Was the Reaction to Kanye’s Harvard Architecture Speech Racist?

The group that invited West to speak at the school responds to online reaction

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Kanye West
Shaun Mader / McMullan / Sipa USA / AP Photo

Kanye West on Sept. 10, 2013, at a fashion show in New York City

When Rapper Kanye West dropped by Harvard’s Graduate School of Design on Nov. 17 to briefly lecture to students about his personal theories about art and architecture, reactions ranged from excited — his fiancée Kim Kardashian gushed about the appearance on Twitter — to bemused. As many were eager to point out, West is famous as a “College Dropout” and, while clearly enthusiastic about design and architecture, is not actually an architect.

As Rolling Stone explains, the event was put together by the school’s African-American Student Union, after the group was intrigued by reading some of West’s statements about “the challenges faced by people of color in design and other creative fields.” (In addition to his speech to the larger student body, West also sat down with the group during his visit to Cambridge.) In the rush of surprise after video of West’s appearance went viral, that initial purpose was often overlooked — and now the leadership of that student group has said that that initial reaction constituted racism.

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In a new interview with the design mag Dezeen, African-American Student Union co-president Héctor Tarrido-Picart said that amusement over West’s appearance at the school fit in with a “long history of making fun of black people that actually make it.”

According to Tarrido-Picart, members of the student group believe that public reaction to the event was mostly centered around making fun of “an ambitious black man” by people who are reluctant to allow an African-American to succeed in the world of high culture (architecture) as opposed to pop culture (rap). Other architects and bloggers have also come to West’s defense.

Though West is not a registered architect, Tarrido-Picart points out that the musician actually does know a lot about the topic — and that black architects are few and far between: the American Institute of Architects tracks them at just one percent of the profession.

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