I remember the first time I wanted to be white.
It was Easter Sunday. The California sun brightened the insides of the church that sat on a hill in Monterey. The lights were dim as the pastor walked across the stage, asking the congregation who wanted to be baptized.
I raised my hand as the music played, a soft mellow bounce between bluegrass and cultlike chants. They immersed my body in the baptismal pool. When I came up, stripped of the “blackness” of my own soul (or so they thought), the whole congregation clapped. I had become new. I’d given up the old things — the Holy Ghost-powered sweaty praise breaks; the long, erotic sermons that blended liberative jeremiad and Jesus; the mothers of the church passing a dollar here or there; the stories grandaddy told of Black country people defying the worst of white country hatred.
I was free of it all. I prayed.
When I went down in that cold water, I never noticed a curious thing about that day: I was one of only two Black men in the congregation of at least 100. When I came up “new,” I was not Black – I was Christian, they said.
A few days before I’d decided to be born anew, I called my mama to tell her about my decision. “Hey, ma,” I said, excitement rubbing the insides of my throat. “I think I want — … I think I’m going to get baptized again.”
I could feel her confusion jump from South Carolina all the way to California. “What do you mean?” she said.
“Ma, all that stuff we were taught as kids was wrong,” I said. And by all that stuff I meant all those Black sermons and Black praise breaks and Black recipes after Sunday services and the Black culture that was the backbone of our church. “I’m not Pentecostal,” I told my mother. “I’m reformed. I’m getting baptized again.”
Funny thing is, neither of us knew what that really meant — but we knew what it did. How letting go of my Black faith tradition made me change the way I talked, the way I dressed, the way I walked, the way I worshipped, and the words I said. I did more than go down and come up wet and white as snow. I turned my back on my ancestors’ traditions and on all the ways the Black South loved me.
When I hung up the phone, my mother was hurt and angry. Still, I was determined to be with white people, to do what they did, and to have what they had — power, protection, privilege. And they gave it. And I had it. Until I lost it.
That’s what haunts me about Kanye West.
I have been thinking a lot about Ye, as he calls himself now, lately. After weeks — years, really — of being forced to endure yet another iteration of his foolishness, I want to ask him: Bruh, is it really worth it?
When Ye rolled out “White Lives Matter” shirts at his Paris fashion show earlier this month, I shook my head. While some thought he was trolling, I saw the stunt as an example of self-hatred and shame. Then came the interviews. Ye spewed his anti-Blackness, antisemitism, and misogyny to anyone who would listen, from Tucker Carlson Tonight on Fox News and Drink Champs to British broadcaster Piers Morgan and MIT research scientist Lex Fridman. After watching his erratic and dangerous ramblings, I wondered, “Can he survive this?” But then, almost as quickly, I asked myself, “Do I actually want him to?
After all, in an attempt to “win” and gain power and influence, Ye has weaponized hatred in the same ways some white men (see: former President Donald Trump, conservative talk show host Sean Hannity, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, etc.) have weaponized hatred to win. In an rambling appearance on Piers Morgan Uncensored, Ye said that he empathized with straight white men because “nobody gets judged more” than them.
“A straight white male can’t say, ‘My wife hurt me today,’ because people will say you’re hurting women. A straight white male can’t say, ‘A Black employee didn’t come in to work on time,’ because people will say, ‘You’re racist.’ A straight white male can’t speak on a homosexual person because people will say you’re homophobic,” he droned on.
Despite Ye’s insistence that straight white men are the most maligned group in society, he said he still wants what they have always had: power.
“Part of the reason I empathize with that position is because I know that I’m headed to that position,” he said. “What position that is? Top power position.”
To be sure, this is not new. Ye has long shown that he believed whiteness could save him. A Black man from Chicago does not drape himself in the Confederate flag and claim “slavery is a choice” without being convinced that white people’s understanding of such a brutal history is the right way to remember it. He also proclaimed Black Lives Matter to be a scam — never mind the fact that BLM was never just one thing, but like its historical predecessors, it’s a rallying cry, grassroots effort, and national movement.
Ye has never, to my knowledge, said any one was right but himself, and the white men he idolized. In 2016, he began clinging to Trump. Instead of being repulsed by Trump, Ye embraced his divisive philosophy, claiming the red Make America Great Again hat made him feel like “Superman.” But Ye never truly ever considered how whiteness affects Black people who trust in its promises. For Black people, trying to reach the “top power position” of whiteness is nothing more than sinking in sand, waiting for it to swallow them whole until it chokes whatever life it can out of them.
When the news came that Adidas had severed its lucrative deal with Ye, along with companies JP Morgan Chase, talent agency CAA, luxury fashion house Balenciaga, and many more, I didn’t know what to feel. Part of me wants to ignore Ye altogether, just as I would a child who wants attention and displays erratic behavior to get it. Ye is acting like a spoiled child, but he’s a grown man who has used and abused the love Black people have given him. Most of us knew how dangerous and destructive he’d been. Yet, because of musical nostalgia — and that Black folks aren’t inclined to just throw each other, especially Black men, away — many people gave him grace that would not be afforded to others.
Though Kanye is losing right now — according to him, to the tune of $2 billion — let’s be clear: As a Black man, he has been able to get away with things that Black women and LGBTQ+ people couldn’t, because Ye lives in the “right” body and they don’t. Thanks to his stunts, many Black people did stop supporting him. But others didn’t — which may be one reason Ye’s anti-Blackness and misogyny were not the straws that finally broke the camel’s back. He was a wealthy Black man in America, singing songs in the name of Jesus, and therefore, like so many Black men, untouchable and unmoved.
“So what do you think about Ye?” my barber asked me recently, wondering if I thought he was mentally ill or a genius, or both. “What do you think about what he said?”
If I’m honest, there is a part of me that wants Ye to lose, to be brought low and humbled. Maybe then he’d stop talking so recklessly. I told my barber that I don’t think anybody who builds their platform on hate should win. Those who traffic in antisemitism or racism or misogyny or anti-gay bias shouldn’t be able to gain anything in this world, nor I don’t think they should be able to profit from other people’s pain. I don’t think racists or anti-gay people should be able to eat without being shamed, and I think they deserve to be booed wherever they go until they realize that you cannot cause harm and move about the world unscathed.
People like Ye shouldn’t be able to make antisemitic statements that encourage Nazis to praise them like they’re the second coming of Christ. Nope. Not now. Not ever. Let’s be clear: Hatred is not just about what you do. It is also about who feels empowered by what you say. And when you empower people who hate, you should lose, and lose badly, and in ways that make you change.
After losing deals and lots of money, Ye has found out that no matter how proximate you get to whiteness, you can never really fully be accepted into its power (unless you’re someone like Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas — whom writer Mitch Jackson calls the most powerful Black man in America). While Ye has turned into the personification of mess around and find out, white folks (such as Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville or billionaire Elon Musk) who traffic in hate continue to thrive.
But Ye scares me. He scares me because I know just how powerful a tool a hurt and hateful Black man can be for the white racist agenda (just look at Senate candidate Herschel Walker). Despite his claims, Ye is not free. His slavery is an actual choice. His hatred is an actual weapon. And whatever version of Ye this is, I don’t want it to survive — though I want him to get the help he truly needs.
But as it stands, Ye is no arbiter of Black freedom. He is a provocateur of white supremacy.
He is no liberator or lover of Black people. He is a weapon and worshipper of white retaliation.
He doesn’t just want to live in whiteness. He longs to disappear inside of it.
And who can save a man who believes becoming white is the way to become free?
You could spot the smile on his face a mile away.
Singer-actor Sammy Davis Jr.’s left arm rests on a white piano and his Afro covers up part of the iconic Ebony logo. He is alone in this image. The backdrop is black and gold, similar to the shades on his eyes. Davis was on the 1976 cover in honor of his 50th birthday to discuss how he always found a way to live “larger than life.” Small in size but gigantic in personality, Davis took the world by storm, rising to be considered a god of his time.
“I wouldn’t change anything,” he told writer Louie Robinson. “The hurts I would take away; that which I was responsible for and that which had been done to me. Things you did in haste.”
When I read those words, I immediately thought of an image taken just four years earlier of Davis gripping the arms of Richard Nixon, the 37th president of the United States, as Nixon addressed his supporters at a youth rally in Miami in 1972. In the picture, Davis’ eyes were closed and his chin rested on Nixon’s shoulder as he smiled, listening to the crowd chant, “Four more years! Four more years!” At the time, some believed this was a great moment in American democracy — a superstar Black man embracing the most powerful white man in America. It was what Nixon called “The American Dream.”
That dream would be short-lived, though. Nixon hugged Davis and brought him to his rallies, but this proved only to be a ploy for Nixon’s transactional benefit: bring the charismatic and visible Black man to the party and Black people would follow.
“I can really be a pain in the rectum when I want to be,” Davis told Robinson, “because I have tenacity in terms of saying I want it done that way and I don’t really give a damn about anybody else’s opinion.”
He would come to regret how dangerous and damaging the picture of him and Nixon, which appeared in Life magazine and traveled the world, had become. He would see that white power could do many things, except embrace Black humanity or ensure Black equality. In 2018, writer Bené Viera was right to declare that “before Trump and West, there was Nixon and Davis.” And just like Davis, Ye has chosen to become the white man’s tool, the white man’s entertainer, and the white man’s weapon.
Ever since reading Davis’ interview in Ebony, I’ve wondered if Ye would ever reach that moment. Would he ever come to see just how harmful his actions really were? Would he ever realize how hurt the people who loved him, supported him, and turned him into a star would be by what he’d become? Would he ever consider what disappearing into whiteness actually meant?
I guess some questions are a fool’s game. But I also know that questions, like symbols, can change reality.
In a 2018 interview on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, Kimmel asked Ye how he could reconcile his comments post-Hurricane Katrina with his support of Trump. “You so famously, and so powerfully said, ‘George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.’ It makes me wonder, what makes you think Donald Trump does?”
You could see the shame Ye wore in that moment. He didn’t answer the question. How could he?
I remember the first time I wanted to be white.
And Ye reminds me of why I’m glad I got free.