My Pandemic Playlist #3: “White Privilege II” by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, featuring Jamila Woods
Perhaps the best way for white people to celebrate Black History Month is to discuss with each other our white privilege, income inequality and institutional racism — and how to bring it to an end.
“White Privilege II” is a nine-minute hip-hop hit from six years ago that is part agit-prop, part thought-poem, and part audio-doc by the white hip-hop duo Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, featuring Black Chicago singer Jamila Woods.
I have this song on my Pandemic Playlist because it’s an uncomfortable piece of music. It questions not only the obscenity of white privilege but also the very existence of the song itself and its white duo who are performing it. It is, for them, a deep dive into the theft of Black culture and the white relationship to Black Lives Matter.
This is a rare attempt at white humility and a willingness to ignite a discussion that is much needed. Not a discussion of faux liberal guilt or white crocodile tears into a frothy latte, but one of seriously copping to and acknowledging the actual day-to-day white supremacy that runs this country, the kind you (white people) and I (white guy) share ample benefits from. The kinds of things we don’t even notice, but are self-aware enough to appreciate how society’s order makes our lives (the ones of us who have more than $500 or $5,000 to our name), well, somewhat carefree.
One year, back before film festivals ended, I found myself on my way to the Toronto Film Festival and sitting on the Air Canada prop plane next to the great Chris Rock. He told me how some film producers had been approaching him to make a film about cops shooting unarmed Black citizens and other abuses of Black people in this country.
“And,” Chris reported to me, “to every one of them I said, ‘Why are you asking me to make this kind of film? We’re not the ones committing the abuse and the racism. Get a white director to show us why white America is doing this to us. That’s the movie I want to see.’
“Of course, that movie won’t get made.”
He paused a beat.
“Unless you, Michael Moore, make it! You’re the one who’d be crazy enough to do it. In fact, that’s what I told one of the studios. ‘Get Michael Moore to make that movie. He will tell us why white power is what makes life hell for the rest of us.’”
He assured me he wasn’t just throwing another burden on my shoulders. “You’re the one (white) filmmaker who already does this. White supremacy, racism, crazy white people — these scenes are in every one of your films. You’re not afraid to piss off the power structure. You make that movie.”
I think Chris’s main point (aside from his personal orders to me) was that there needs to be a large movement amongst white people to go after and disrupt the infrastructure that‘s built and maintained by all of us white people to benefit all of us white people. WE are the problem, and we have to fix it. Yes, I know, nearly 60% of us voted for Trump — twice!
So for the nearly 40% of us who didn’t vote for Trump, how about we spend Black History Month ditching our liberal platitudes and MLK half-quotes. Instead, let’s spend the month (and the rest of the year) ending white privilege by changing the rules, the traditions and the laws, and truly committing ourselves to living in a different and better world. Radical empathy is necessary for us to be real changemakers. Less talk about wishing for Obama to return and more action by each of us to integrate each of our neighborhoods, make every school in our districts equally brilliant, make a true living wage the law in all of our cities and states, and each of us demanding those who participate in all-white coups receive the necessary restraints to protect the rest of us.
Give a listen to “White Privilege II.” Each time I hear this piece by Macklemore, Lewis and Woods, I hear something new. This is what good art does. Don’t judge his white-think, just listen. Then, if you’re white, make a list of what you can do — not for Black people, but what you can do about yourself and where you live, work or go to school. C’mon, we all quietly know how the game is rigged, we know where the keys are kept, we know where the not-so-invisible “Whites Only” signs are placed. We also know where the money is, who has it, where it’s hidden, and — wait! — why the average white worker now has less and less and less. Exactly. You know what’s going on here. And Black Americans know you know.
So the only way to stop it is with your brothers and sisters of color. The 40% of us white voters who are progressive, along with the 35%+ of the electorate that is Black, Hispanic, Arab and/or Muslim, Indigenous or Asian. When white billionaires and banks, white CEOs and Supremacists, see us locking arms and sharing a table and a polling place together — well, watch out.