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Golden Calves & Good Excuses: On Macklemore and the Cult of the Ally

7 March 2014

Cross-posted from The Molinist. Follow The Molinist at its new home!
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The recent Grammy success of Macklemore and his producer Ryan Lewis stirred up a moderate storm of internet controversy, particularly in race issues and general social justice circles. Much ink has been spilled over Macklemore, Same Love, and his relationships to the black and queer communities and I don’t intend to add to that literature. If you’re looking for a good piece analysing and critiquing Macklemore, I recommend reading Ivie’s piece on Black Culture and (not or, their perspectives are different and each has unique points) Joseph Guthrie’s piece on Media Diversified. While I’m in profound agreement with the opinion that Macklemore and his status as hip-hop’s champion of the LGBT [1] community is highly problematic, it’s not Macklemore as such that I wish to discuss today, it’s the social structures that form the context which makes Macklemore so problematic (though I will be taking Macklemore as my text for this deconstruction).

Macklemore is a straight, white, cisgender [2] man. Still with me? Good. Now, this means that he enjoys an immense amount of privilege. Am I losing you? Well, try to hang in there and I’ll try to keep the critical theory speak to a minimum. White straight cisgender male privilege is going to be sort of your cost of entry into what I’m saying here, though.

We often talk about privilege as though it were a single thing, a quality or object of the universe which attaches itself to people and can be readily identified and defined. That’s not really the case, though. Privilege is a fungible, nebulous assortment of social constructs as well as personal and interpersonal realities. It plays out across every field of our interior, social, political, and economic realities. It cuts across the manifold ways of being human to form an irreducible complexity of effects. As a black man, I enjoy male privilege at the same time as I endure racialised oppression. When I walk down my quiet street at night, I see fear in the eyes of white women I pass, and I know that they are perfectly justified in worrying about a passing man on an ill-lit street and that my blackness makes me more threatening.

I have previously defended Macklemore against the charge of cultural appropriation. Yes, he is a white man working in a genre and generally associating himself with a culture that is coded black and which is largely the product of black peoples. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, though, being white and doing black doesn’t immediately equal appropriation. The difference, I’ve argued, is that Macklemore participates in the culture, he does not merely perform it . [3] But that participation in the culture does not erase the racial dynamics of privilege. As a white rapper Macklemore is desirable to white audiences in a way that black rappers are not. This is a reality you might call the palatability of normativity: the aesthetic preference for exposure to individuals who as closely as possible fit the straight, white, cisgender male ideal. His whiteness also gives him a contradictory status as both outsider to ‘black’ hip hop and ideal exemplar of hip hop, writ large, which status he parlays into the image of an intellectual artist who engages critically with the tropes and shortcomings of the genre. His video Thrift Shop was generally seen in this light: a critical appraisal of hip hop’s crass consumer culture, as typified by images of black men wearing excessive amounts of gold or diamond jewelry. Same Love, as both single and video, was seen in a very similar light: a daring, provocative subversion of a homophobic genre (Macklemore out and declares his genre homophobic in the opening lines of the song itself, an absurdly self-serving act and one swallowed uncritically by a fanbase otherwise largely unengaged with the genre) and a brave call for LGBT equality. Macklemore’s entire public persona is built upon a foundation of erroenous stereotypes about his genre which his whiteness gives him leave to critique.

Macklemore’s status as ally par excellence to the queer community derives not only from his straightness and whiteness but also his redemption narrative: Macklemore is a self-described ‘reformed homophobe.’ As befits a society steeped in cultural Christianity, the narrative of death to the life of bigotry and rebirth in the light of egalitarianism is as moving to us as popular stories of redemption found in Christ were to our forebears. Following his public baptism into the Church of Equality, Macklemore became a public spokesman for queer issues, widely lauded as the only voice of LGBT equality in hip hop (seriously, has no one heard of Le1f?). Somehow Mary Lambert, the only queer person credited on Same Love, went unnoticed. [4] As an interesting aside, Macklemore’s redemption narrative is often read as racialised even in the absence of specific details to that effect. It is seen as natural that someone who grew up in hip hop culture would imbibe the supposedly endemic homophobia associated with black-coded cultures.

Macklemore’s privileged ally status over the LGBT community coalesces with his privileged whiteness-amongst-blackness to make a more palatable representative of pro-queer hip-hop for straight and/or white audiences than any queer person of colour could ever be. In Macklemore, straight white audiences see themselves: a white person who likes gay people. In Mary Lambert, they see an Other: a lesbian with a non-normative body who speaks openly about her bi-polar disorder. In Le1f, they see an even more profound Other: a gender non-conforming black man, more likely to wear a dress than a basketball jersey and ice. So they choose not to see Lambert, they don’t engage with queer hip hop enough to even learn of Le1f’s existence, and they settle comfortably with an agreeably familiar face with an agreeably familiar message.

As an appointed and recognised voice of the queer community, his non-membership notwithstanding, Macklemore’s queer politics are given priority over those of actual LGBT persons. What are Macklemore’s queer politics? Assimilation. The clear message of Same Love and Macklemore’s public statements is that LGBT (I’d actually be surprised if he were thinking at all about the T) persons wish to be assimilated into the cisgendered, heterosexual norm. Before you start registering with Disqus so you can explain to me that ‘Macklemore isn’t trying to make gay people be straight,’ let me be clear: the discourse of equality is not inherently assimilationist, it just usually is. Equality is, fundamentally, the right (for everyone’s sake I will not get into my issues with the language of rights here) to be the same. When talking about legal equalities, such as equal access to certain legal institutions, like marriage, assimilationism isn’t necessarily at play: queers should, after all, have access to the same legal recognitions as straights. Mainstream marriage equality discourse of the type espoused by Macklemore is highly assimilationist, however, as it assumes that the end goal of queerness is to be subsumed under the heteronormative ideal of two-partner families with children (a model of queerness called homonormativity [5]). To many straight allies this is an unproblematic reality but many queers value queerness itself and do not not wish to sacrifice it, rather seeking for queerness to be celebrated for its own virtues, not merely its proximity to straightness.

By listening to Macklemore and his queer politics, straight and white audiences can absolve themselves of the responsibility to listen to blacks, to queers, to (heaven forefend) black queers (who exist, by the way), and thus risk encountering queer politics which challenge their homonormative, assimilationist assumptions about acceptable queerness or black perspectives which challenge their infantilising narratives about blacks. Thus Macklemore, both in his popularity as a hip hop artist and his status as hip hop’s champion of LGBT issues, is an expression of structural marginalisation of queers and blacks, seeking to speak for one and silence the other entirely.

Notes

[1] I’m going to be using the terms ‘queer’ and ‘LGBT’ broadly interchangeably as umbrellas for a broad spectrum of peoples, communities, and indeed spectrums. Both will cover, in my usage, lesbian women, gay men, the bisexual community/spectrum (including pansexual, polysexual, and other non-monosexuals), and the trans community/spectrum (including non-gender binary persons and straight trans persons). Gender identity being distinct from sexuality, trans individuals do and I mean for them to fall under the three sexuality headings, as well as none of them. I intend to refer to all individuals whose gender and sexual identities are classed as non-heteronormative and I may have missed some individuals or groups or included some who would rather be left out. I know such usage is contestable and controversial (especially describing straight trans persons as queer) but I need a consistent and not overlong nomenclature. Feel free to disagree with my choice.

[2] ‘Cis’ means ‘not trans.’ It’s a fairly recent coinage derived from the Latin antonym of the prefix ‘trans-,’ which means ‘across’ or ‘beyond;’ in Latin it means roughly ‘on this side of.’ Confer the Roman provinces of Cisalpine and Transalpine Gaul, which were on the Italian and French sides of the Alps, respectively. Some will tell you that cis is derived from a Latin root meaning ‘to cut’ but they are incorrect and simply wish to slur trans persons with a false etymology making ‘their word for us’ sound violent.

[3] This is my take on the nature of cultural appropriation. Other members of marginalised communities may disagree. A self-perception of meeting the criteria I’ve described for participation, rather than appropriation, shouldn’t be taken to defeat a critique from another marginalised person.

[4] In case you’re wondering, Lambert performed the ‘featured vocals’ (I have no idea what that means). Do the words “I can’t change, even if I tried, even if I wanted to. My love, my love, my love, my love she keeps me warm…” ring any bells? You should check Lambert’s She Keeps Me Warm, which is what Macklemore wanted to say but better.

[5] Homonormativity is a massively complex construct that no one wants me to go into here. A future post may expand on and/or deconstruct it further but for now I shall suffice with ‘it’s bad.’

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. Cale B.T. permalink
    11 March 2014 5:53 am

    “As a black man, I enjoy male privilege at the same time as I endure racialised oppression. When I walk down my quiet street at night, I see fear in the eyes of white women I pass, and I know that they are perfectly justified in worrying about a passing man on an ill-lit street and that my blackness makes me more threatening.”

    I have two questions.

    You say that the woman is perfectly justified in fearing a man on an ill-lit street. To your way of thinking, if you lived in a city where there were a lot of black gangs, would she be justified in generalising on the basis of race? i.e. “I’m more cautious around that Matthew guy that lives down the street because he’s black than I am with that Chad guy”.

    Secondly, is it really accurate to describe being feared as a “privilege”?

    • 11 March 2014 11:52 am

      In response to your first question: this is a false equivalence. Women are justified in fearing or being weary of passing men because women have a justified fear of physical and/or sexual assault and a justified fear that their victimisation, if it occurs, would not only go unanswered-for but would likely be perpetuated by the legal system should they report it. Your proposed fear of groups of black men is based on oppressive stereotypes about black violence and criminality and is not justified.

      To your second question: that’s not remotely what I’m saying. I’m saying that women’s justified fear of passing men is an expression of male privilege.

      • Cale B.T. permalink
        11 March 2014 1:57 pm

        “Your proposed fear of groups of black men is based on oppressive stereotypes about black violence and criminality and is not justified.”

        Of course you can argue that there are, in fact, no cities in which black gangs predominate, and that the impression that there are is caused by oppressive stereotyping. Fair enough.

        You didn’t actually answer the question, though: on your way of thinking, If a woman lived in a city in the US in which black gangs were prevalent, would she then be justified in being more cautious in general around black men?

        “I’m saying that women’s justified fear of passing men is an expression of male privilege.”

        Sorry, but I’m not picking up any new distinction here that wasn’t made in your article.

      • 11 March 2014 2:33 pm

        Let me try to explicate. Women fearing the presence of strange men in unsecure contexts (such as being alone on the street at night) qua their maleness is justified because of the oppressive dynamics of male privilege and structural misogyny. Not only are physical and sexual assault of women by men common crimes but they are assaults likely to be perpetuated should the victim come forward about them, by the justice system and/or the public, in the form of victim-blaming, denial, and harassment (particularly of any woman public about her victimisation online). This is about male privilege because it shields men from the ramifications of our actions, actual and potential, qua our maleness.

        Women fearing black men qua their blackness in similar contexts is an expression of the dynamics of white privilege and black marginalisation. Excluding individual cases of persons with instinctive fears of certain classes of persons due to traumatic past experiences, which fears they know to be irrational (I am such a person), such a fear of black men qua their blackness is an expression of narratives of black violence and criminality. These cultural narratives are part of the structure of anti-black racism and are demonstrably not based in fact: white men are the most common sexual assaulters, particularly of white and Native American/First Nations women; most violent crime (upwards of 80%) against is committed by other whites; most sexual assaults by strangers against white women are committed by white men. These narratives serve to justify anti-black discrimination: more severe incarceration of black criminals, more random stops and searches of blacks, anti-black violence, etc.

        These two counter-factual fears we’re discussing move in opposite directions along different vectors of privilege and oppression. One is a justified response to the privilege of others, the other is an unjustified expression and perpetuation of the marginalisation of others.

  2. Cale B.T. permalink
    11 March 2014 11:14 pm

    Your last comment reiterates that the protasis of the conditional won’t be satisfied, and that the idea that it might be is based on a false narrative, but you still haven’t answered the question.

    Consider two situations:

    Cindy moves to a city where the crime scene is dominated by black gangs, and there is also an overarching narrative (which leads to anti-black violence among police officers etc.) in society about the criminality of black men. Cindy acts more cautiously around black men than white men.

    Cindy moves to a city where the crime scene is dominated by Indonesian gangs and there is no overarching narrative in society about the general criminality of Indonesian men. Cindy acts more cautiously around Indonesian men than white men.

    Would you maintain that Cindy is rationally justified in the second scenario but not in the first?

    • 12 March 2014 11:03 am

      I’m not going to engage in this game of counter-factuals. When you reduce the lived experience of racism to modal propositions you dehumanise and insult those who are oppressed by racist structures day-in-and-day-out. What may or may not be justified in whatever possible world you wish to posit is not at issue. What is at issue is privilege and structural oppression in this world. If you wish to engage me in a respectful conversation on that topic, I’ll be here.

    • Misty permalink
      20 March 2014 4:18 am

      you are just a racist troll.

  3. calebt45 permalink
    19 March 2014 2:21 am

    “I’m not going to engage in this game of counter-factuals.”

    This isn’t a game, it’s a sound question which is entirely germane to the topic.

    “What is at issue is privilege and structural oppression in this world”

    Right! So, to try to understand the issues, we’re going to need to think as hard as we can and not be evasive when people ask difficult questions.

    You agree that Cindy is justified in being more cautious around men, so why can’t she be cautious around black men? On the position which you seem to be defending, she has to check her Oxford Companion to Intersectionality to see who is an oppressor and who is an oppressee before she can be cautious or not.

    The thrust of my questioning is to draw out the absurdity in your position: the decisive factor we need to consider when asking “Is Cindy justified?” is “Are there lots of X gangs in this city?” not “Are X people generally an “oppressed” or “privileged” category?”

    I don’t see how this line of argumentation in any way dehumanises people. I think you ought to give yourself intellectual permission to follow the argument where it leads.

    On Macklemore

    With regard to Macklemore, you say in this post that he is an “expression” of privilege, which would seem to indicate a passive participation, but then you go on to say that he [seeks] to speak for one and silence the other entirely” which would imply a more active role.

    If he had explicitly said “You know guys, I’ve said some nice things about homosexuals, so you shouldn’t bother actually listening to them.” perhaps you would be justified in making such an accusation, but as it is, this really comes off looking like tin-foil hat style rhetoric.
    So, if he hasn’t actually said such things, I don’t think you have grounds for making these kinds of claims.

    On Macklemore’s listeners

    “Macklemore’s queer politics are given priority over those of actual LGBT persons.”

    Do you really believe that his white heterosexual listeners consciously think “Well, I listened to Macklemore. I’ve now absolved myself of listening to what any of those weirdo homosexuals actually want to say for themselves.” I think that it is exposure which is drives his influence, rather than mass conspiracy.

    Don’t you think they are far more likely to be saying:
    “I listened to that Macklemore song and, like, TOTES agree with what he said about gay people!”

    On Assimilationism and Heteronormativity

    You write “The clear message of Same Love and Macklemore’s public statements is that LGBT (I’d actually be surprised if he were thinking at all about the T) persons wish to be assimilated into the cisgendered, heterosexual norm”

    As far as I can tell, the only ideas present in this particular song seem to be:

    -There are a lot of stereotypes about homosexuals.
    -Sexual orientation is not a choice.
    -“Gay” and “faggot” are unjustly used as pejorative terms.
    -Same-sex marriage activism is analogous to the fight against racism.
    -Fighting for same-sex marriage will generally help the lot of homosexuals.

    The focus of the lyrics:

    “Progress, march on
    With the veil over our eyes
    We turn our back on the cause
    ‘Til the day that my uncles can be united by law” is surely the *possibility* of their being united by law. And, given that he is referring to his relatives, I daresay he probably has a better idea of what they actually want than you.

    So I don’t think it’s reasonable to say that he promotes a particular pattern of relationships for homosexuals. You didn’t actually provide any evidence from the song itself to show this, and I think this is because it isn’t actually there.

    • Misty permalink
      20 March 2014 4:19 am

      You seem to be making excuses. If she’s not equally as cautious around white men, then that’s questionable.

      • calebt45 permalink
        20 March 2014 10:26 am

        Hi Misty,
        why do you think it’s questionable?

  4. 27 March 2014 11:02 am

    If Cindy is going to live in defensive mode she should be cautious around all men but most especially about her male friends and family. The focus on stranger danger is another way in which male privilege functions to close pubic spaces to all women and obscure the fact that their private spaces are even more dangerous. The extra twist of racialised stranger danger is just yawn standard and the hypotheticals are not worth the time it takes to set them up. But of course, it all functions beautifully to obscure the groups of men (mainly white but not exclusively) who hold the monopoly on violence and the groups of (again mainly white) women who assist them.

    • calebt45 permalink
      30 March 2014 10:06 am

      Hi Veryly, thanks for commenting.

      You say that women ought to be more wary of friends and family. As far as I am aware, the research supports your idea, and I see no reason to disagree with this part of your comment.

      “The extra twist of racialised stranger danger is just yawn standard and the hypotheticals are not worth the time it takes to set them up.”

      You say that it is white men who hold a monopoly on violence. If that is true, it doesn’t affect my argument. What if Cindy says “As far as I can see, the white men in this town tend to form gangs and attack people more than the latino or black men. I’m a bit more careful around them.”? I don’t see anything wrong with that.

      As I wrote above, the decisive factor we need to consider when asking “Is Cindy justified?” is “Are there lots of X gangs in this city?” not “Are X people generally an “oppressed” or “privileged” category?”

      Do you agree with this statement?

      There is a very humourous typo in your comment, btw

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