Gyasi Ross Schools Mackelmore: White Privilege, White Guilt, and the Role of White Allies
Anyway, I’d never seen anyone I ever spoke to before more affected than this little white college girl. She demanded, right up in my face, “Don’t you believe there are any good white people?” I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. I told her, “People’s deeds I believe in, Miss -- Not their words.”
-from The Autobiography of Malcom X as told to Alex Haley
Gyasi Ross just dropped a new track that’s already got thousands of people tuned in. I suggest you listen to it free right now on Soundcloud. It’s called White Privilege 3 and it’s a response to another Seattle hip hop artist, Mackelmore - who recently caused a different type of stir with his own track, White Privilege II.
“Mackelmore is simply the latest in a very long line of white liberals who chose to play the white savior role and speak for brown-skinned people instead of providing the platform for us to speak for ourselves,” Gyasi explained.
In the lyrics, Gyasi puts it like this:
“You’re trying to help, but honestly, you’re not. We can speak for ourselves. Pass the mic.”
If you haven’t heard Mackelmore’s song yet, I actually don’t recommend you listen to it. (Nine minutes. Way too long.) I hate to slam the dude because he’s so earnest and he obviously means well, but “means well” doesn’t always cut it. I’ll save you some time and tell you what you need to know:
As he tends to do, Mackelmore is trying really, really hard. The music is somber. The vibe is distressed. It wants to tug at our heart strings. It wants to evoke our emotions. But when you hear the lyrics, you realize that it’s less of a discussion of the injustices that brown people face and more of a cry for help from Mackelmore himself. He wants us to feel sorry for him because he’s not quite comfortable at Black Lives Matter protests. He wants us to feel bad because he’s not sure that he fits in with people of color. The motive is clear. He wants to explicitly separate himself from the likes of Iggy Azalea and any other ignorant white folks. He wants us to know that he’s not like them. He’s Mackelmore, and he’s our friend.
In the end, it’s not about white privilege at all. It’s actually about white guilt, which is more of a personal problem than a grave injustice.
Gyasi’s track tackles all of this and more. He notes that Mackelmore offered way too narrow a definition of white privilege, and felt a responsibility to respond. Mackelmore only understands white privilege through his own limited knowledge of the Black Lives Matter movement, but as Gyasi explains, it’s much further reaching than that.
“I wanted to interject into this conversation because Indigenous people were not included. We were invisible-ized once again,” Gyasi continued, “and with a following as massive and impressionable as Macklemore has, all people of color have a vested interest in making sure that they are not defined out of that conversation.”
Gyasi’s White Privilege 3 doesn’t just offer critique, it also offers solutions. He’ll tell you how somebody actually could serve as a useful white ally, as opposed to one who profiteers off of brown people's pain, as so often happens.
I asked him, what could the ideal white ally do?
“It’s a matter of empirical fact that white folks have at least a 200-year head start in our economy,” he said, “so it’s not that they have some extreme knowledge that we need to rely upon, but they do have an institutional advantage that they could use for something good. Write the check, offer the platform, and pass the microphone. If it sounds cold blooded like it’s a booty call, it kind of is. You need to come over, do your thing, and get out. If we need more, that’s cool, but understand that your role here is very limited.”
Finally, Gyasi’s song reminds us that there are plenty of well-qualified brown people who can and should be at the forefront of this discourse.
“I don’t want white people to butt out of people of color’s affairs,” Gyasi said, “but what I do want is those folks who consider themselves allies to study what being an ally means and to understand that (as he says in the song) real allies realize they don’t always have to speak.”
After Mackelmore controversially beat out Kendrick Lamar for the Best Rap Album Grammy award in 2014, Mackelmore texted Kendrick, told Kendrick that he should’ve won, and then posted the exchange on Instagram.
“That was uncalled for,” Kendrick would later say about Mackelmore.
“Why are you posting your text message? Just chill,” Drake, who was also up for the award, chimed in, “It felt cheap. It didn’t feel genuine. Why do that? Why feel guilt?”
Those very sentiments can be applied to the situation at hand. Mackelmore’s White Privilege III leaves us feeling skeptical more than anything else. Sure, he cares about the cause, but he also cares about his reputation. We needed to hear Gyasi’s response.
The beauty of Gyasi’s song is that we know that we can trust it in both an informational sense and an intentional sense. We know that Gyasi knows what he’s talking about when it comes to breaking down the ever-complicated topics of white privilege and racial inequality, because he’s proven that he’s qualified. Gyasi is not only a hip-hop artist but also an attorney, an Indigenous peoples’ activist, a family man, a social justice advocate, a writer, a public speaker, and an altogether well-informed and often-sought after voice when it comes to these types of issues.
Better than that, we know that his intentions are pure. He’s been doing this work all his life and will never stop. The discussion of white privilege is probably just a moment in time for Mackelmore, but it’s an unavoidable fact of life for Gyasi.
And so, he will continue to work toward helping everybody understand this stuff so that we can all live in a better world.
No ulterior motive.
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