the economics of race and silence: kanye west and bell hooks

Remember when Kanye West said, “[We] brought the leather jogging pants six years ago to Fendi, and they said ‘no.’ How many motherf*ckers you done seen with a leather jogging pant?” in an interview with Zane Lowe on BBC1? And then Jimmy Kimmel thought he’d strike his late night humor chops by recreating the scene with a couple of kids? And there was that great Twitter feud between Jimmy vs. Kanye of 2013?

This fiasco was resolved over a month ago when Kanye appeared on Kimmel’s show to receive an apology, but today I found myself googling the original BBC1 interview with Kanye again. This time, my curiosity was piqued by bell hooks.

First order of business: an introduction. bell hooks is a name, not a tool you can find in the Walmart home improvement aisle. I studied a bit of her feminist cultural criticism in my last year of college; currently a professor at Berea College, her work pushes feminism beyond the confines of the white and privileged. She is a materialist, and she recognizes the economics at play in subjugation–not simply theory that works in the realm of ideas.

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young bell hooks. via Denison

She wrote a piece responding to Sheryl Sandberg’s contentious book Lean Inwhich is totally “not a feminist manifesto.” Oh wait, “ok, it is a feminist manifesto.” Both of these quotes belong to Sandberg in her book and illustrate the sort of non-substantive banter which, hooks argues, makes up Sandberg’s entire argument.

Among the fallacies that bell hooks finds with Sandberg’s argument is this:

“Given the huge amounts of money Sandberg has acquired, ostensibly by paying close attention to her financial future, her silence on the subject of money in Lean In undermines the call for genuine equality. Without the ability to be autonomous, in control of self and finances, women will not have the strength and confidence to ‘lean in.’ … her failure to confront the issue of women acquiring wealth allows her to ignore concrete systemic obstacles most women face inside the workforce. And by not confronting the issue of women and wealth, she need not confront the issue of women and poverty. She need not address the ways extreme class differences make it difficult for there to be a common sisterhood based on shared struggle and solidarity.”

bell hooks is absolutely right. To consider social inequalities, one cannot simply discuss gender or race or class on its own, but as a part of a larger political world to which we all have a relationship. Sandberg’s silence, therefore, is not merely a missing piece, but an intentional statement that eliminates the mention of class and race from the conversation. Silence is a political statement– an erasure of marginalized voices.

So what happens when these silenced voices do speak? What is their cultural impact, if they have any at all?

Enter Kanye West and his interview with BBC1. Many followed Jimmy Kimmel’s example: they laughed at it and brushed it off  It seems that every time he speaks up, he’s turned into a clown by smug commentators and bloggers….

We got this new thing called classism. It’s racism’s cousin. This is what we do to hold people back. And we got this other thing that’s been workin for a long time… So you don’t have to be racist any more. It’s called self-hate. It works on itself. It’s like the real estate of racism. Where just like that, when somebody comes up and says kind of like “I am a god,” everybody says, “who does he think he is?” I thought I told you who I thought I was. A god. Would it have been better if I had called the song, “I am a n*gga?” Or if I had a song that said “I am a gangsta”? Or if I had a song that said “I am a pimp.” All those colors and petinas fit better….on a person like me, right? But to say you are a god? Especially when you got shipped over to the country you’re in and your last name is a slave owners’? How could you say that? How could you have that mentality?

Kanye explains how the dominant culture works on a mass scale by suppressing the will, goals, and empowerment of individuals. If each individual thinks of themselves in terms of the manner prescribed to them (i.e. “I am a black man and therefore a n*gger” or “I am a woman and therefore inherently weakened by emotion”) rather than in terms of their abilities and potential, they cannot challenge and move beyond the power structure that dictates their limitations in the first place. What if the weaknesses that we perceive as individuals are intentionally imposed by culture? To boot, the cultural effects of subjugation are economic. A person without agency has no financial autonomy either.

I’m not blindly praising Kanye. I struggle to swallow and reconcile some of his lyrics, for example. I enjoy his song with Jay Z “N*ggas in Paris” on a purely musical level, but I can’t listen to the lyrics lest I hear the words “Come and meet me in the bathroom stall/And show me why you deserve to have it all.” The subtlety in this representation of sexism perhaps makes it all the more dangerous, and it certainly illustrates just how problematic the intersection between race, gender, class actually is.

But people don’t see the complexities in Kanye’s words, because they don’t take him seriously. The critics and bloggers who smugly mock him with about as much cleverness as Jimmy Kimmel (read: none) turn him into a clown, a grotesque, behaving in exactly the way that Kanye condemns in his interview (“…and everybody says, ‘Who does he think he is?'”) So what happens when the silenced decides to speak? He’s a caricature, a cartoonish image built up by different segments of the media.

But it’s fashion consultant Jibril Durimel who mainly gets it right, as Kanye quoted him:

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For further reading, check out this piece by Tom Hawking from June called “If You’re Laughing at Kanye West, the Jokes on You.”

Otherwise, I’ll leave you with this:

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