“True understanding of your privilege means you aren’t seeing yourself as some kind of savior who knows what’s best for everyone,” says Kennedy, attempting to unravel his musings. “Understanding your privilege should humble you and cause you to listen more than you speak, amplify voices other than your own.”
The notion of white privilege has become a pretty fashionable hashtag recently, although the phrase has been around quite a while in academia. In her 1988 essay White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, Peggy McIntosh says that white privilege is “like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks”. She lists 50 everyday examples of white privilege to help us all understand why it’s important. For example, if you do not have to “educate [your] children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection” then you are, like it or not, unfairly advantaged.
The song indirectly gives the title to Kennedy’s second album, Guilty as Anybody, a cogent collection of mellow country rock that calls to mind the output of Jack Johnson, Paul Simon and Conor Oberst.
Watching TV with his dad, Kennedy heard a TV baseball commentator recounting an anecdote and saying that he was “guilty as anybody”. The singer was struck by the phrase and determined to find a way to use it in a song. But it didn’t come easily – after several failed efforts, it was the second-to-last song he wrote for the album, inspired by the very public debate over family separation in 2018 in which the children of illegal immigrants were being imprisoned in cages in a warehouse by south Texas border patrol officials.
“Finally, with this song, it worked,” he recalls. “Ultimately what I was trying to get at is that we all, particularly privileged individuals like myself, have been guilty of being complacent and ignoring injustice at some point in our lives. It’s easy to point fingers and call others guilty, but I believe that true change begins by recognizing our own guilt. Only then can we move forward in a positive direction.”
The cover of the album features a naked man’s legs wearing white socks, standing next to a pair of black leather boots. When he toyed with the idea of “wearing” his own privileged, straight, white, male guilt, Kennedy found the visual metaphor instructive.
“I’m not required to live a life where I need to think about my race, gender, or sexual orientation at all,” he explains. “I’m the ‘default’ human being, the main character of the typical movie or book. At the end of the day there’s nothing I need to overcome about my appearance. I can rest cozy in my white socks, white privilege, and throw the guilty boots in the closet until I decide to take them back out. Many people don’t have the privilege of taking off their ‘boots’.”
On a practical level, Kennedy, who plans to vote for Bernie Sanders in the upcoming primary, is a proponent of banning the undue influence of wealthy lobby groups from American politics. “Get special interests out of our government for good,” he demands. “To me, the single greatest step in reconstructing power systems is switching to publicly-funded elections. The amount of money that flows from corporations to politicians for the purpose of influencing elections and policies is outrageous. We need leaders whose only ‘special interests’ are the constituents that they represent.”
“I lean much further left than an average Democrat,” he admits. “Modern capitalism is very troubling to me. The gap between the ultra-rich and the rest of us is ever-widening. Automation and technology have always been framed as meant to ‘make our lives easier’, but what then are working class people supposed to do when replaced by algorithms and machines? I don’t believe capitalism has an answer. By capitalist logic, we are reducing the demand for laborers, yet we have a large ‘supply’ of laborers. In goods, this would mean a drop in price. In workers, this would mean a drop wages, which of course is what has happened in the States when taking inflation into account. It was this sort of thinking that really guided me along in writing my album.”
“With a lot of the songs on the album,” Kennedy goes on, “I tried to embody an ignorant privileged persona with the intention of pointing out the absurdity of it.” The line “I was born with a loaded gun”, for example, is a metaphor for white, upper middle class men in a world where they are not only able to abuse their privilege but are brought up to do so. If there’s a solution to the problem of inequality, then it’s to re-educate ourselves to reject it at every turn, no matter how subtle and socially acceptable our discrimination has become.
“All of our subconscious minds have been trained, or programmed, in such a way that prejudice is ‘built in’ to some degree,” he reasons. “I’m of the opinion that we can never fully ‘re-train’ our brains to rid ourselves of all that. Therefore the best we can do is to always continue questioning and challenging our unconscious behaviors and tendencies.”