OpEd: Dear Kanye... When Racism Gets Lost in Translation

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 12: Kanye West on the runway at the adidas Originals x Kanye West YEEZY SEASON 1 fashion show during New York Fashion Week Fall 2015 at Skylight Clarkson Sq on February 12, 2015 in New York City.
NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 12: Kanye West on the runway at the adidas Originals x Kanye West YEEZY SEASON 1 fashion show during New York Fashion Week Fall 2015 at Skylight Clarkson Sq on February 12, 2015 in New York City. Theo Wargo

Sometimes dealing with racism is like being trapped in The Eagles’ “Hotel California” – you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

I attempted to “check out” of racist Hotel California when I lived in actual California for five years. I grew up in the racially-charged, urban Midwest in St. Louis, Mo., one of the most segregated regions in the nation. My experience with race was harsh and ever-burdensome, inescapable and cruel. When I left the Midwest region after college I was quite bitter and angry. I needed a break. So when I moved to the mostly white enclave of Bakersfield, Calif. I unconsciously decided I was going to take a “race vacation” and simply “not deal.”

This usually worked out just fine since most of the time the white people I encountered purposefully weren’t thinking about race. No one wanted to think about. It was much more preferable to all go drink Sangria and see some Sondheim at the local community theater.

It was fun playing pretend, except in those awkward moments when I couldn’t. Like the time a friend of mine thought black people were “making up” the racist encounters at Denny’s that plagued the restaurant chain in lawsuits throughout the ‘90s.

I informed this friend that my father, sisters and I once left a Denny’s in Peoria, Illinois because they refused to acknowledge or seat us. Instead we endured the most silent, rage-filled breakfast ever with my furious-and-suppressing-it father at a Bob Evans.

This scenario would repeat itself with white friends saying the N-word when talking about rap music and me, politely, having to tell them how much I dislike the N-word, don’t use it, and don’t even like it when black people say it.

It would come up again when The Chappelle Show became popular and my well-meaning friends had to admit they actually didn’t understand any of the jokes, but still thought it was funny because … *shoulder shrug* “black people be crazy?”

They didn’t know and didn’t want to articulate it. We ended up having a conversation about it anyway because if they were going to laugh at Dave Chappelle I figured they should at least have a rudimentary understanding of the absurdity of racism.

I say all this because I can see how Kanye West could accidentally be a catalyst for ignorance for his white friends. It’s not fun to play “Race Ambassador,” holding their hands across a racial divide you’ve had to soldier through since preschool

Fashion designer Jean Touitou probably meant well when he ignorantly used the N-word in his menswear presentation last month. I say “probably” because at least he had the forethought to censor the actual word in the sign he held, titled “Last Ni##@$ in Paris.”

Touitou explained that the name was a play on the Brando film “Last Tango in Paris” and the hit Jay Z and Kanye West collaboration “Niggas in Paris.” It was about the worlds of chic French fashion and urban street wear coming together, Timberland boot inspired “hood” fashion and men’s couture finding harmony artistically … and weirdly, racially.

According to Style.com, Touitou, a friend of West’s had this to say when he presented the menswear line:

I call this one look Last N****s in Paris. Why? Because it's the sweet spot when the hood—the 'hood—meets Bertolucci's movie ‘Last Tango in Paris.’ So that's ‘N****s in Paris’ and ‘Last N****s in Paris.’ [Nervous laughter from audience.] The Timberland here is a very strong ghetto signifier. In the ghetto, it is all the Timberlands, all the big chain. Not at the same time—never; it's bad taste.

He has since apologized, not that it stopped hit record producer Timbaland from immediately pulling the footwear deal he initially had with the designer.

West, who Touitou claimed was the catalyst for naming the line as a sort of “homage” to their friendship, eventually responded to the controversy in an interview about his fashion line. “Racism is a distraction to humanity,” he said. “Jean Touitou is one of the most humane people I know. Jean Touitou had my family have dinner with him every time we came to Paris. And there are a lot of people who own fashion companies who didn’t."

West is from Chicago, which is almost as bad, if not worse than St. Louis in terms of race relations and segregation. Leaving behind the psychological burden of “Racism: American Style” to go play around in France with fashion designers can be seductive.

It’s like you, Kanye, for a brief moment get to be ‘Human Being Kanye,’ not ‘BLACK PERSON Kanye.’

People seem to like you for who you are (or at least for your money and influence). It feels nice to take a break, to not have to think about race for once. So when your clueless, but possibly well-meaning white friend says something potentially offensive you have to make a choice – do you break the illusion of racial equanimity by turning life into a sudden Cornel West dissertation or do you let it ride knowing that this fellow is harmless and hope he has enough sense not to name his menswear presentation “Last Ni##@$ In Paris?”

Maybe Kanye opted for the latter.

I did not enjoy any time I had to correct my white friends in California when they said something terribly offensive. It always made an otherwise pleasant encounter suddenly awkward and jarring, as if someone had abruptly cut the lights and the roaches of racism were found scurrying about.

But I felt I had to get over my own selfish desire to “forget” about racism, and deal with the offense head on, lest I become part of the problem. I couldn’t look like I condoned any of this. I needed my friends to understand. In the end, if they were truly the good people I believed them to be, they would be sensitive and open-minded about it all. If they pitched a fit and pushed back (which thankfully, none did), I knew where I stood.

Critics of black people who speak up about racism often think there is some joy in this act, when the reality is we’d like nothing more for race not to be an issue. Unfortunately, reality makes it an issue whether we want it to be there or not. West, both a vocal critic of racism and someone who is (obviously) exhausted from dealing with racism isn’t any more obligated to hand-hold his white friends across the racial divide than I was, but when you don’t say something that silence can be seen as a silent confirmation.

You say something because you have to. If racism is a distraction, it is a most deadly one.

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