Walking, talking think-piece Amanda Palmer has a knack for insinuating herself into the cultural conversation: just when you think she might have finally gone away, she returns like a persistent odor. Her latest trick, if you missed it last night, was to conflate the message of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave with, um, the reaction to Macklemore winning a bunch of Grammys. If this makes no sense to you, well, you’re not the only one — but, loath as I am to give Palmer any more attention than she already has, it’s worth looking at this further, because it demonstrates some wider points about the way we approach questions of race and identity politics in America.
Here’s what Palmer had to say, in her inimitable close-both-eyes-and-jump-in-feet-first style:
12 Years a Slave drove the point home. the privileged (whites/straights/menfolk) MUST be allowed to fight for change. not just the oppressed—
Amanda Palmer (@amandapalmer) January 28, 2014
There are several interesting things to unpack from this. The first is that she’s stating the bleeding obvious: if oppression is to end, then it requires those who have a position of relative power to stop shitting on those who don’t. If we’re going to rule out the possibility of actual armed revolution to shove change down the throats of the privileged, then yes, the privileged must be “allowed” to fight for change. If the oppressed could just unilaterally change things themselves, they wouldn’t be oppressed in the first place.
More interesting, though, is her use of the word “allowed,” with its implication that the ideal she presents is somehow being prevented from happening. The immediate question, and one that plenty of people on Twitter raised, is this: who exactly is preventing the privileged from “fighting for” whatever they see fit? If Palmer is referring to the backlash after Macklemore’s Grammy victories — which, based on her previous tweets, I guess she is — well, no one prevented him from winning all those Grammys, did they? (Also: dear god, it takes some pretty impressive mental gymnastics to get from a harrowing portrait of slavery to a white dude winning some Grammy awards.)
The thing is, though, that I suspect I do know what she’s referring to: it’s the fact that the privileged she speaks of aren’t used to being told to shut up and listen. And it’s true: if you’re a white male who has precisely no experience of oppression (or a rich white female who is lucky enough to make a living writing sixth-form lyrics and doing awful things to ukuleles), you’re not going to get a great reception if you wade into the discussion on identity politics and start telling people how things should be done. In this respect, it’s interesting reading the responses to Palmer’s tweet: among the ridicule and general astonishment, there’s the occasional tweet like this (“as a straight white male there are definitely times I have felt that way”) and this (“apparently [Macklemore]‘s not allowed to talk because he’s not gay and he’s white”).
Let’s get real: Macklemore’s not being prevented from speaking. He’s being given a giant fucking global platform to speak. The problem isn’t with what he has to say, it’s the fact that it’s a message that the general public apparently only wants to hear if it comes from someone like him: straight white “menfolk,” in Palmer’s parlance.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think there’s a great deal to be gained by judging anyone’s opinion a priori on the basis of skin color, gender, or any other such qualifier. A four-legs-good-two-legs-bad approach to identity politics isn’t particularly productive — the identity of the person who voices a given opinion almost certainly frames its construction, but ultimately, an argument either makes sense or it doesn’t.
This one doesn’t. At all. It’s a terrible argument. There’s a superficial air of pragmatism at first glance, perhaps:
as with feminism -> "[we] have a long way to go, & criticizing allies for 'not getting it perfect' is not going to get us there any faster"—
Amanda Palmer (@amandapalmer) January 28, 2014
But let’s follow it through to its logical conclusion: the privileged must be “allowed” to fight for change or… what? They’ll take their bat and ball and go home? They’ll say, “Well, we tried, but shit, no one liked us, so hey, back to oppression!”? We’d better stop being nasty to Macklemore or he’ll stop “fighting” for gay rights, and then what will The Gays do, eh? C’mon now. What she’s really saying is that straight white men must be made to feel as comfortable as possible as potential allies or they’ll get miffed.
Which, y’know, maybe they will. But honestly, if they do, then they’re the sort of allies one can do without. Tiptoeing around the sensibilities of those in a position of power is exactly what oppressed people have always been expected to do, and expecting them to continue to do so only perpetuates the idea that women/people of color/etc. are unreasonably touchy and hard to please. And if you refrain from any criticism (or, less pejoratively, from pointing out mistakes or ignorance), how exactly are your allies meant to become any more familiar with the lives of the people they’re apparently meant to be helping?
And in any case, as far as problems we’re facing in the “fight for change” go, this is pretty much at the bottom of the totem pole. The problem is that privileged white people have a pretty poor track record in this area, because they have a habit of being like Amanda Palmer: self-obsessed, blind to their own advantages, and not at all given to listening. And sure enough, barely an hour after her tweet, Palmer was on the defensive, decrying people who questioned her statement as “haters” and then abdicating from the discussion entirely to tweet about, god help us, yoga.
The simple fact is that “whites/straights/menfolk” can and will do pretty much whatever they want, as they always have. I mean, shit, I’m at least two of those things, and here I am, writing a first-person piece that will be published for the consumption of what is, compared to the reach of a lot of other people in this country, a pretty decent readership. Amanda Palmer is in an even better position: she can do whatever she wants, and here she is, tweeting her asinine thoughts for the benefit of a mystifyingly large fan base, while the people she professes to want to help have damn near no voice at all.
And hey, what do you know? Throughout history, there have been those in a position of privilege who’ve fought for the rights of the oppressed. They’ve done it not through demanding to be heard, but by humility, selflessness, and a willingness to learn from those whose struggle they profess to share. Palmer could learn from their example. But she won’t, of course.