We need to talk about Kanye West.
Like many people, I have watched in bemusement as Kanye has put on one of the most public displays of decompensation I have ever witnessed. While he has had a long history of erratic behavior, things came to a boiling point with his recent anti-Semitic remarks, when he tweeted “I’m going death con 3 on JEWISH PEOPLE,” which he followed by declaring “war” on P. Diddy, when he tweeted, “Ima use you as an example to show the Jewish people that told you to call me that no one can threaten or influence me.” These statements perpetuate the old antisemitic trope of Jewish power and control.
On a podcast earlier this month, Kanye declared that he could make anti-Semitic remarks and Adidas still could not drop him.
He was wrong about that. His fall from grace has been stunning. The list of companies that have broken ties with Kanye continues to grow, including Apple Music, Peloton, Skechers, and, most recently, Adidas. Forbes reported that, as a result of this scandal, Kanye is no longer a billionaire. If you have followed Kanye’s career, or even just occasionally read a story about him, you’ll know that his billionaire status meant a lot to him.
The Problem with Kanye’s Anti-Blackness
If I’m being completely honest, part of me feels that Kanye’s comeuppance has been a long time in the making. Kanye has repeatedly engaged in provocative behaviors that have been disrespectful to the Black community. After all, this is the individual who said that 400 years of slavery sounded like a choice (he later apologized but the damage was done). This is the individual who recently wore a White Lives Matter shirt at Paris Fashion Week, saying it was, “funny.”
Prior to these most recent outbursts, people have been willing to put up with Kanye’s idiosyncrasies. He has been viewed as a brilliant madman, a generational yet complicated artist who is often misunderstood. For years, the Black community tried to understand, embrace, and protect him. The death of his mother in 2007 impacted him especially hard and still haunts him to this day. Kanye has stated that he blames himself for her death. After his mother’s death, Kanye was very public about the grief he experienced. He would openly fight back tears when talking about his mother. Nine years later, Kanye was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a condition that is associated with mood swings ranging from depressive lows to manic highs.
Kanye’s most recent anti-Semitic behaviors are deeply disturbing and deserve the condemnation he is receiving. It is also the case that Kanye’s anti-Black behaviors are deeply disturbing and deserving of the same level of condemnation. Kanye’s behavior and comments have been very damaging for the Black community, in part because they have provided cover for racists and White supremacists who agree with the stupid and racist things Kanye has said (e.g., neo-Nazis saying Kanye West is the greatest since Adolf Hitler and hanging an antisemitic, pro-Kanye banner over a Los Angeles highway).
As a Black psychologist, I have long been concerned about Kanye’s mental health and the negative psychological impact Kanye has had on the Black community. There has been a lot of commentary about his bipolar disorder, with people often attributing his erratic behavior to going through a manic episode. There is no doubt that his bipolar disorder has greatly contributed to his past and current difficulties. However, there is something much deeper going on that Eurocentric paradigms of mental health cannot explain.
For many years, Black psychologists grounded in Afrocentric psychology have argued that mental health and wellness for Black people should be considered within the context of their culture. They argued that models or conceptualizations of mental health for Black people should be culturally and racially self-affirming. This was important due to the inundation of negative messages about the humanity of Black people.
Why an Afrocentric Conceptualization of Mental Health is Needed
My concern about Kanye’s mental health is informed by an Afrocentric conceptualization. Years ago, one of the elder statespersons of Black psychology, Na’im Akbar, proposed four classes of African-centered mental disorders. The first disorder, alien-self disorder, is characterized by being alienated from Black or African culture and being preoccupied with materialistic goals. As Kanye’s behavior has grown more erratic, he has increasingly distanced himself from Black culture and has clearly been preoccupied with his (once) billionaire status.
The second proposed disorder, anti-self disorder, is characterized by hostility toward all things Black or African and is seen as more severe than alien-self disorder. Some might argue that Kanye’s ardent support for a president who made racist comments about Africa (among other racially offensive comments) is evidence that he may be suffering from this proposed disorder.
The third proposed disorder, self-destructive disorder, is characterized by destructive attempts to cope with White supremacy and often reflects a survival-at-any-cost mentality. This disorder was meant to explain behaviors such as drug abuse and excessive drinking. I would expand this focus to include Kanye’s anti-Semitic comments because they have certainly been self-destructive. He has dug in his heels even in the midst of so many companies breaking ties with him. Kanye believes he is speaking out on a perceived oppression, and in doing so he has done immeasurable damage to himself.
The fourth proposed disorder, organic disorders, includes mental disorders which are related to the interaction of biochemical, social, and environmental factors. Kanye’s diagnosed bipolar disorder would appear to fit here.
Before psychologists start questioning the validity of these disorders, I will go ahead and acknowledge that you will not find the first three disorders included in the DSM-5-TR (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition, Text Revision). Psychologists will not get reimbursed for these disorders.
Akbar’s classes of African-centered mental disorders might best be thought of as heuristics which were created to address the psychological impact of internalized anti-Blackness among Black people. Black psychology exists, in part, because Eurocentric approaches to psychology do not understand or acknowledge the psychological damage of anti-Blackness. Black psychologists have long understood that it is not healthy for Black people to internalize anti-Blackness.
Earlier this year Trevor Noah said that Kanye should be “counseled, not canceled.” Instead of reveling in Kanye’s comeuppance, I hope that he receives the culturally appropriate mental health treatment he so desperately needs.