Macklemore, Tim Wise, & Anti-Racist Posturing (Or How NOT to be an Ally)

Where I’m from we have a saying: don’t talk about it; be about it.

Recently, I got into a Facebook kerfuffle (as I do) when a cohort (let’s call him Ike) who consistently perpetuated racism and sexism in the classroom refused to take accountability for that when excitedly posting about the work of his all-white, anti-racist campus organization. When I declined to have a personal discussion with him about it because of his own racist behavior in the past, he resorted to the typical, passive-aggressive, derailing tactics (warning for ableism) he always had in class. And, I found myself in the sticky position of having to threaten to take our personal conversation public if he didn’t stop messaging me.

While I’m not at all surprised by his behavior given his classroom antics, it did get me thinking about how good ol’ Ike is representative of a larger issue. Being an anti-racist ally or paying lip service to one’s privilege in one’s work has become all the rage for Good White People™ who want to show off their social justice credentials without actually putting in the work (or, alternatively, without taking real accountability). It’s become super easy to exploit and benefit from the struggles of people of color while simultaneously expressing concern about it, the very epitome of the old saying, “to have your cake and eat it too.”

And, frankly, I’m goddamn tired of it.

We’ve all seen instances of social justice posturing. We’ve seen the Facebook statuses that challenge people to reblog a status that 99% of people won’t reblog in order to raise awareness about some cause or another. Or, how about asking people to change their icons to support their pet cause? And, we can’t forget the many, many people who share pictures of themselves surrounded by Black and brown children while they ~slum it~ in the name of humanitarianism. After all, what’s the purpose in engaging in social justice work if no one’s around to see your big heart and noble spirit at work?

The problem with this sort of posturing, besides the obvious (I will write about the imperialistic implications of “humanitarian” work at some point), is that it tends to marginalize or outright erase people of color actually experiencing racism. It crowds us out from our own spaces while allowing so-called allies to profit from racism, become the “experts” at our lived experiences, and dodge responsibility for the racism they wrought.

Take a Tim Wise for example. Tim had an infamous Facebook meltdown a while back because people of color were, rightfully, questioning his usefulness. We questioned the oppressive irony inherent in a man who professes to fight racism and call out white privilege benefitting from that white privilege by being hailed as an “expert” on racism and taking up space that should be occupied by, you know, those of us who actually experience racism. We questioned why Tim Wise appeared on CNN, on campuses, and on bookshelves speaking about racism and white privilege instead of people of color. Predictably, when actually confronted with people of color with a lot of critical and important questions about his work, he reverted to the same, racist script of the people he claims to critique. (My personal favorite was him telling an Asian-American person off and demanding to know what they had done for the cause besides actually living it, I guess.)

Or, let’s talk about Macklemore. Many have written about how he has made a career appropriating the stylings and very words of Black folk, and queer Black folk in particular, while paying lip service to his white privilege. Recently, he made a big show of how he “robbed” Kendrick Lamar of the best rap album Grammy. Of course, he could have said that during the award show or, if he was feeling particularly brave, refused the award. But, he figured why not have the award and the accolades while still showing off his anti-racist cred and went the route of screencapping his own conciliatory text to Lamar.

Screencap of Macklemore's text to Kendrick Lamar
He’s going to keep the Grammy & keep profiting from Black culture. But, he feels super bad about it.

This? This is not anti-racism. This is being passive-aggressive and exploitative in the guise of respect and anti-racism. And, I challenge so-called allies to do a hell of a lot better than that.

Let me tell you a story that might help illustrate what I mean.

A few years ago, I attended a campus talk by Hank Thomas, one of the original Freedom Riders. People opposed to their mission firebombed Hank’s bus at one point and, at another point, beat him and other Riders at a bus depot. This was dangerous, life-threatening work for which the Riders trained extensively, and they paid for their protests of the Jim Crow South and structural racism with blood. A handful of those original Freedom Riders were white. I don’t know their names, and they weren’t prominently featured in the documentary we watched except a few snippets, including one man who was badly beaten.

These people did not ride into the South to challenge segregation because they expected accolades. They did not make a production of having participated and of the injuries they sustained. They didn’t demand everyone stop and pat them on the back and devote an “ally week” to them. They participated because they thought it was the right thing to do. They, in the most real sense, put their asses on the line, including their physical safety and their social standing, for the cause. And, we don’t even know their names. Those are allies.

Tim Wise? Macklemore? Good ol’ Ike? Those are people who want praise and profit.

I don’t expect Freedom Rider type commitment of every white ally. I don’t expect you to put yourself in a position to lose your life and your livelihood. But, I do expect that you’ll engage with these issues because you care about them and not because it sounds good. I expect that you’ll not profit from my oppression. I expect that you’ll not just talk about it; you’ll be about it.

By Marena

Marena recently earned her Master of Arts degree in Social Justice & Human Rights & primarily explores social justice issues in the production & consumption of popular mass media. You may find her creating fanworks, testing her hand-eye coordination with beadweaving, flailing over her fictional faves, reading everything from fanfic to theory texts, or watching low budget sci-fi. You can find her writing on Marena ni yukyats.

15 replies on “Macklemore, Tim Wise, & Anti-Racist Posturing (Or How NOT to be an Ally)”

Something missing from this post: mention of specific black, (openly) queer, hip-hop artists (something I am interested in). There aren’t too many that I’ve found that fit all three categories. Here are a few (other than Le1f, I tried to order in order of my personal preference).

-The aforementioned Le1f’s Wut:

-Angel Haze ‘s awesome version of Same Love:
Cleaning out my Closet (trigger warning: sexual abuse & self-harm) :

-Azelia Banks’s 212:

-Mykki Blanco’s Wavvy:

-Cakes Da Killa’s Goodie Goodies (similar sound to Le1f, too):

-Theesatisfaction’s B****:

-Deep Dickcollective’s Man of Me:

-Mélange Lavonne’s Gay Bash (a bit of an older reference):

-Caushun’s Get Ya A** Up:

-Miss Money’s Money:

And some non-black, queer, hip-hop artists:

-Man Parrish’s Hip Hop, Be Bop:
He has been named as the 1st openly gay hip-hop artist signed to a major record label. Of course, as a white man, some may call him problematic like Macklemore (interestingly, he was ripped off in a manner similar to other black/hip-hop musicians):

-Invincible’s Sledgehammer:
(Gay, Israeli-Jewish, & politically/socially conscious. She was also known for her song “Ropes”, which was initially banned for referencing suicide. Representing Detroit!)

Rose, I don’t really understand why you thought it was a good idea to derail a post about racism, and in several of the examples specifically anti-Black racism, with links to non-Black hip-hop artists in this comment, and in your first comment, completely miss the point about white “anti-racist” posturing as harmful. Whatever you think happened or didn’t happen with Macklemore, and however you feel about him and representations of (white) queerness, you’re dismissing this article’s actual point as invalid, which is a huge problem.

I’m sorry that you feel the mention of non-Black queer hip-hop artists as derailment. I did see this as a good opportunity to promote such artists. Maybe I was overzealous.

If you felt that my first comment missed the point about “anti-racist” posturing, I would’ve liked hearing an elaboration of that. In my initial comment below, I didn’t necessarily address every point in the OP as I wanted to focus on the main things I disagreed with (and I agreed with much said above). I don’t believe the entire article is invalid (e.g., especially on Tim Wise). I may not have the same perspective as the OP, so I think it can be beneficial to see what makes a person a bad ally, in her mind (you’re welcome to elaborate upon that as well).


Thanks for taking the time to comment. I appreciate it. I would love to have an actual discussion about anti-racist posturing in these comments at some point rather than having to justify over and over again why I used Macklemore as an example, but you win some, you lose some.

I’m surprised that you’re putting Macklemore into the same category as Tim Wise. I really do see Macklemore as being genuine. And disagree some of the criticisms of him. I’m going to respond to a few of your points.

“Many have written about how he has made a career appropriating the stylings and very words of Black folk, and queer Black folk in particular, while paying lip service to his white privilege.”
This is an inflammatory accusation & questionable (I’m referring to the embedded link, although I disagree with your unquestioning repetition of those claims). I really like Le1f’s song Wut, but the main similarity seems to be Ryan Lewis’s (Macklemore’s collaborator) use of horn loop & the repeat of “Wut” in Le1f’s song vs “What” in the beginning of Thrift Shop. I don’t think the two songs sound that similar, even when you consider those features (which are hardly that novel to begin with). Actually, Ryan Lewis has used a similar sound since their VS EP in 2009. Le1f’s album containing Wut was released 4/2012; Thrift Shop was released 8/2012 (Same Love was written prior to Thrift Shop in response to WA R-74 on 2/2012 & released 6/2012). Macklemore performed Thrift Shop as early as May 2012, but had been working on the song for a long time: Unless, there’s some other evidence I’m missing, I’m gonna go ahead & feel ok about my belief that they did not rip off Le1f’s Wut.

Moreover, other Le1f claims are not valid. For example, the success of Same Love has benefitted gay people– particularly the lesbian singer Mary Lambert*, who co-wrote the song & sings the hook. But it’s interesting how many people criticizing Macklemore (including you) completely ignore/dismiss the major contribution of a lesbian singer to the song when making their point. My interpretation of the song was that Macklemore is not appropriating queer people’s words; he is speaking as someone supporting queer people. Also, proceeds for Same Love support Music for Marriage Equality. Maybe Le1f eventually deleted those tweets b/c he realized some of his accusations were unfounded?

Please explain to me how Macklemore is being passive-aggressive with his public admittance that Kendrick “should have” won? I really don’t see the passive-aggression? I mean, it seems harsh to me that he’s getting raked over the coals for not responding in the exact “right” way, at that moment. Refusing the awards would’ve be the right thing, in your opinion? That would’ve convinced you that he really wasn’t being anti-racist/anti-homophic just for “show”? I think many would’ve blasted him for being ungrateful and rude. And I can imagine those that share your view of him still would be unimpressed and told everyone how he just did it to put on a show. Very much a no-win situation.

I honestly enjoy reading Persephone for well thought-out posts (which should include better research). I’d hope for better than posts merely repeating accusations without any examination of their validity.

*Mary Lambert’s words:

As I said else where, since this seems to be a sticking point for Macklemore fans, we’ll have to agree to differ on our opinion of Macklemore, his motivations, and how he’s handled himself with regards to the larger hip-hop community.

As for your charges that I have not researched my post an am “unquestioningly” repeating unfounded accusations, you might be surprised to learn that I listen to hip hop too and have read extensively about the problems that arose between Macklemore and Le1f over thrift shop in addition and feel confident taking Le1f at his word on how the timeline progressed. Clearly, we came to different conclusions based on our research.

As for the rest, I explained my position in my post and at length, so I don’t see any reason to repeat myself. If you disagree with or reject that position, that’s fine. I’m not here to convince you, personally, that Macklemore is not a good ally or that he’s appropriative of Black artists. I’m here to present examples of how anti-racist posturing isn’t all that materially beneficial to people of color, and I believe Macklemore engages in just that.

“Macklemore fans”
Where did I say I was a Macklemore fan? I am a fan of Mary Lambert, though.

“we’ll have to agree to differ on our opinion of Macklemore, his motivations, and how he’s handled himself with regards to the larger hip-hop community.”
Ok, but you wrote this post. It seems that if you want to make this point here, you should be able to support these assertions? But, ok, we can agree to disagree. I’m just trying to judge a person based on his actions rather than perceived motivations.

“I listen to hip hop too and have read extensively about the problems that arose between Macklemore and Le1f over thrift shop in addition and feel confident taking Le1f at his word on how the timeline progressed.”
If this is true, why only link to an article where Le1f makes the initial accusations? If you researched the whole thing, shy not mention that, actually, the song does in fact support gay causes—which Le1f subsequently corrected? If you deliberately chose to omit those details, it seems that you are trying to only include the details that support your opinion?

And 1) You can take someone “at his word” while still checking accuracy (sometimes people are mistaken). This wouldn’t seem to be too much of a stretch considering Le1f was mistaken about no gay causes benefitting from the song. 2) I disagree with the idea that you should just take someone at his word when repeating accusations that attack another’s integrity.

“I explained my position in my post and at length,”
As I stated in my previous post, I didn’t understand the passive-aggressive claim, and I didn’t see an explanation of how his actions were passive-aggressive. But no one can force you to elaborate.

“I’m not here to convince you, personally, that Macklemore is not a good ally or that he’s appropriative of Black artists.”
Really? Cause that seemed to be a big part of why one should realize that he shows people “How NOT to be an Ally”? Anyway, appropriation is a long, complicated discussion, so I will agree that this might not be the best time.

“I’m here to present examples of how anti-racist posturing isn’t all that materially beneficial to people of color, and I believe Macklemore engages in just that.”
Fair enough. But does Macklemore not promote black artists by featuring them in his own music? On Heist, he worked with black artists such as Wanz (who was a software engineer prior to Thrift Shop’s success but is now pursuing music), Ray Dalton, Schoolboy Q, Ab-Soul, Eighty4 Fly. Does that not materially benefit those Black artists? Does him pointing out that Kendrick Lamar should’ve won not put more attention on KL? I interpreted that as Macklemore trying to shine some limelight on KL, which might result in further success for KL. And I do appreciate that his win resulted in the discussion I’ve seen elsewhere about the “myth” of meritocracy.

And, where did I say I was here to explain to your personal satisfaction my believing Le1f when he says he believes that Macklemore ripped him off? I linked to one article because I’m not here to reconstruct a timeline of the Le1f vs. Macklemore argument and to link to every article out there about it because this article isn’t about their feud. If people are interested in the details, I invite them to conduct their own research. You continuing to make that a focal point of your consternation with my article is derailing and misses the larger point which you have yet to even address outside of a side comment to a commentor that isn’t me.

Also, let me be clear. When I’m not here to convince you personally, I mean I am not here to convince you, Rose, about Macklemore’s failings as an ally. I laid out my case for why I believe he’s a bad example of an ally (and, his featuring Black artists in his work that lead to material benefit for them on an individual level does not mean he’s a good ally; if that’s the case them Eminem is a damn good ally). You can take it or leave it, but I’m not going to bend over backward and go back and forth with you about it to the detriment of the discussion about why this sort of thing can be detrimental to people of color because you believe I’m not cutting Macklemore enough slack.

I agree that posting that text was very pat-yourself-on-the-back-worthy but I still don’t buy into this narrative that Macklemore is this insidious culture thief out for the sole purpose of profiting from something his culture didn’t come up with. I think he is genuine and he is flawed and he isn’t being cut any slack. I’m always seeing critiques of him either from blacks or from LGBTQs. Should be spotlight more artists of color? Gay artists? Absolutely. But I find it curious that Eminem hasn’t gotten nearly as much condemnation for “stealing” as Macklemore is. And Macklemore’s actually trying to put out a positive message. I’ll believe he’s the big bad boogie monster everyone touts him as when he goes off the rails a la Tim Wise. Also, hella disappointed to hear about that. I’ve read two of his books and was looking forward to seeing his documentary. Now THAT to me is lookatmeI’msoenlightened anti-racism. I honestly believe Macklemore is genuine.

We’ll have to agree to differ on our opinions of Macklemore. I haven’t seen anyone tout him as a “big bad boogie monster” but as a self-congratulatory appropriator who has never sufficiently responded to critiques from the communities he appropriates from except one song about privilege that he hasn’t really done much to mitigate. I think that’s a fair observation. When queer Black artists are saying he outright stole their song, I take their word on that. So, I don’t need him to show his ass like Tim Wise to find him suspect, personally speaking.

I have seen a lot of critique on Eminem and his own issues with appropriation and privilege. Of course, his career trajectory (being repped by Dr. Dre for example) and the ways in which he’s able to cash in on that are different.

“Of course, his career trajectory (being repped by Dr. Dre for example) and the ways in which he’s able to cash in on that are different. ” This is true. “Street cred.”

And I didn’t know about Macklemore outright stealing songs from people! I thought the critiques were strictly of the “we can speak for ourselves” variety. Which is more than justified as well.

It kind of kills me that Dr. Dre essentially gave Eminem a “hood pass.” Eminem is defs. a technically skilled rapper, and I do think he’s paid his dues in a lot of ways. But, he’s so problematic in so many ways, and his popularity definitely has much to do with his whiteness. I also think (this thought isn’t fully formed) that there’s something to be said about the ways in which Macklemore and Eminem perform masculinity that has something to do with the way their credibility is perceived by others in terms of hip-hop. Hm.

Yeah, I mean, in terms of him ripping others, as you can see above, there’s a lot of debate about whether Le1f’s claims are valid. I think so based on what I’ve seen and heard and read, but others feel differently which is legit. In any case, I would have liked to see Macklemore address that more directly and also would like to see him address more directly some of the critiques of about appropriation and the KL thing. Like, I don’t think he’s some mustache twirling villain or anything like that, but I would like to hear his thoughts on all that.

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