A Letter to Adele
I remember when I heard your voice for the first time. 21 had just come out, and your soulful voice on “Rollin’ in the Deep” made me mistake you for a black woman. When I found out you were white — British, no less — I was thrown for a loop. How could a white woman sing like this? I thought. I was both confused and suspicious; I loved your music, but figured that, like Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, and Iggy Azalea, you were just another point in the history of white people whitepeopling, stealing our shit and making it your own.
See, what you might not understand — what I think many white people don’t understand — is that, like Ariel in The Little Mermaid, black people have had their voices stolen since we were introduced to the West. Elvis stole gospel and the blues and made it “rock n’ roll.” Thomas Edison’s lightbulb gained commercial appeal by Lewis Latimer, but we only know Edison. Henrietta Lacks’ cells continue to provide life to those who are on the brink of death. And Iggy continues to think she is special. So when I heard “Rollin’ in the Deep,” I kept it on repeat; but I did it with suspicion. I loved your voice but struggled with your whiteness — and the success your whiteness afforded you.
And then you won another Grammy on Sunday. And with that win, I knew you were different.
You did what Macklemore and Iggy did not have the courage or moral strength to do; you gave it up. Even if this was symbolic — even if you left that stage with the award in hand — you made it clear that the award wasn’t yours. It was Beyonce’s, you told us; you took the stage made possible by our contributions and manipulated your privilege to bring a spotlight to one of the most powerful black women in American history. While Taylor Swift cried because her moment was stolen, you cried because you know Beyonce’s moment was stolen.
And this gave me hope.
Don’t get me wrong, Adele. I think you have quite a bit of work to do — as do most of us. But to hear you reject the prestige of this award, and to stan(d) for a black woman in the midst of other white people meant something to me.
You didn’t Amy Schumer or Lena Dunham your feminism; you didn’t make yourself into a white martyr like The Blind Side; you didn’t scream “Black Lives Matter!” into the mic to signal your solidarity or your “wokeness.” You simply slid to the side, faded into black, allowed the blackness of your own whiteness to shine. Although I hate white women tears, your tears weren’t tears of guilt, but of acknowledgement. You put shame to the Grammy’s; and for that, I am thankful.
You knew that “the resistance of the other does not do violence” to you. You knew that the other “has a positive structure,” that the very presence of Beyonce’s unapologetic blackness made you better, invited you to be a more compassionate, thoughtful, and equitable human being. In short, you knew what many white people don’t know: you knew that blackness doesn’t threaten whiteness but makes it human, brings it down from its mythical normativity and situates it in a world of relation.
You knew that your whiteness wasn’t lessened by acknowledging blackness.
You knew that your voice was made possible by a blackness you didn’t — or wouldn’t ever — understand.
You knew that the inspiration Beyonce offered to “your black friends” didn’t somehow destroy you or make you less of a person.
In short, you knew that making Beyonce matter to the Grammys did not somehow mean your contributions didn’t matter.
And you did this without making yourself a martyr, without making it all about you. You centered a black woman — at the Grammys, no less. And for that, I thank you. I am grateful.
You may have a lot of work to do — we’ll get to the politics of appropriation another time — but you operated in good faith. And quite frankly, that’s more than I expect or ever expected.
So thank you, Adele. Your voice, however short-lived it was, has provided new breath to this suspicious and exhausted black man. I may be alone in this — I do not speak for my whole race — but I’m impressed. And that’s not easy to do.
May you and your family be well, and may I one day witness more white people acting in good faith.
Your former and current fan,