It would have been hard to ignore the outburst of pure rage that met recent claims that Kanye West had suggested “slavery was a choice”. Kanye, who has become famed for his provocative comments, seemed to have gone too far this time. The rage quickly spread through liberal media outlets, with CNN reporting, for example that “Kanye West just said 400 years of slavery was a choice”.
Among my own Facebook and WhatsApp circles, the anger was palpable. I’d have gotten angry too, if I still believed much of what I read on Facebook or WhatsApp. But given that most of today’s outrage tends to be based on exaggeration and misinterpretation – if not outright lies – it was worth sitting back and considering the facts and context.
First question: are there ulterior motives for attacking Kanye? Absolutely, yes. In black and left circles, Kanye had fallen out of favour long before this episode. In particular, he has committed the ultimate crime; a crime that offends black commentators and left-wing activists equally. Kanye has become the wrong kind of black. To leftists, his endorsement of Donald Trump has, understandably, ruffled feathers. As a rapper, Kanye had built some pretty right-on credentials, and now he’s spoiled it by going all right-wing, and endorsing the devil himself!
White leftists get pretty annoyed when white celebs do this kind of thing, but it’s far worse when black people do it, because everybody knows black people must vote and think as white liberals expect (because civil rights). Furthermore, middle-class white liberals find it uncomfortable to disagree with black people, even rich, right-wing black people, because white privilege, and black oppression, and racism, and other stuff they don’t really understand makes them feel awkward. In a nutshell, they want to scream at Kanye but they can’t without permission from other black people in case someone calls them racist.
For black nationalists, Kanye fell out of favour long before his Trump flirtation. For them, his crime is far worse than bad politics: he married a white woman! While white opposition to mixed-race relationships has been in decline for decades, this form of racism has been going largely unchecked in black American communities, and largely unnoticed by the white mainstream. In the past 6 years or so (the Era of Identity) this tendency has become notably worse because of the new identitarian belief that black people can’t be racist. This bigoted notion is now accepted – to some extent at least – across much of the mainstream left, with the inevitable result that black nationalists can be as racist as they like with the knowledge that white liberals will ignore, tolerate or even support their racism.
And so for a while now, the black nationalist mob and the white “liberal” mob have had their torches and pitchforks primed for the right moment. Kanye’s apparently throwaway remark on slavery was the spark that lit the fire.
Next, black racists gave white people the go-ahead to attack Kanye: by declaring him to be a “coconut”: in other words, brown on the outside but white inside. When I was at school with British-born West Indians, coconut was a serious slur (I believe “oreo” is the US equivalent). This was thrown at black kids who didn’t speak Jamaican patois, black kids who “sounded white”, black kids that ate chips and other “white food”, black kids that studied hard rather than drop out and reject “Babylon System”, mixed-race kids, black kids that listened to white music, and worst of all, black kids from Africa, who looked black but just didn’t act it. Being a white minority (I was one of 4 white children in a class of 36) was a blessing: nobody expected us to “act black”, so it was easier for us to fit in with the culturally dominant Jamaicans than it was to be the wrong-type-of-black-person.
Snoop Dogg declared open season by releasing a photoshopped picture of Kanye as a white man. Now the Doggfather had given his blessing, the lynch mob could get to work.
Now to the controversial comment itself: you spotted the schoolboy error in the CNN headline, right? Slavery in the United didn’t last anywhere near 400 years. It began in the early 17th century, and was stamped out in the mid-19th. If journalism was still a thing, CNN or some other mainstream outlet might have noticed this discrepancy, and questioned it. But questioning the mob is bad for business and bad for journalistic careers. There was no 400 years of slavery. Kanye wasn’t talking about literal slavery, but to a mindset held by some black American people, today, 400 years after the start of US slavery.
If you’ve followed black political discourse over the decades, it’s not hard to understand what he was saying. It’s an old message: that until the people of the African diaspora stop leaning on the crutch of victimhood, they cannot progress. Bob Marley put it like this:
Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our mind…
and like this:
Until the colour of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the colour of his eyes, me say war…
En Vogue put it like this:
Free your mind, and the rest will follow… be colour-blind, don’t be so shallow…
In a famous 1996 stand-up routine, Chris Rock drew a sharp line between “black people” and “niggas”: highlighting a divide between upwardly-mobile black middle-classes and those who conformed to negative black stereotypes. It was controversial, but it received a strongly positive response from a western black audience that was growing tired of being constrained by a victimhood narrative. But the 1990s was a freer and more liberal era than today.
So in his “400 years” comment, Kanye wasn’t claiming “slavery was a choice”, as reported. He wasn’t doing or saying anything that hasn’t been said before, with far less controversy. His problem is that he said it in the Era of Identity and in the era of the social media lynch mob. I have little doubt that Chris Rock would have been given a far rougher ride for his routine if it had been delivered today rather than the 1990s. Bob Marley, too, is unlikely to have been forgiven his comments: he was mixed-race, and distrusted by black nationalists for adopting a “One Love” message of unity rather than a harder anti-white message.
In an age when middle-class black westerners have taken to wearing “oppression” as a fashion label, and guilty white middle-class “liberals” play along with their charade, Kanye is guilty of interfering with their games of look-at-meee victimhood. How can black college students revel in their misery-charades when black multi-millionaires like Kanye are spoiling it for them? How is it possible to revel in the misery of Tupac’s lyric “… we ain’t ready to see a black President…” now that Obama has gone and spoiled it by proving that yes, actually we are?
Slavery was never a choice, and nor was racism. Racism wasn’t a choice for most of the past 400 years. But now, it has become one: not just a choice, but a pity-party mostly played by privileged, middle-class people. It’s time to burst the bubble. Or in the words of Morgan Freeman:
How do we stop racism? Stop talking about it. I’m going to stop calling you a white man and I’m going to ask you to stop calling me a black man.
I’m with Morgan. This will provoke fury from those people – black and white – who aren’t ready to let go. But the time has come to move on.
Also published on Medium.