One of the hallmarks of institutional racism is when the racial or ethnic hegemony denies the right of individuality (in thought, behavior and ambition) to the racial or ethnic minority. I’ve experienced this a lot in my life. As an adult, the conversation takes the form of confusion when I confess that I’m not a professional singer or dancer.
Here in Australia, casual racism is accepted as a natural hazard, like bush fires and large arachnids. Last week, after grabbing some lunch, I told my editor how nice it was to sit in the sunshine. He asked me if I was working on my tan.
The point is that as adults, we often gravitate towards sameness and, as a result, try to force-feed the concept onto others whom would have the audacity to resist. Whether it’s by humiliating someone, ostracizing them or by disguising bigotry and prejudice as justified legislation – like a proposed ‘burqa ban’ – adults are hard-wired to oppress one another into neatly confined, easily categorized and inescapable boxes.
This has become a hallmark of white supremacy, but white supremacy is strengthened by black compliance – an implement that is proving more and more vital to reinforcing an institution hell-bent on burying the talent that would seek to subvert it. Sometimes this is done when a black person says that racism is dead. Sometimes it’s encouraged through tacit acceptance of homophobia and misogyny. Equality is not a black and white agenda; it’s a universal right, and unless you get on board with demanding justice for everyone, your efforts are wasted.
…And then there’s a petition to deny a performer an honorary doctorate based off of his increasingly bad music and face-palming public antics. And THIS is the new battleground to discuss race in 2015!?
I recently learned that The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) is planning to award Kanye West with an honorary doctorate. As an alumnus of the school, I am appalled. As a result, I created a petition calling on SAIC to revoke it (although in fairness, it has not yet been given, so it technically cannot be revoked. Boom. You got me). The reactions from friends, acquaintances and external networks have been mixed. I’ve received private messages calling me a hater, a self-hater, and a racist…from black and white critics.
The reproach from white critics clearly demonstrates a complete ignorance on what constitutes racism (which is alive and well) and further devalues the struggle from which their white privilege continues to benefit. But hey, I get it. It’s exhausting to keep getting upset about black children getting gunned down in the streets by white cops. This is a fresh new outrage that doesn’t require nearly as much protest, critical thought or fundamental change. But I’m just not interested in humoring it.
I know these critics well, because I dealt with them every day when I was a student at SAIC where I was often one of two (or, you know, one) black students in every studio critique or lecture. These were the same people who called my work ‘white-washed’ because, when looking at my art, the race of the person who created it was not immediately clear. These were the same people who told me to incorporate more of ‘my culture’ into my artwork, because I was succeeding so well at distancing myself from it, apparently.
These critics are the same professors, classmates and constituents who used their white privilege to tell me how black I’m supposed to be. And if I do or say something that doesn’t align with this – or if I criticize their favorite rapper, apparently – then I’m a racist… against my own race.
The irony is not lost on me.
So allow me to tell them, what the same type of people told Jessica Williams when she stated that she had no interest in hosting The Daily Show: “Lean in,” and listen.
To my black critics, I understand that there is an unwritten law of black culture – one of many – which states that we cannot call each other out. My parents taught me this, the same as yours. We don’t air our dirty laundry. We don’t discuss mental illness. We don’t have gay family members. We don’t talk about rape, or abuse, or the role that Christianity has played in the Jim Crow mentality that still hinders black progress. I also understand that this mentality is a by-product of racism.
At all times, we must be united in strengthening black voices, regardless of what they have to say, even if those voices speak words at the detriment of its women, of its queer community and of its disabled members (and much of mainstream Hip Hop does this, unfortunately).
As if the discussion on race and gender cannot co-exist among each other; as if we must be forced to choose between which issue, and which side, we really stand on. bell hooks was right when she said that black women are often excluded from any conversation on race, just as we are often excluded from any conversation on feminism. So if I actually waited for an opportune moment to be asked for my opinion on race or gender, I would be wasting my time.
The knee-jerk reaction to my petition is based in historical truths of course, and we are right to recognize them when they present themselves as black people trying to tear each other down in order to gain white approval.
But this ain’t that. I deeply resent this implication simply because my opinion does not rise up to your acceptable definition of what my blackness should look like.
So let me make this plain to everyone. I do not want Kanye West to receive an honorary doctorate from SAIC not because tearing down another black person makes me feel better about myself, but because as an individual, I am entitled to disagree with any action that encourages a man who has become a parody of himself and emblematic of what happens when an unstoppable ego meets an immovable narcissist. I dissent from this gesture, because he was once a man who said that Bush doesn’t care about black people, and now he’s the man who says that if you don’t wear Prada, you don’t matter.
He is not an artist. He is a celebrity.
He is not a creative genius, no matter how many times he says he is. He is an entertainer.
And you telling me that I don’t have the right to say so, singling out my race as the reason, IS racist because you’re telling me how to be black according to your expectations. Not every black critic is Ben Carson. Not every black man who gets criticized is Troy Davis… or have you forgotten about him already?
It’s no secret that the contemporary art world tends to be enamored with the whole concept of celebrity. Shia LaBeouf, James Franco and Jay-Z have all bought their way into the life in some form or another, but this isn’t new. Andy Warhol made his life’s work off of the subject of celebrity and has the museum in Pittsburgh to prove it.
But this takes it too far. Giving someone an honorary degree should elevate the prestige of an institution and strengthen the faith its student body has in its education. In my opinion, doing this would achieve the opposite. Art, by its very nature, is transgressive. And it should be. It should inspire protests, revolutions, election shocks and progress.
Artists should be fearless, fierce and uncompromising in their message…but you must first have a message worth listening to, and Yeezy’s message is that it’s okay to tear down other artists, disrespect, chide and belittle every single creative threat around you simply because you stopped being relevant.
Is this the message that SAIC wants to send to the world? That they too have stopped being relevant? Because as I think about the piece of paper hanging in my parents’ home which states that I earned my BFA, I can’t help but think that this is the case.
Hip-hop has been an invaluable contribution to the world. It has used history, culture, passion and pure love to show everyone what black people have always known – that we are proud, audacious, loud, intelligent and strong – and we don’t need the approval or permission of a system that has been built on repressing that. But I, for one, must acknowledge how this art has been hijacked by some people who would use it as a vehicle for propagating distraction and distorting these issues to line their pockets and the pockets of the executives who pay them.
I won’t acknowledge Kanye West as an artist any more than I will acknowledge rock music as an invention of Elvis Presley.
Never once have I derided hip hop. Never once have I said that I’m against rappers or hip hop artists receiving honorary doctorates. And for the record, I think there are a hundred others who are infinitely more deserving than Kanye.
I say that as an artist, as an SAIC graduate, as a woman of color, but most importantly, as an individual who will not say what you want me to say simply because it doesn’t align with your views on blackness.
I say that as someone who recognizes a publicity stunt when I see one. And, if SAIC goes through with this, I say that as someone who now finds less reason to argue with people who say that art school is overrated.