried to talk about race and it’s impact on society.
The problem is: headlines, tweets and Facebook posts are all that most people will read. Many authors tried to go deeper in paragraph 4, but nobody’s really going to notice. People don’t read paragraph 4. They read the headline, skim paragraph 1 and 2 and then click off to the next thing.
The headlines, hooks and social media posts made this a story about rich white people starting fights with other rich white people. And unless an average white American goes searching for anything deeper, this is the only side of the story they are going to see.
And white America will go on in blissful ignorance. Blithely unaware of the depth of the real problem we are facing. Macklemore is trying to start a real, honest dialogue on race.
But will anyone actually take him up on it? Because from what I’ve seen so far, people seem determined to ignore him. In the exact same way they’ve been determined to ignore the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
When it comes to #BlackLivesMatter, a person who stands up and says ‘racism is still an issue’ is ignored–and the media reports, instead, on the clickbait, headline-grabbing conflict. They ignore the discussion and focus only on when the protests turn violent. They put the violence and anger on blast, while ignoring the real issues that caused those feelings.
This is how the media treats #BlackLivesMatter, and this is also how they are treating a popular white man when he attempts to add his voice to the movement.
Nobody gave Macklemore any special treatment. He was cut down and vilified the same way people of color in the #BlackLivesMatter movement have been.
Macklemore threw his voice, his power, his privilege in the ring…and was minimized in the same as everyone else before him was. This song is an important step, a powerful and important step–but unless many other powerful voices, black and white alike, can join him–we’re still just as trapped in a losing battle.
So what’s next? Any other people with influence care to speak up? Or, discouraged by the vitriol of the backlash, and are we just going to give up?