Kanye West is Why White People Can’t Get Away with Having One “Black Friend”
Justin Cohen
October 3, 2018

In his latest attention-grabbing gambit, Kanye West used his time as a musical guest on Saturday Night Live this past weekend to reinforce his support for President Donald Trump. In doing so, he continued to conflate his support for Trump with a commitment to free-thinking:

Mr. West, wearing a red Make America Great Again hat, continued his foray into off-the-cuff political commentary after the credits rolled for the season premieredelivering a scattered speech that was cut off from some broadcasts. In footage from the crowd posted to the comedian Chris Rock’s Instagram account, Mr. West can be seen musing on his support of President Trump and urging, “We need to have a dialogue and not a diatribe.”

It’s easy to dismiss West’s ravings as publicity stunts, while his public bouts with mental illness further complicate the extent to which the media thrives on his unorthodox pronouncements. I don’t have any interest in opining on another person’s mental health, nor do I think our cultural discourse improves by indulging in the exegesis of entertainers’ exclamations.

There is a deeper problem with how our culture uses Yeezy, though, in that he has become the token Black friend of American conservatives. To a particular segment of right-wing America, which happens to be woefully underexposed to the actual opinions of the majority of Black Americans, Kanye has become a personality through which conservatives can launder any lingering guilt they have about embracing public policies that punish and demoralize non-White Americans.

Want to justify imprisoning huge segments of Black America? There’s a Kanye rant for that.

Trying to convince yourself that there’s nothing racist about supporting the Trump administration? There’s a rant for that too.

By turning himself into conservative America’s Black friend, Kanye has lent his considerable cultural clout to the project of reinforcing White supremacy.

If only this were a phenomenon limited to conservatives and their process of opinion formation. The crowds in which I move, which are overwhelmingly progressive, have a similar infatuation with the invocation of their “Black friend.” This happens on a whole range of topics, but the approach is striking in its similarity: using a single story – often one that is at odds with broader public opinion within a marginalized community – to launder one’s own guilt about upholding institutional racism.

We can roll our eyes at Yeezy, but White Americans shouldn’t miss the learning opportunity offered by his outbursts. Kanye might not be your particular “one Black friend,” but we should think of Yeezy the next time we play the “Black friend card” to win a political argument.

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