In light of the sympathetic pleasantries that Kanye West has been tweeting about Donald Trump and the tacit racist dog-whistles of the Trump administration political agenda, it seems counterintuitive that a black man would openly support Donald Trump. So the question I will attempt to ask is: Is Kanye black?
The prima facie account is surely, yes. I mean, he looks black doesn’t he? But, here is the thing. I have a white friend that looks of Italian roots and was born of two Sicilian parents, but in genetic testing he is 20% African and President Obama, for example, is half black. Does this mean Obama has only 1/2 the claim to blackness than somebody who has two black parents and/or that my friend has 20% claim to blackness as well? It seems to be rather absurd to think that the way our genetics is spliced-up should be reflective of what culture we could or could not identify as being associated with or as a member thereof. Therefore, phenotype distinctions — as the product of said genetic make-up — should be assessed as merely a superficial distinction of ones particular genetic history, but is not necessarily reflective of any cultural association.
However, we all do not wear our genetics on our sleeves and notwithstanding the absurdity of thinking our genetics reflects our culture, when we see people walking around in life we have no way of knowing their genetic make-up. Since humans are pattern-matching creatures that tend towards cognitive reductionism, it is quite common to see people and then instantly put them into cultural categories from phenotype qualities and memetic clues. Such as skin color, height, weight, eye color, hair style, attire and so on. This is why we do not often confuse a homeless person for a lawyer or a women for a man or a black person for a white person. But this only illustrates that phenotype and memetic identifiers are only sufficient cause for giving us clues to somebodies cultural identity but it is not necessarily so. It is not a catch-all method. So just because Kanye looks black does not mean he is necessarily black, but it means he could be. But, by that same form of reasoning, so could Eminem.
So if identifying what it is to be black is necessarily cultural then how do we define what it is to be a member of black culture? The problem with this type of inquiry is highly susceptible to getting caught in the weeds of stereotyping and making odd — and seemingly — racist claims that blackness is about sagging your pants or wearing bling in your teeth. So before I delve into this question I want to first make some qualifications. My account is descriptive only and it is not normative, nor essential. Meaning, I can use demographic data to describe commonalities in black culture but this does not mean they are ideal or what they ought to be (normative) and it also does not mean there is some natural driving force that it must be one way or the other (essentialism). Secondly, if it was the case that memetics was the only true identifier of cultural identity then wouldn’t we have very weak demographic data to this effect? Like, for example, say I wanted to say that descriptively so, black people are poorer than white people in the United States. This does not mean I could draw the conclusion black-culture = poverty because, A) it is way more complicated than a single quantitive measurement and B) that definition would capture a set that included more white phenotype members than black phenotype members and that would seem rather contradictory. In other words, the ultimate goal of understanding black culture is asking what is the common thread that ties phenotypical blackness together which is sufficient, but not necessary at explaining what it is to be a member of black culture.
This means that even though it may be the case that black people are — on average — poorer than white people, this is insufficient and we need to put more focus to the why and the how of their economic experience than merely what is measured in dollars and cents. The why is much easier to assess than the how, so we will start there. It was eloquently expressed by Martin Luther King that on the surface giving equal rights to all people equally creates equality in justice and liberty, but enforcing equal rules for all people loses its ability to render equality if some people in society had a three-hundred-year head-start ahead over others. Put plainly and simply: wealth compounds! Through your own lifetime and through generations. On the back of the founding fathers pro property-rights agenda, white people were able to progress by building their compounded property hundreds of years prior to black people could (under the equal blessing of the law (the civil rights act)). Moreover, in a society that champions austerity and individual accolades to make the tacit judgment that if you are rich it is because you earned your richness and if you are poor it is because you earned your poorness, makes it hard to be poor while holding on to the self-reflecting judgement that you dug your own hole. But if compounded wealth gives people a upper hand towards wealth accumulation, then the idea that black people have to expel more effort to achieve equal economic ends than white people is not myth nor rationalization, but simply a basic economic principle. Becoming rich is harder if you are black. Not because black people are less talented, less steadfast or less capable, but simply that wealth begets wealth and white people have had more time to allow the fruits of their labor to grow and prosper.
The how is it to be black under the aforementioned economic realities are much harder to explain because they are not something that can be ascertained through basic economic principles. The capitalist dictum that the rising tide lifts all boats is not necessarily true for all people in society and even the most staunch capitalist would agree to this, but if this is how economics (capitalism) functions then wouldn’t the race or culture of the ‘rising boats’ not matter? If you are part of a culture who has not benefited from compounded wealth accumulation — as, ahem, the boats rise — then what is the compounding effect of the compounded sense of failure? If society blasts from a megaphone that wealth and poverty reflect ones abilities, then not being wealthy produces a sense of inadequacy — you are a failed member of society. You work hard, but told not hard enough. You strive hard, but told you don’t strive enough. You struggle hard, but told you do not struggle enough. Systemic racism is essentially a product of society — en masse — making the fallacious assumption that creating equality is simply a matter of checking the ‘lets have equality now box’ and being done with it. It is assuming we are all individual snowflakes of autonomous perfection and our histories and compounded psychologies have no impact on who we are as humans in the present. When you look at the dichotomy of ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’ it should be noted that the ‘nature’ component of what defines you as a human has engrained within it the qualia of how your parents were nurtured and their parents and their parents and so on. Nature is just complied nurturing through generations. There is no natural human qualities in some broad sweeping sense of the term beyond phenotype and nuanced biological differences that are reflections of environmental stimuli and available food sources in different regions. The point to be made, is that when we think of ourselves as a mix of nature and nurture there is some tendency to think we are born with some string of ‘human qualities’ (natural ones) that perhaps all other people in a shared region, or culture or nation have in common. But, it is really not that simple. Wealth compounds, emotions compound, tragedies compound and psychologies compounds. So the ‘how’ is it to be black in American culture is coupled with hard-nosed economic principles that becomes implicitly influenced by American neoliberal ideology and renders what is nothing less than multi-generational compounded oppression and this is not something that just resolves from one or a few votes on the congressional floor. It take time and, more importantly, it takes effort and an empathic consideration of our shared history.
Again, to reinstate what I said earlier, being black means having to live in a society that makes it harder to gain equal ends with equal effort, whilst simultaneously blaming you for your failures as a process that builds through generations — this is pure description of what it is and how it is to be black. This is not ideal and this is not essential to black history, culture or genetics that engenders this character or this role in society. Notwithstanding Hegel, there is no end to history! History does not have a culminated end-point that represents some completed unfolding or maturity — and this is a fact irrespective of any particular history, but if you happen to be white and, more so if you happen to be white and rich, then it has been serendipitously fruitful and it feels better to associate this advantageous historical unfolding with your merits or cleverness than as being the profiteer of centuries of mass oppression. If for no other reason, accepting the baggage — for better or worse — of your history as something that impacts your life flies in the face of our unbridled desire of free will. This does not mean I am providing a deterministic philosophy and people are destined to wealth or poverty and that was determined centuries prior. I am stating that we are products of our history and we all are born with different challenges to overcome and for some people in society, the challenges are far greater and this is not the fault of any individual or demographic category — it is the collective responsibility of all parties involved (present and future). So now that we have laid some cards on the table…. let’s get back to the question at-hand: is Kanye Black?
From the perspective of phenotype and, most likely, genetics, sure Kanye is black. But that is a useless brute fact that has no impact on his culture or his experience or really anything at all. If how it is to be black is a feeling of centuries of compounded oppression and a feeling that you have failed before you tried because of a huge gap between expectations and reasonable efficacy; then we can only say Kanye is a member of black culture if, and only if, he understands in a very visceral way how it is to be black. How it is to be oppressed through generations. And if there is any general fact about Kanye we could agree on, it would be: a) he is rich and b) he is narcissistic as fuck! Reflecting on how Kanye projects himself through music and media, it is quite clear that Kanye feels he got to his place in society — rich and famous — purely from the merits of his own handiwork, intelligence and tenacity; and it has nothing to do with luck or circumstances of birth, his history or family. There is no better source for explicating how Kanye feels that Kanye himself: does he know about the history of oppression and generations of trauma? In his words, he is too busy writing history to learn history and his greatest struggle and pain in life is derived from the horrible fact that he is unable to watch himself perform. Surely it is possible that this all part of an act and that Kanye performs to mask his insecurities and perhaps he really does experience black culture in the way I have explicated. And, secondly, perhaps I have painted myself into philosophical corner where I am forced to posit the position that being black means you cannot be self-confident and/or outwardly present an aura of self-righteous “self consciousness”, as Kanye puts it.
If it was simply a matter of him being an ego-maniac then I think there would not be much to it beyond that. Except he does more than that. His explicit and tacit approval of the Trump agenda — notwithstanding Trump’s explicit reinforcement of systemic racism by believing that nationalism is more important than systemic police brutality of black bodies — speaks volumes to say that the “dragon energy” of Trump is more important than actual public policy. For both Trump and Kanye, in their perpetual process of self-indulgent branding, surely, the medium is the message and maybe they share philosophical kinship in this regard. But for the most part, most black people cannot afford the luxury of this philosophy. Kanye will not be deported, he will not be refused a visa, he will not have his children taken from him, if he is ever mistreated by the the police he will be able to afford a fair and just defense, he will certainly be the beneficiary of a pro-wealthy tax code and he has no place to posit slavery as a choice. If Kanye really understand what it is to be black, his politics would reflect this and they do not. Kanye — culturally speaking — may not be black.
In conclusion, I want to follow up on a couple points that need to be teased out a bit. First, it is most likely the case that Kanye has just forgotten what it is to be black and what it is to be entrenched within black culture, because his fame and wealth have isolated him from it and because he most likely accredits all of his success to his merits and not any of it to chance (just as Trump probably associates all of his success with his own merit and smarts, and not with the chance circumstances of his birth). This means it is possible for Kanye to be reminded of his multi-generational history and to be a better advocate for justice and equality. Secondly, I want to point out that in America, classism, sexism and racism are tightly woven together and capitalist-America projects a sense of failure on to the back of poor people of all colors. Which means there is a compounded psychological effect of poor people, in general, in America; but this is amplified when you combine conditions of racism and classism, and even more-so when we add sexism as well.
The underlining point is to not cast stones against Kanye but to underline that we should be hesitant to examine the socially constructed notion of a culture and race and apply it wholesale to phenotype categories. Secondly, racism is not the preferential treatment of one demographic group over another— that is prejudice; — racism, in the other hand is about power. The group in society that yields the most power can use their power to give themselves preferential positions in politics and economics and these actions are generally justified in claims towards freedom and liberty — disregarding the notion that equal effort does not equate equal return. When Kanye makes the assertion that if slavery in America happened for 400 years than obviously it was by some conscious decision of the slaves; he completely dismisses the complexity of social power dynamics and falls entrapped to the historians fallacy by painting historical facts through the lens of his present position within his preferential position in the power dynamic of society. The point to asking if Kanye is black or nor — culturally speaking or otherwise — is not the point. The broader point is to underline that history matters and — not to snub Kris Jenner — there is really no such thing as self-made or, rather, absolute autonomy.