Hey, White Pop Stars: Ignorance Is No Excuse for Racism
In recent weeks, two of the music industry's biggest white stars have found themselves at the center of race-related controversies. First, Macklemore ran afoul of the Jewish community by performing "Thrift Shop" in a "disguise" reminiscent of Nazi-era anti-Semitic propaganda. Now pop hitmaker Justin Bieber's under scrutiny following the successive leaks of two videos; one depicts the pop singer telling an unfunny racial joke, while the other is a n-word-filled parody of his own "One Less Lonely Girl".
Both times, my reaction was the same: dropped-jaw incredulity. It's not that it surprises me to see any given white person do or say something racist—that would be naïve, to say the least—but the offenses are just so absurd. They're the kind of stories you'd expect to see on a lackluster Onion knockoff, one whose writers had yet to master the distinction between satire and just making sh*t up.
And in a way, the sheer what-the-f*ckery of both situations has helped get both individuals off the hook, by shifting the focus from their actions to their intentions and reputations. Why would Macklemore jeopardize his (problematic, but profitable) image as hip-hop's squeaky-clean progressive savior by doing a Shylock impression while rapping about pinching pennies? Unthinkable! It has to be some sort of mix-up. How could Biebs, the teen heartthrob who cut his teeth as Usher's protégé, harbor any ill will against black people? Impossible! It must be a youthful joke that doesn't reflect his true beliefs.
Bieber and Macklemore both took full advantage of that perception in their responses to their respective controversies. Macklemore's was less an apology than a flat-out denial. After alluding to the issue in a dismissive Tweet ("A fake witches nose, wig and beard = random costume. Not my idea of a stereotype of anyone."), he released a more thorough statement, in which he actually shamed his critics for being outraged at his racist getup. "[It] was surprising and disappointing that the images of a disguise were sensationalized leading to the immediate assertion that my costume was anti-Semitic." Later, he piously asserts, "I will let my body of work and the causes for which I've supported [sic] speak for themselves."
Bieber got off to a slightly better start, responding to the first video with a statement that stressed the "youthful indiscretion" angle: "As a kid, I didn't understand the power of certain words and how they can hurt." Once video number two surfaced, though, he gave Macklemore a run for his money in the smarm department by posting this image to his official Facebook page.
Look, I'm not down on the man for turning to his faith in a difficult time, but when you're saying sorry for something you did wrong, you're supposed to apologize to the people you wronged, not to a metaphysical being in whom those you offended may or may not even believe. It's like me punching you in the face and addressing the subject in an open letter to my cat—i.e., a complete non sequitur. Of course, the image isn't intended to actually address the issue. Like Macklemore's statement about the "causes for which [he's] supported," it's a piece of misdirection, a sop designed to remind the public what a good person he is. Because that's a hell of a lot easier than actually being a good person, which might entail uncomfortable things like humility, introspection and taking responsibility for what you say and do.
In actuality, ignorance isn't an excuse so much as a restatement of the problem. Of course, nobody (or almost nobody) thinks that beneath Macklemore's thrift store furs he's rocking a swastika armband. But isn't it troubling that an artist who's built his brand on taking stands on social issues, one who's recorded songs with titles like "White Privilege," lacks a high school-level knowledge of how racism has been made manifest throughout history, and doesn't even care to learn? No, I don't believe Justin Bieber is donning a hooded robe in his spare time. But shouldn't we be concerned about the social norms and subterranean prejudices that allow people, not just teenagers, to snicker complicitly in private at words we'd be ashamed to repeat in the light of day?
For a culturally dominant group, white dudes (of whom I happen to be one) are held to some pretty damn pitiful standards. We get to screw up on a massive scale, offer nothing as an excuse but our own intellectual laziness, and go back to our jobs like everything's more or less copacetic. To appropriate a phrase, it's the soft bigotry of low expectations. I'd like to think we can do better. In small ways, as a white person who writes about hip-hop for a living, I've felt the same pressure to be "down”—to affect an over-familiarity with a culture in which I'm still, in some respects, a guest. So far I've managed to avoid serious gaffes. Hopefully, through a conscious cultivation of sensitivity and awareness, I can keep it up. If and when I do stumble, though, I can promise you my response won't be, ”I didn't know any better!”
I've got too much respect for y'all—and for myself—to use ignorance as a shield.
[Richard Spadine is a staff writer and associate editor of The DJBooth. He lives in Brooklyn. Hit him up on Twitter at @RSpadine.]