Kanye West Is What Happens When Whiteness Becomes The Standard

Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Admittedly, reminding myself that Whiteness isn't any sort of standard to measure myself by is a concept I still wrestle with. Even today, as I'm acknowledging the existence of White privilege, of White supremacy, and of the creation of Whiteness, I have to consciously urge myself not to allow it to infect me. But it's so pervasive, so ingrained, so subtle, so sneaky, that despite my vigilance, it still sometimes finds a way to seep in. And sometimes I receive reminders that, despite my best efforts to root it out, morsels of it still lurk.


Perhaps the best example I can provide of this struggle is a professional one. Clutch Magazine was the first platform to pay me to write something for them. My first regular paid column was with Madame Noire. My first appearance in a print magazine was an Essence Magazine photoshoot and feature. My first paid editing gig was for a digital magazine spearheaded by The August Wilson Center for African American Culture. Several months after that, I took an editing and writing job at EBONY.com; eventually leading to my own monthly page in EBONY Magazine. I've also written for, partnered with, and been honored by The Root, and VSB has been featured in The Grio, JET Magazine, Black Enterprise and several other Black publications.

This is several years worth of validation; of Black platforms and editors and publishers and audiences appreciating my work. And I've greatly appreciated and valued this appreciation. It has built me, sustained me, and enabled me to grow and survive. But I'd be dishonest if I didn't admit that what's transpired in the last 18 months or so — where multiple mainstream (read: White) publications have asked me to work for them; some even offering to create a job for me — has been a different type of validation. Not necessarily better. But it feels different, like I've been able to crash through some invisible psychic threshold, and I wonder how much of that is due to me subconsciously valuing the attention of the mainstream platforms more than the Black ones.


To be fair, this value distinction does have practical roots. The mainstream platforms tend to be much larger, which means a larger audience, which means more people will read my work, which (often) means more opportunities for more work. Also, some of these larger publications are able to pay more because they have larger budgets. (I have to say, though, that my personal experience had varied. While larger platform does usually equal more money, there are some larger platforms that don't pay as well as I assumed they would, and some relatively smaller predominately Black platforms that compensate their writers at very competitive rates.)

Which matters to me a great deal because writing for a living means I literally write for a living. I have no other career to fall back on. We (VSB) have a few revenue streams, but I pretty much eat what I write. A piece in GQ or The New York Times isn't just a cool byline. It's a car payment. Christmas presents. A new suit. Six month's worth of diapers. An electric and a cable bill, which enables me to have a wifi connection at home, which enables me to work at home to pay for that wifi connection. (And, well, I founded and own a Black publication too. So regardless of who's paying me to write for them, I will always still possess and work in a Black space.)

That said, this validation isn't completely about financial pragmatism. If all things were equal — if the Black publications paid the same as the larger mainstream publications did — I believe I'd still notice and appreciate the mainstream attention in a different way. And this stirs at and upsets me. But I'm not quite sure what to do about it. I'm already hyperaware of its presence — which in theory is enough to rid myself of it — and it's still there.

So, I'm going to stop right here and share something with you all. This piece was initially intended to segue into my thoughts on some of the responses to the general lack-of-response to the sexual harassment allegations facing Casey Affleck; a favorite to win an Oscar for best actor for his performance in Manchester By the Sea. Affleck's situation has been used as evidence that we (Black people) unnecessarily torpedoed Nate Parker and Birth of a Nation. "Why" the argument goes "did we do that to Nate Parker when men like Woody Allen and Roman Polanski and Sean Penn and now Casey Affleck are still celebrated?" In a vacuum, this seems like a sober and logical case. "They" were able to do something, so why can't we do it too? And it remains sober and logical until you realize that it centers Whiteness as the standard, essentially asking "Why aren't we more like these White people?" Yes, it's true that we collectively gave men like Parker and Bill Cosby more scrutiny than White people generally did/do when famous White men commit abhorrent acts. But that doesn't make us wrong. It actually makes us right. History has proven, time and again, that leaning on Whiteness for morality is like asking the sun for some shade. White people just elected Donald Fucking Trump President of the United States, and this is who you're modeling your values and mores on?


Anyway, I planned to expound on that a bit more. But since I began writing, I learned that Kanye West — bodyguards and new blonde do in tow — had a private meeting this morning with Donald Trump. And I decided to change course. Because Kanye, unfortunately, is what an unchecked and unfettered need to be validated by Whiteness looks like — quite literally, actually — and his descent expresses this better than any of my words ever could. This is what it does. This is how powerful and dangerous and corrosive it is. It's vicious enough to make a man look in the mirror — one of the most famous and most influential Black men in the world — and see nothing but what he believes White people see when they see him. This is past the White gaze. He's stuck in an unwinnable maze of Whiteness, where each wall is a funhouse mirror distorting and corrupting his sense of self and space. He is not dead, yet. But he is possessed. And his obsession with Whiteness will continue to gnaw at him — and will eventually devour him whole — unless its exorcised out of him.

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, and the author of What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/HarperCollins)

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I honestly don't trust White validation. So many times White validation comes with ulterior motives. For me Black validation is more pure and generally more honest. And, most times Black validation doesn't require me to compromise. White validation always requires compromise.

And, Black validation just makes me happier and more satisfied. I think I've been feeling this way since high school. I had some White teachers that taught me the folly of seeking White validation with their convoluted critiques of my classwork.