You Should Have Put a Question Mark On It: Beyonce, Adele, & White Awarding
In Adele’s memorable Grammy award acceptance speech of February 2017, she praised Beyonce and broke her award in half, giving one half to Beyonce. By doing so, she acknowledged the deep investment in white privilege and color blindness which contaminates our system of rewards and in a later interview, she acknowledged this much, stating that she thought she won as a result of white privilege and because white people, who are in the majority as decision-makers, privilege other white people.
But Adele is an exception; most privileged people — and since white people invented whiteness, those privileged people have been white ones — utilize some form of ‘self-serving attribution’ when they discuss their success. As a result, white people as a group continue to reward each other even when their performance is subpar relative to those around them by courting a distorted perception of meritorious achievement which actively denies simultaneous white privilege.
White people hold the most power in most arena, including the arts and music, and in this arena the over-representation of white people leads to the over-representation in awards to white people. Perhaps because a majority connects and/or identifies with white people more readily, they are more inclined to name a white person the ‘winner.’ They are also inclined to credit this winner with the benefit of ‘merit,’ because a lack of merit would assume an unfair ‘win.’ And thus, a poor and potentially unethical choice on their part. This behavior is the cycle of deception which attends white behavior in the context of their significant degree of power as a group: white people must win; if they win, they must be better; because they are better, they must win; if they did win, they must be better. Around and around and around, decade after decade, century after century. No wonder black, brown, and indigenous peoples are dizzy and disoriented in the context of white supremacy: it is a 24/7 gaslighting job. The effort required of us to attend this mass hallucination is herculean. And frankly, unnecessary.
When Adele broke her award in half and gave half to Beyonce, she broke this cycle of white ignorance. Essentially, Adele took the File 13 of white ignorance and tossed it in the bin. Whether or not one believes Beyonce should have the entire reward, Adele’s behavior stands in stark contrast to that of the large majority of white people: she openly acknowledged her unearned privilege even when the stakes were high. As such, she acknowledged that to a certain extent, she is automatically privileged with a trait that requires absolutely no intelligence, stamina, discipline, effort, or perhaps most importantly, merit and which ‘achieves’ at least some of the work for her.
This acknowledgement of the unearned benefit of whiteness is the psychological location at which most white people choose not to see and to remain ignorant.
This behavior seems to be a collective sort of ‘self-serving attribution,’ a term which describes the human tendency to attribute positive achievements to the self and negative ones to external factors. Because white people as a group hold the most power, they will have the greatest ability to act in this way. At a group level, this allows white people to create this vicious cycle of exclusion by: allowing white people to attain higher levels through white supremacy and privileging, and then attributing that unearned benefit/”achievement” to themselves. This has been achieved by calling white supremacy a system of ‘merit,’ thus completely distorting the concept of merit.
The corollary also applies: that if the ‘other’ is achieving, they must have had help, and if the ‘other’ is failing, it is due to their internal inferiority. This attitude — the flip side of white supremacy’s ignorance AKA ‘self-serving attribution,’ is routinely exhibited in stereotypical dog whistles, AKA BS, which include ‘the welfare mom,’ ‘dangerous black men,’ and any current right-wing commentary re: Colin Kaepernick’s athletic ability.
This self-serving attribution — which has two psychological sides working in concert to uphold white supremacy — is readily available for observation at any of a number of Fortune 500 companies, secondary school and university Board of Directors, Congress, the Supreme Court, etc etc: this behavior is not specific to the world of arts and music. Unfortunately for BBI peoples, this self-serving attribution forces us to perform at higher levels in order to achieve equal status, because we must perform at a level which overcomes the collective white tendency to self-serving attribution.
Another unfortunate result to the larger society of this type of privileging which contains in and of itself the means of ignorance is that the achievements of white people will be questioned. It is impossible to ignore the fact that if a person is privileged then, by definition, some of what they have acquired is not earned. White people are permanently, immutably privileged with whiteness regardless of the presence or absence of other privileges and, by definition of the word ‘privilege,’ it creates a context in which merit is less relevant. White people as a collective remain (actively) ignorant of this while BBI peoples as a collective are painfully aware of it, because we must always work harder to achieve the same, or less. It often seems to BBI peoples that white people are deliberately trying not to see it because it is so obvious to us it doesn’t even seem possible to ignore it.
Adele overcame her human tendency to self-serving attribution. She put a question mark on it, exposing to white people what most refuse to consider: that, as a result of their privileging, every single ‘achievement’ will have a question on it, because every single achievement is gained in the context of highly-penetrated, worldwide white supremacy. To be sure, there are issues with this scenario: chiefly that it appears that she is doing Beyonce a favor. And this is the primary problem with the sort of privileging which a system like white supremacy supports: it conveys the impression that POC’s must be gifted rewards from white people because it refuses to acknowledge that whites as a group gift each other through privilege at baseline and thus render themselves blind to the fact of the (unearned) privilege.
I do hope that white people who subscribe to this sort of ignorance opt for knowledge instead: put a question mark on it. When you get a unearned privilege AND it is permanent, the baggage that comes with it is that your achievements will be permanently questioned. Until, that is, white supremacy is eliminated.