It is a privilege to eat Ben and Jerry’s newest incredible flavor Tonight Dough and watch Viola Davis be brilliant playing A.K. on How to Get Away with Murder. It is power that Macklemore, or my white ice cream loving self, can steal from other people’s heritages and exploit other folks’ work, and still get rich, famous and praised.
Last weekend I was sitting on the floor of my apartment, waiting, with the rest of Nashville, Tennessee for the snow to melt and the roads to no longer be impossibly ice skatable. I was scrolling Facebook wishing I had my childhood Vermont snow suit so I could go outside and lay on the ground and watch the sky fall onto my face, and my best friend sent me a link to our Thrift Shop rapper’s new song with a short prediction “everyone’s going to be talking about this next week.”
My knee jerk reaction to Macklemore’s White Privilege II was to deeply furrow my eyebrows, because dissing Mackelmore is a kind of a cardinal rule of well, being awake. My next reaction was “damn, he went in”. He says the words White Supremacy, he talks about racism being systemic, he questions his relationship to a music deeply rooted in Black musical and oral tradition, he critiques his when-convenient involvement in Black liberation movements. Macklemore tries to do some of the work all of us white folks should be doing, that always too easily impresses too many folks. After feeling discomfort in my weak congratulations, I moved on to “he better give the proceeds of that record to Black Lives Matter Seattle”.
But ultimately I think the Macklemore narrative is kind of simple—he is trying to do work all of us white people (especially those of us who love to talk about white privilege) should expect of ourselves and eachother; he, nor I should get any gold stars; and I hope his attempt at messy anti-power work encourages other folks to do their version of that work as well. What is more complicated, and interesting to me, is not our boy’s individual attempts at reckoning with white privilege, but the very framing of whiteness-as-privilege itself. I wonder if actually it may be too simple of a word to be helpful for liberation. And, after all, I do believe we are all trying to get free.
When I sat on the floor and looked up the official definition for privilege on my MacBook’s red Dictionary the phrases special right, rare opportunity and pleasure, are used to define the word. I wondered, as I listened to the white boy poorly rhyme, if this is really the most useful word to understand violence and inequality.
I wonder when I, or Macklemore, use the term white privilege we actually mean white power. And I wonder how framing power as a privilege obscures its inherent violence.
Whiteness and white power give white people greater access to resources that sustain life, such as housing, food, medicine and employment—and resources that foster a prosperity that allows people to have more choices—such as access to affordable and quality education and employment. Whiteness and white power protect white folks from many forms of state sanctioned terror and scrutiny such as police brutality, profiling and extremely punitive laws and sentencing people of color are subjected to. Whiteness and white power allow folks to be seen as understandably imperfect and therefore worthy of second chances.
Not for a moment do I intend or wish to diminish the impact that access to resources, and protection from unjustified punishment and violence, has on one’s ability to live.
And, while there is a material and emotional advantage to not being deemed inherently violent, or criminal, or unworthy, there is also a deep spiritual and psychic cost of being the gate keepers of power, when the reality of that power doesn’t just give white people basic human rights, but actively denies non-white peoples of what should be inalienable resources and protections.
The history of white America is one of perpetrated murder, sexual violence, theft, and imprisonment. I can’t imagine a history, or an ancestry I want less. I wonder how honestly exploring the real cost of being the “benefactors” of terror and exploitation would complicate the idea that it is simply a privilege to be white. I am not positioning ourselves as racially oppressed or disenfranchised but I am interested in the reality that whiteness is also damaging to us, white folks.
I hear white people say sometimes that the biggest challenge in addressing white privilege is that white folks just don’t want to give anything up—as if everything inherent to being white is something to protect. I wonder if we stopped calling the reality of whiteness in America white privilege and we started calling it white power it would be easier to talk about the emotional and spiritual deficit, as well as the violence, within white America. Would it make it more possible to actually believe in everything that is to be gained, not lost, from allowing a violent, dishonest, rickety foundation to crumble, leaving us no other option than to rebuild?
Whiteness has been created by brilliant and violent people who decided that they were going to invent human hierarchy simply because they could—they had more guns and dirty belief in empire. And then those same folks published books and wrote down history and made laws and ran the media and the courts and the police. Macklemore and I were born into a power structure that has tried to convince us that we are owed everything we want, regardless of whom we must erase or ignore or steal from or exploit to get it.
I don’t think whiteness is a privilege. I think it is a power that gives me stuff and protects me from various form of violence. It encourages me to not see other folks as whole. It also encourages me to not understand myself as whole either—how could I be, when my communities and my people are built upon the degradation of folks who have never ever hurt us?
Ben Haggarty—cool superhero name. I think we are desperately scared of messing up. But we’re hundreds of years deep into messing up. And I’m probably wrong, but I think we might be using the wrong words to try to talk through how to stop being ghosts. And not the good kind, but you know that.