Talking it Out: The Role of White Privilege in the Black Lives Matter Movement


For those that have been paying attention, this week marked a turning point in the Black Lives Matter movement.  

It marked a turning point because not once but twice prominent White allies in the Black Lives Matter movement were put on the spot to defend their whiteness.  These completely separate but equally powerful moments helped to provide the movement with their first real interaction with two non-politicians who both have the ability to provide much needed dialogue to help the movement spread its message to newer and well, to be completely honest, whiter audiences that may have previously only the Black Lives Matter movement as something that affects "them" but not really "us."  While each of the two moments brought the conversation to a national level, there still remains the greater question as to how White allies can best help advance the agenda of the Black Lives Matter Movement.

The first moment occurred on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as CBS Late Night host Stephen Colbert invited civil rights activist DeRay McKesson onto the program.  For those who don't know him, McKesson has emerged as one of the leaders of We The Protesters, an activist group that organizes protests on behalf of African-American issues.  He and his group have been active in Ferguson as well as Baltimore and have worked in collaboration with the Black Lives Matter Movement.  He is what the right calls "an agitator" because he has the gall to stand up and demand changes to decades worth of systemic injustices for the African-American community.  On the program, he wore his patented blue vest and had his cellphone in his hand at all times, a subtle nod to the fact that without recordable cell phone videos, many of the ugly incidents we are now aware of would have never come to light.  

The interview began simply enough with McKesson promoting Campaign Zero - a ten-point plan to end police violence through changes in union contracts and department policies on use of force.  McKesson then talked a little bit about the election and how he was pleased that both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were finally acknowledging the system injustices that the African-American communities has been plagued with since the founding of our country.  McKesson then addressed why the basic concept of All Lives Matter was bogus and declared that police had already shot and killed 26 people since New Year's Day alone.  Despite all this, it was not until the end of the interview where McKesson was really able to drive home the idea of White privilege and he did so by personally engaging Stephen Colbert.  

In the clip that has been making rounds, Colbert honestly asked McKesson what he, as a White male, could do to help advance the causes that McKesson has championed.  McKesson responded by saying, "You can create opportunity for people, you can amplify issues in ways that other people can’t and you can use your resources to create space for people.”  Once McKesson said this, Colbert picked up on his cue and immediately switched seats with McKesson to allow him the chance to call the shots.  McKesson took advantage of this opportunity by asking Colbert why he thought White people were uncomfortable talking about race.  Colbert, in a brutally honest response said, "I can’t speak for other white people, (but) I feel guilty for anyone who does not have the things I have.  That includes black people or anyone, because I am so blessed — I think there’s always a fear that it will be taken from me.

Flash forward four days to early Friday morning when Seattle-based White rapper, Macklemore made headlines by releasing a song titled "White Privilege II," a follow-up to his 2005 song "White Privilege."  The song, the second single from Macklemore's forthcoming album This Unruly Mess I've Made, features Chicago poet-vocalist Jamila Woods and its lyrics reveal Macklemore's support for the issues that the Black Lives Matter movement is dealing with as well as an acknowledgement of his own White privilege.  The song itself seems to serve as therapy for Macklemore as he struggles to internalize his role in a movement he fully supports but also one that makes him feel as an outsider due to the complexion of his skin.   

Although the song has only been out for twenty-four hours, it has already generated a tsunami of internet buzz.  At the heart of this buzz, lies two camps with separate reactions to the song: There are those that commend and support Macklemore for inserting himself into the conversation and there are those that criticize him for using the struggle of others to sell records.  In defense of Macklemore are those who applaud the artist for using his platform (much like Stephen Colbert) to address these important issues and open up a dialogue to an audience that may have not been engaged otherwise.  Those criticizing Macklemore seemed to focus on what they saw as hypocrisy:  They pointed out that a rich, White rapper was the epitome of White privilege and that there was a huge difference from going to rallies like Macklemore had done to living and breathing in constant fear as many in the African-American community are forced to do each and every day.  

And so, the question that these two moments have given us is this:  What role will progressive Whites play when it comes to the Black Lives Matter movement?  

It's a question that has no easy answer.  What we're seeing today with the Black Lives Matter movement is the first great civil rights battle of the 21st century.  That's not to overshadow the fight for marriage equality by any means.  That fight was the product of many decades-worth of struggle where countless people lost their lives fighting for their right to marry the person they love.  However, for the most part, those participating in the struggle for marriage equality never faced the threat of severe physical harm or death on a daily basis.  Where the Black Lives Matter movement differs is the fact that in these communities like Ferguson and Baltimore there is a justifiable fear that you can lose your life simply due to the color of your skin.  As Ta-Nehisi Coates so eloquently stated in Between the World and Me, "In America it is traditional to destroy the black body-it is heritage."  For many African-Americans they have to deal with this shameful heritage on a daily basis.  

With all great civil rights struggles, there inevitably comes a time where the groups involved in the struggle have to decide to incorporate other groups into their fight.  For Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress, it was the decision to include Indian members and communists into their struggle for freedom.  For Cesar Chavez, it was the decision to support the Filipino growers in their struggle that helped give the United Farm Workers a much-needed legitimacy on the national stage.  For Harvey Milk, it was the decision to bring on Anne Kronenberg as his campaign manager in San Francisco that told the world that he wasn't simply fighting for the rights of gay men but for the entire LGBT community.  And for Martin Luther King, Jr. it was the decision to ally himself to influential Whites, including close adviser Stanley Levison, that helped expand the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's influence beyond the African-American churches and communities of the south and into the more progressive enclaves in the north that helped provide the movement the momentum it needed to eventually March on Washington.

As the two events this past week showcased, there are much-needed conversations that need to happen in terms of White involvement in the Black Lives Matter movement.  However, the fact that these conversations are occurring and that people are voicing their opinions is a positive first step.  Like all of history's successful movements, it becomes harder and harder to criticize a movement the more inclusive it becomes.  It's easy right now for Fox News to dismiss the Black Lives Matter Movement because they simply see it as a movement based on this mentality of victimhood.  However should the Stephen Colberts and Macklemores of the world chime in and offer their own thoughts and feelings on White privilege, that's when Fox News starts to panic.  Because at that point it goes from an "us versus them" to an "us versus them-plus-some-of-us" which ends up dispelling the idea that it's only African-Americans who feel they've been victimized in this system we have in place.  

Ultimately, White people should feel conflicted about the Black Lives Matter movement.  As both Stephen Colbert and Macklemore showed, it's downright uncomfortable to admit that you're only successful because of the color of your skin.  It goes against every American-dream-rugged-individualism-pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mantra that you've been told since the day you were born.  It stings knowing that your privilege has given you opportunities that others simply will never have.  It's why we have "historians" like Bill O'Reilly who openly deny its existence.  People are right to criticize someone like Macklemore, who's only able to parlay his message through his music because of the color of his skin.  But at the same time, people are right to praise him for using his privilege to open up a conversation that others like him are unwilling to have.  It may very well be a Catch-22 situation for people like him, but even though people have differing opinions about his White privilege the fact that they're talking about it in the first place is a huge victory for the Black Lives Matter Movement. 

Because the more conversation that are generated, the more inclusive the Black Lives Matter Movement becomes.  As more people begin to have conversations, however awkward they might be, the movement begins to further and further legitimize itself.  The White people that marched on Washington didn't do so because they had too many rights but because they recognized others were were being denied their own rights.  It is this empathy that helps give people credence that even though these issues might not affect them directly, they know that the world would be a better place if those issues are addressed and remedied.  Progressive Whites will never truly understand what it's like to live the African-American experience, no matter how many James Baldwin or Toni Morrison books they read.  They'll never know what it's like to get pulled over by the men sworn to protect you and be fearful that you might end up dead.  They'll never know the fear of raising a child in a world that sees him expendable as Ta-Nehisi Coates and countless others do and have done.  Yet, despite this lack of personal experience, White progressives can still be valuable allies in the Black Lives Matter Movement. 

All they need to do is get the conversation started.  



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