We are all racist.
Not the most uplifting message in the world, I know. But there is a bevy of social scientific research to back up this statement (many of you may be familiar with said research already after reading Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink” or hearing about it).3 I can’t really provide further insight on this social science research. And I don’t want to waste time talking about Malcolm Gladwell. But I do think think this point is especially relevant when discussing two contemporary black celebrities – Kanye West and Dave Chappelle – and their roles in the respective mediums that we most associate with them (hip hop music, comedic television) as well as American popular culture.
Perhaps you have heard about the recent “feud” between Kanye West and Jimmy Kimmel? One might draw a lot of conclusions from the interview Kimmel had with Kanye last night. Here is one clip:4
Kanye – while admitting it was a social faux pas – labeled himself a “creative genius” and called out fake humble celebrities, they talked about the perils of celebrity, and Kanye discussed standing up for creative people (i.e. nerds) who too often get pushed around. Kimmel mentioned that a lot of people think Kanye is a jerk, and emphasized that in their personal interactions he has always found Kanye to be a really nice guy. As one writer noted in a post-interview interview with Kimmel, Kanye refused “to use self-deprecation to make himself into a sympathetic character.”5 Regardless of whether you like Kanye’s behavior or not, it is honest, and it is undoubtedly more authentic than the public face of many celebrities. You are lying to yourself if you think your favorite business mogul/actor/political figure/athlete/musician/doctor is not supremely confident. Ask yourself this: How many successful people in any field got where they are without confidence, even swagger?
One thing I was reminded of from the interview is the fact that Kanye is a nerd.6 One definition of nerd is “someone who is single-minded or accomplished but is felt to be socially inept.” I think this quality may be the key to understanding Kanye. Look back at the specific moments where Kanye invited mass enmity – saying George Bush didn’t care about black people, briefly embarrassing Taylor Swift, various iterations on the theme that he is a genius – and you can see an element of social ineptitude combined with a striking frankness. Kanye says things that might very well be true. These utterances are viewed with disdain – and painted by the media as crazy rants – not because they are necessarily wrong, but because people aren’t supposed to say things like that.7
(An aside: those who say the real problem was Kanye disrespecting the President in such a manner should probably engage in some self-examination on the topic of race. The most shameful moment in that saga came years later when Bush claimed that being called a racist was “the lowest moment of his presidency.” Not 9/11, not the deaths of thousands in post-Katrina New Orleans, but being called a racist. And just in case you haven’t been paying attention, members of Congress regularly accuse President Obama of being a terrorist and/or secret Kenyan communist (charges that contain blatantly racist elements). Also, w.r.t. the Taylor Swift incident, ask yourself this: would anyone have cared if the roles were reversed and Taylor Swift had interrupted Kanye getting an award to give her opinion on the matter? Of course not).
Success has allowed Kanye to explore his nerdy obsessions as he pleases (e.g. being an intern at Fendi). Because of his nerdiness (which in some ways is almost anti-gangster), obvious zeal for fashion, introspective lyrics, and art school background (amongst other things) Kanye doesn’t fit the rapper template we have in our minds.8 This template is seen most obviously in Kanye’s close friend Jay-Z, who has perfected the modern rapper image (some combination of retired gangster, successful businessman, and ultimately a figure who is ostensibly above all the petty squabbles that other rappers engage in), in spite of the fact that musically he is basically in the Jordan Wizards stage of his career.
So Kanye doesn’t mesh with our idea of what a rapper is supposed to be. Rap sprung largely from groups of young, black, poor, urban males in the late 1970s and early 1980s in New York City. Most popular rap music in America hasn’t strayed much from this – the rappers we know are generally young black males from poor urban backgrounds (though there are important racial and gender exceptions). Over the years, as figures like Tupac and B.I.G. and Jay-Z came to define rap in the popular consciousness, rap became associated with crime, with gangs, and thus with gangsters. But Kanye was raised by a college professor. He comes from a background of black activism.9 I think this is important, and it doesn’t get discussed enough when we talk about Kanye.
I think that at a societal level we have difficulty comprehending and accepting black celebrities who don’t fit the template we are accustomed to. Kanye is a prime example. But there are others.
Guess who else was raised by a mother who was a college professor, whose parents were involved in black activism, and whose public decision to step off his expected path resulted in a bunch of people calling him crazy? Dave Chappelle.
Here is the link to a recent and fantastic profile of Chappelle, written by Rachel Ghansah for the October issue of the Believer magazine: http://www.believermag.com/issues/201310/?read=article_ghansah.
As Ghansah states, “More than any comic of his generation, he lanced the boil of how race works and also prodded at how nuanced race had become…Chappelle did such a good job of truth-telling, on every subject, that nobody knew what to do when he just stopped talking. We aren’t used to taking no for an answer, to being rejected, especially not by the people who are supposed to make us smile. Especially not by black men who are supposed to make us smile…But Chappelle, like Kanye West, grew up in a home where black activism and black leftist thought were the languages of the household. No wonder, then, that both Chappelle and West have wrestled so bitterly and publicly with their sense of responsibility to and also their failure to meet those same obligations.”
Here is a sketch from the show,10 depicting a scenario in which black Americans get reparations for slavery:
The profile contains a thoughtful investigation into the racial humor on the Chappelle Show and Chappelle’s decision to walk away from a $50 million contract This decision was greeted with shock and wild speculation. “When news of his decision to cease filming the third season of the show first made headlines, there were many spectacular rumors. He had quit the show without any warning. Chappelle was now addicted to crack. He had lost his mind. The most insane speculation I saw was posted on a friend’s Facebook page at 3 a.m. A website had alleged that a powerful cabal of black leaders—Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby, and others—were so offended by Chappelle’s use of the n-word that they had him intimidated and banned.”
Shortly after Chappelle left Comedy Central he gave interviews to Oprah and TIME magazine.11 In both interviews he alluded to the fact that he began to feel uncomfortable with the racially charged material on the show. This feeling crystalized when a white crew member laughed in a way that Chappelle felt was inappropriate during a sketch about a pixie that encouraged black people to act in stereotypical ways.
Chappelle admitted in both interviews that he felt some of the material on the show was socially irresponsible. “It’s something that is unique to us. White people, white artists, are allowed to be individuals. But we always have this greater struggle that we at least have to keep in mind somewhere.” Chappelle is talking about a very difficult tightrope to walk. Chappelle navigated this dizzying maze adroitly, but the process took a toll on him.
There is a sports comparison here. Muhammad Ali, a sports figure who was embraced by many young, liberal white Americans of a certain age as transformative, in part because of his vocal opposition to the Vietnam War. And, in a striking contrast, Michael Jordan, the ultimate corporate shill, when asked why he wouldn’t endorse a black Democratic candidate who was running against Jesse Helms (a notorious racist) in the North Carolina senate race, allegedly replied “Republicans buy shoes, too.” One famous person speaking his mind and daring the establishment to retaliate, the other remaining quiet and filling his bank account.
Ghansah, author of the Chappelle profile, references Ali while drawing a parallel to Chappelle: “In his fantastic profile of Muhammad Ali, Hunter S. Thompson writes that “the Champ, after all, had once hurled his Olympic gold medal into the Ohio River, in a fit of pique at some alleged racial insult in Louisville.” The medal was a symbol of a white world that Ali “was already learning to treat with a very calculated measure of public disrespect.” Like most people of the post–civil rights generation, I think that Chappelle, whose family had long been free, educated, leftist, and radical, had hoped that his success would not need to follow that same militant path…Like Thompson once wrote of Ali, Chappelle was put through “one of the meanest and most shameful ordeals any prominent American has ever endured.” Without knowing his history, Dave Chappelle’s decision to figuratively toss his gold medal into the Ohio River does seem like a bizarre, illogical act that abbreviated a successful career on its ascent. But was it illogical? Hardly. Revolutionary? Possibly. To turn his back on Hollywood, to walk away from the spotlight because it was turning him into a man he didn’t want to be—a man without dignity—was a move that was, in a way, Chappelle’s birthright.”
We are accustomed to celebrities holding their tongues on any issue of social import. They have legions of publicists and agents working around the clock to keep their images squeaky clean. When someone lets a controversial opinion slip they are condemned, and we congratulate ourselves and move on. In the process we maintain our own conscious and unconscious racial biases without confronting them fully. As the TIME article states, “Racial divisions are becoming more complex, harder to understand, more challenging to discuss. That’s where Chappelle comes in. He takes all those hang-ups about race and lifts them up, spins them around, puts them in our face. Deal with it. Laugh at it. But don’t ignore it.” In other words, more Ali than Jordan.
Stop and think for a second. Can you see this struggle playing out – admittedly in a much clumsier way – in the infamous Kanye incidents involving his statements on Bush, his interaction with Taylor Swift, and his continued struggle to become accepted as an equal in the fashion world? It is a stretch, but not an impossibility. In each case Kanye is, I think, saying something he believes has a potential social value to black people that lack his platform. It might be messy (and inextricably linked with Kanye’s massive ego), but isn’t that messiness preferable to someone who doesn’t care one way or the other? Why would you prefer apathy?
Racism: Then and Now
The structural racism of the 1960s, and its overtness, was in some ways easier to deal with than what we have today. Let me be clear, I am not saying by any measure that it was easy. Murders, threats of murder, physical assault, harassment, etc. But perhaps it is simpler to look at a segregated water fountain and say “fix that, make it just one fountain,” walk away, and claim you have fixed the problem.
What we are dealing with now is the fallout from the historical perceptions of race in America. And perceptions can shape, or trump, reality. This is partly why the racism that exists now is so difficult to extinguish. It is tough to get a handle on. Thinking of oneself as racist should be – and often is – anathema to a decent person, and this makes things harder. None of us wants to think we are racist, because racists are those wackos in the KKK, racists are the other, not us. This thought comforts us, but it also prevents us from the necessary process of self-reflection and empathy that will help transcend the racism that lingers in our society. I think the Chappelle Show had a social value because I believe that the best way to alleviate this problem is by discussing it often, by confronting it head on, instead of sweeping it under the rug.
I think the majority of racist experiences and episodes in America occur in the vague ground between non-racist and explicit, overt racism. It is not segregated water fountains, or the war on drugs (many young people see the obvious racism of that policy, even if our political leaders pretend not to). Rather it is the thousand everyday tiny life experiences. Crossing the street when you see a black person. Saying “they” inadvertently. Talking with each black person as if he or she is some de facto representative for all black people and asking questions that open with a phrase like “But don’t black people” in the nicest way possible (we have all done this, I have done it). Expecting a black person to be superior at sports. Hell, I did this a few months ago, picking teams at the UT Rec center for pickup basketball. I picked the only black guy first and this scenario occurred:
But in real life. That was racist. Sure, not as harmful as many forms of racism, but that doesn’t excuse it.
I think Kanye West and Dave Chappelle are both trying to figure out ways to maintain their dignity and balance the social responsibility that they feel.
Kanye has done it publicly in a controversial (and ego-saturated) way. This is further complicated by the fact that he is a nerd. In several interviews during the past year (and with his album Yeezus) Kanye has indicated that he believes he never should have had to apologize for his outspoken nature. This language is often couched inside a soliloquy about fashion and/or Kanye being a genius, so it is harder to see (and many people are too busy shaking their heads and thinking Kanye is a douche bag to notice). But if you get beyond the idea that the man is “ranting” and simply pay attention to what he is saying, then try to put yourself in his place, you can see a lot of truth in what he says.
Kanye West is an artist, not just a rapper.
Chappelle has done it behind the scenes, in a quiet and more egoless way. Turning down such a massive sum is unheard of, and that act stands as evidence that he was willing to sacrifice a fortune in order to uphold his principles. He is a brilliant comedian who maintained ironic distance as he tackled racial issues, but he has admitted to feeling enormous pressure from his platform on the Chappelle Show.
Dave Chappelle is a social critic, not just a comedian.
Both men are trying to be authentic – to be themselves and not be corrupted by the system around them (a system that, if we are being honest with ourselves, we must admit is controlled largely by white people) – and we should respect that.
Addendum: I should add a meta-disclosure. In one portion of the Chappelle profile Ghansah interviews Neal Brennan, the co-creator of the Chappelle Show and Chappelle’s longtime collaborator, who happens to be white: In 2011, Brennan told a reporter: “You know, for a black artist that’s beloved to go on TV and say he was victimized by a white corporate structure, that is like white-people nectar, it’s like white liberal nectar, like, ‘Oh my god, this young black man has been victimized.’”
I am a liberal white male. I have some close friends that are black. I am drawn to some aspects of American society that are viewed as black: hip hop music, NBA basketball, sneaker culture. I must admit that there is something to that Brennan quote. I think that there is a trend among my specific racial-socio-economic-political group whereby we overcompensate for past racial transgressions against black Americans, a more nuanced version of white guilt combined with a (conscious and unconscious) desire to be accepted by black people. This process often includes overlooking some things (e.g. the widespread misogyny in rap music) and perhaps occasionally exhibiting contrarian enthusiasm for a black cultural figure when they are the object of criticism (e.g. my continued defense of Kanye West).
So in addition to the more common conscious/unconscious racial biases I possess, I must also account for this. Ghansah states, “for all the post–civil rights progress we have made, it is possible that you could be best friends with someone of a different race without being able to enter worlds and spaces that they can, or in the way that they do.” Sadly, I think that this is more of an inevitably than a possibility. I believe that introspection and empathy and frank discussions of race can serve as a shield against that inevitability. And I want that shield, because it is hard enough to achieve an authentic connection with another human being, and race shouldn’t complicate that process the way it does now.
Update: A piece on Gawker today discusses the Kanye-Kimmel interview and racial issues. Worth a read: http://gawker.com/kanye-west-knows-you-think-he-sounded-nuts-on-kimmel-1443710553