I recently accompanied an artist friend to an out-of-town festival where he was exhibiting. As a photographer, he’s generally in the minority at these events; as a black man whose passion is creating narrative portraits of black and brown people, even more so.
For this particular show, he confessed that he’d had to carefully curate his work. Because of the festival jury’s preferences, he’d been required to prominently feature his striking but indisputably neutral figurative work, while his stunning portraits—several featuring children—played a distinctly supportive role. Yet despite this accommodation, we overheard a young white woman, while dismissively thumbing through his prints, complain to her companion: “You know, white babies are cute, too.”
Because of course, this black artist was expected to accommodate white lives in his work. And of course, by choosing to train his lens on black and brown faces, he was excluding and marginalizing this woman, and people who looked like her. How dare he focus on what he knows—let alone, is—without including whiteness in his personal narrative? How dare whiteness not be visible at all times? After all, all lives matter, right? Right?
Gracefully, he said nothing. Until now, neither did I.
But then, a few days ago, I watched as (white) America’s sweetheart Taylor Swift doubled down on her well-worn damsel-in-distress routine after Kim Kardashian West—inarguably America’s most overexposed celebutante—revealed the receipts refuting Taylor’s claims that she hadn’t been briefed (at least in part) about her controversial shout-out in one of Kanye West’s lesser but most recent hits, “Famous”:
For all my South Side n—gas that know me best, I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex. Why? I made that bitch famous.
Of course Twitter had a field day, gleefully employing the hashtag #TaylorSwiftIsOverParty to celebrate the latest drama of pop music’s favorite drama queen. And of course, Taylor conveniently donned the mantle of feminism to protest (with eager assistance) that her issue wasn’t that Kanye publicly claimed that he might have sex with her—a lyric she agreed to in the leaked recording—but that he happened to call her a “bitch” in the process.
Oh. OK. You’re right, Tay; ”bitch” is way more offensive than a widely broadcast sexual innuendo made at your expense. Because feminism.
And was it offensive? Personally, as a lyricist—and a woman—I’m not a fan of the lyrics of “Famous.” But Kanye didn’t rhyme about me, did he? He likely wouldn’t have, because if and when he’d called to get my blessing, I would’ve said (in full Sophia voice): “HELL no.” (Cue me being knocked out cold by a Yeezy-holic, dress flapping in the wind.)
But that’s me: a black woman who grew up on the South Side of Chicago (shout-out to Melania Trump) whose permission might not have been required in order to suggest—via song and accompanying video—that I’d likely be easy to bed, because … fame whore. No, that was a courtesy extended especially to Taylor, as a gesture of goodwill. But it wasn’t mandatory, by any means (after all, no last name was mentioned in the lyrics). And Kanye would certainly never be accused of excluding whiteness from his art, since the “Famous” video features as many white bodies as any others.
Because, you know, white bodies are cute, too.
However, in all seriousness, this recent turn of events is fascinating, on so many levels (not the least of which is the hilarious irony of Kim Kardashian West exposing someone via video). Because this is where the intersection of privilege and hypocrisy gets really interesting. And when I say “privilege,” I don’t simply mean access and entitlement, though that is most definitely at play here. I’m also talking about the inherent expectation of being given not only the floor but also the benefit of the doubt, even when you’re dead wrong.
After all, Kanye was just Kanye-ing, as Kanye does (yes, it’s a verb). But as noted by countless commenters, Taylor Swift is a woman who has literally made a career of kissing, telling and playing the victim—and, sometimes, naming names. Couldn’t we just consider this karma?
But apparently, karma doesn’t apply to Swift—and, I’d argue, perhaps not to a significant portion of the white people in our midst. Along with our policing problems and policy problems, there seems to be a profound lack of self-awareness at work in our country, most notably among the melanin-deficient. This is undoubtedly because in a country where one’s existence is elevated as the “norm,” self-awareness is optional.
In recent years, we’ve become very fond of cataloging the many “microaggressions” perpetrated by the privileged. But this is something more. This isn’t death by a thousand cuts; this is an epidemic known as “white obliviousness,” and I dare say it may kill us even quicker.
You see, it is white obliviousness that insists that “all lives matter,” as if the preciousness of theirs has ever been in doubt. It is white obliviousness that insists it doesn’t “see color” (a luxury only they are afforded, by the way), as if there were anything negative about color outside of the value judgments that a pernicious form of whiteness has placed upon it. It is this type of obliviousness that insists that affirmative action is unnecessary and biased (hi, Abigail Fisher). It is this obliviousness that has “black friends” and yet refuses to see the correlation between police brutality and racial profiling—if it acknowledges that race is a factor at all. This is the obliviousness that acts as if the value judgments of people of color prejudiced against white people have the same institutional implications and impact as actual racism does.
It is white obliviousness that allows Donald Trump to disparage immigrants while being married to one. It is this obliviousness that would lead Melania Trump—or her speechwriter—to believe that blatantly plagiarizing portions of our current first lady’s 2004 Democratic National Convention speech was not just acceptable but imperceptible. Because who would listen that closely to a black woman? Certainly not Twitter, which for days ignored the multiple pleas Leslie Jones made after online attacks.
It is simply a reflection of how insignificant they consider us, on the whole.
White obliviousness is not innocent; it is an intentional lack of self-awareness subconsciously (or consciously) rooted in maintaining the status quo. Like a tantrum-throwing child (or current Republican presidential nominee) who screws his eyes shut, plugs his ears and sings “lalalalalala” until all dissent ceases, white obliviousness is predicated on blocking out the discomfort that would inevitably come from acknowledging its own privilege. And the irony is that because it refuses to honestly discuss the inequalities inextricably entwined with racial differences, it amplifies them, implying that race is the evil rather than racism.
And again, the burden of proof falls upon the oppressed, because we are in a fight not just for our race but also for recognition of our humanity. And in the context of white obliviousness, that means that to those who proudly claim to be “colorblind,” we remain as invisible as Ralph Ellison posited almost 65 years ago. That is to say, visible only in our proximity to white victimhood. Because how can they see us when they refuse to see themselves?
And this is where we encounter America’s pop princess. Because it is white obliviousness that causes Swift to still feed upon 7-year-old scraps of victimhood in an attempt to remain sympathetic. It is this willful ignorance that would cause her to hysterically wave her arms and scream that this black man had violated her, even after giving consent. And it can only be a hypocritical form of entitlement that would encourage her to continue to insist upon her virtue (perhaps to the point of prosecution) when it was her lie that sparked this scandal in the first place.
Did Kanye West make Taylor Swift famous? That’s debatable. But he has certainly fed her fame—and her entitlement—at his own expense.
Maiysha Kai is a Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter, fashion model, devoted auntie and Brooklyn, N.Y.-based, single black bombshell who recently strutted into her 40s. She is also an expert at oversharing who chronicles her attempts at dating—and adulting—on 40onFleek.