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Breaking Down Why Adele’s Speech Was Another Example of White Feminism

Imagine if Adele would’ve walked offstage and given the gold to Beyonce. Her action would’ve been unprecedented.

Major award-winning recording artist Adele effused over Beyonce last night during her Album of the Year acceptance speech. Visibly uncomfortable and fighting tears, Adele lamented to an adoring crowd about what the R&B singer meant to her and her “black friends,” at which I cringed.

“The way that you make me and my friends feel — and the way that you make my black friends feel — is empowering.”

To be completely fair, since the surprise release of Lemonade last spring, Beyonce hasn’t been shy about discussing the political and cultural enzymes behind its genesis. She’s stated that this particular “body of work” was intended to inspire and empower black Americans. She even took the opportunity to make the point, again, following her win in this year’s Urban Contemporary Album category.

Still, at a moment when “President Orange Menace” is showcasing influential black celebrities like trophy wives to prove his in-touchness with the black community, black audiences are rightfully skeptical about anyone invoking this white racial reasoning, no matter the ends.

Befuddled after besting Beyonce’s critically acclaimed and visually stunning tour-de-Black Lives Matter, Adele may have genuinely believed, in her soul, that the black woman she described as “our light” deserved to win. The shock and awe so earnestly displayed on her face may have been sincere. However, that doesn’t absolve the fact that when the wonder subsided, we were left with the same old story, one I’m certain most of you have read some version of before:

Related: Oshun: The African Goddess Behind Beyonce’s Lemonade

A white artist wins a major award over a black artist who seemed a shoo-in to collect the prize(s). She feels horrible and apologizes, profusely, to said black artist, whom most music connoisseurs believe in their bones was robbed. It happened three years ago when white rapper Macklemore beat out the avant-garde rap trailblazer Kendrick Lamar. History repeated itself last night.

While Adele may have been regretful about the outcome of the academy vote, we clearly saw, again, that empathy has its limits.

Consider that fact that she went as far as verbally not accepting the award, calling Beyonce “her life,” but did not descend the stage to hand over her trophy to the artist whom she felt rightfully deserved it.

Consider, also, the fact that in a speech that was so clearly racialized — after all, she racially qualified her point about the impact of Beyonce’s music on a particular demographic of her friends — Adele did not make an explicit reference to her identity as a white British woman, what she learned or insight she gained about black existence from the project.

She certainly could have done so, without, I believe, provoking any shade or side-eyes. Within this same emotionally charged context, she did flatly admit to not loving her father and rebooted, on the spot, her tribute to gay icon George Michael. She did quip about wishing Beyonce was her “mommy.”

Related: How Queer Bad Boy George Michael Paved The Way for the Grindr Generation

In terms of human qualities, Adele has never lacked for frankness, her most endearing trait. And, like her troublesome American counterpart Jennifer Lawrence, she has an uncanny knack for going off script, reinforcing why fans love her.

In other words, she’s not “politically correct,” at least for a celebrity of her stature, but she was uncharacteristically politically correct in that moment.

Flattery and hero-worship weren’t enough to mask this mainstay of white feminism, this unwillingness to risk privilege for fairness, this tendency to applaud and ape the extraordinary work of black artists without concretely or materially rewarding it. (Yes, I say this fully cognizant that Chance the Rapper won for Best New Artist. However, what does that “W” have to do with naming Lemonade Album of the Year if the aesthetics and innovation of the project merited that?)

Granted, it might’ve been embarrassing if Adele walked off stage and gave the gold to Beyonce. More than likely, I feel, it would’ve been a remarkable sight to behold, a concrete show of interracial solidarity, unlike anything we’ve ever witnessed at a Grammys ceremony. Unprecedented, I tell you.

Imagine, if you will, the ripple effect such a bold action would have had with that audience, with the millions of viewers watching at home, and members of the Recording Academy, to see a white music powerhouse like Adele reject her award — or any of the accolades lavished on her throughout the evening — standing in solidarity with Beyonce … even if the latter protested her actions.

Walking off that stage and giving her trophy to Beyonce would have been, in her words, “monumental,” for it would have meant rejecting the whiteness she was born with and helping to set us on the right path toward progressive race relations. How intersectionally gratifying that would have been! I get excited just thinking about it.

Alas, this was not the time! Maybe in some future date, we’ll see white artists undertake this kind of risk-taking. Either that, or the Recording Academy will finally take major steps — such as the ones recommended here — to weed and reform its voting body so that white talents like Adele will never again be placed — dare I say — in such an “awkward position.”

Correction: A previous version of this article listed the year Macklemore won his Grammys as 2016. That date is incorrect. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis swept the 56th Grammys in 2014, winning three trophies — Best Rap Song, Best Rap Performance, Best Rap Album — and beating out Kendrick Lamar’s “Good kid, M.A.A.D City.” The article has been updated.


Antwan is an educator, cultural critic, actor, and writer for Wear Your Voice Mag (WYV), where he focuses on the dynamics of class, race, gender, politics, and pop culture. Prior to joining the team at WYV, he was an adjunct professor in the African American Studies Department at Valdosta State University in southern Georgia, where he taught African American Literature. He has traveled the U.S. and U.K. showcasing a fifty-five minute, one-person play titled Whitewash, which focuses on the state of black men in the post-civil rights era. Antwan received his B.A. in English and Literature from California State University, Dominguez Hills, and M.A. in African American Studies from University of California, Los Angeles. He is a Ronald E. McNair Scholar and NAACP theater nominee.

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