Wide Angle

How Kim Kardashian West Came to Represent America

In 2019, she’s a one-woman metaphor for our country’s twisted relationship to race.

Fans snap photos of Kim Kardashian West on the street.
Kim Kardashian West in New York City on Thursday. Gotham/GC Images

It is Nov. 12, 2014, and Kimberly Noel Kardashian West is breaking the internet. The cover girl for the winter issue of Paper magazine makes eye contact over her left shoulder, nude save for some key items: the pearls corseted about her neck like Ndebele rings, the black sequin dress held just below her bare ass by hands encased in black satin gloves, earrings. An alternative, tamer cover shows Kim in profile—laughing, dress hiked up—catching a foaming rope of uncorked Champagne in a glass balanced on her protruding behind. Her tan but no longer quite brown skin shines slick with some sort of lubricant, in the barest contrast to the terra cotta background.

The shoot hearkens back to the work that made French photographer Jean-Paul Goude famous. The balancing act with the champagne glass exactly replicates his 1976 Carolina Beaumont, New York, in which a nude black woman, identically posed, sends Champagne to the coupe resting on her curved spine. The photographer’s ’80s collaborations with artist-producer-model-icon Grace Jones exhibited a similar obsession with unusual body-made shapes and brown skin textured like paint. His aesthetic particularities are clear in Goude’s take on Kardashian—but there are some crucial differences. Kim is not black; her nonwhiteness is circumstantial. The jungle fascination that imbricates Goude more than a bit in practices of racial surveillance and spectacle—“Blacks are the premise of my work,” he told People in 1979—seems tamer when appropriated onto Kim’s tan but brownish skin. Kim is on display, yes, but no one can doubt she wants it.

In accord with the photographs, Amanda Fortini’s profile of Kim from that issue begins with a tour of her physique, “a physical body where the forces of fame and wealth converge”: thick hair, full lips, large eyes, doll-size feet and hands, “eyelashes that resemble miniature feather dusters,” and “ample curves.” Many accounts of Kim meander this way, awed by all the classic indicators of a robust race science: bone (structure), muscle (tone), hair (type), blood (relations). The jaunt through her features might as well stand for the whole inside-and-out woman—shorthand seized upon, if not engineered, by the woman herself (and emulated by her siblings).

Kim sells her body, but that’s not all (add: makeup, apps, children’s clothing, scents, shapewear). More precise to say tuning in to her body allows her to gather capital elsewhere. Fans and certain feminists may shoulder-check the suggestion that Kim’s body makes her money, as if an insult. And I suppose in normative grounds it is—America tends to treasure so-called cerebral employment above the category called physical labor. And yet, aren’t accountants and academics and consultants of whatever stripe paid not only to think but to actively erode their eyes and spine for many hours a day, many days a week, many months, many years? Do they not work such jobs in order to give their checks back to the ones who also work their bodies for checks: personal trainers, waitresses, strippers, athletes? Kim is not a sex worker, yet we balk at the idea that her body makes money, which ultimately reflects badly on how our culture treats sex workers, not the respectability of their work.

Certainly eking out hundreds of millions of dollars from one’s God-given gifts is not so simple, even if those gifts have been tweaked, nipped, filled out. If Kim were truly white, we probably wouldn’t know her name. If Kim were unwaveringly white, her consolation prize for the gross violation of privacy that was her leaked sex tape—besides a multimillion-dollar settlement—would have merely been that December issue of Playboy and a kitten-eared page in a long line of Hollywood mishaps. An Armenian American with an Armenian name and brown features, Kim’s distance from whiteness, however relative, made her a person of interest and revulsion—that is, a desirable person.

She leverages the intersection well, ethnic but not too much so, supplying the juice without tipping into the jungle. Kim’s particular fame derives from a cherished place in the American racial imagination that, combined with wealth, prevents contact with the deathly effects (and melancholic affects) of brownness in this country while reaping the exoticism of not-quite whiteness. As her facial features evolved, sanding away certain telltale signs—her hips grew wider, ass larger, waist banished to near nonexistence—her style acquired the flavor but none of the fun of a baddie: bodysuits, biker shorts, and two-piece couture. Kanye West fell in love and she became his muse, a video vixen for real. “Her appeal derives from her uncanny consistency,” per Fortini. I would say she appeals to a persistent uncanny. She is the stress test of racial formation. Kim is America.

In October of 2017, Mic.com posted a video. “I went into a complete panic and out of desperation, I made one of the worst decisions of my life to make some quick money,” says the woman on screen, speaking into a corded phone. She is Alice Marie Johnson and a pin stamp in the upper left hand side of the screen identifies the footage as a video call from Aliceville Federal Correctional Institution in Aliceville, Alabama. In the video, the 62-year-old black female playwright, sentenced to life in prison, makes a case for that life, the case that she is not, in judicial terminology, “a safety risk to society.” She recounts the devastating but ordinary crises that necessitated “some quick money” to keep a family of six alive; her losses, she explains, have only accumulated as an incarcerated woman over two decades—missed births, deaths mourned without ceremony. Miss Alice describes her prolific works—plays viewed by thousands, women she’s mentored. When the Obama administration announced its Clemency Initiative in April 2014, Johnson was a perfect fit. At the close of his final term, however, President Barack Obama denied Alice freedom. “Please wake up, America,” Alice concludes the transmission that will be watched more than half a dozen million times between at least two platforms before all is said and done. Swimming somewhere in that data was Kim.

“I had never heard Alice’s name before that day, but the heading caught my attention,” she writes in the foreword to After Life, Johnson’s memoir published earlier this year. Kardashian had encountered the video during an evening scroll on Twitter. “A sixty-two-year-old great-grandmother had been in prison for twenty-one years for a first-time, nonviolent drug offense,” she writes. “How is that possible?” She reached out to Shawn Holley, entertainment lawyer to the stars who cut her teeth on O.J.’s defense team; she reached out to “Ivanka and her family,” that is, senior adviser Jared Kushner, who was, at the time, working on prison reform in his own way, pushing a bill that would pass months later. Kim picked up Alice’s legal tab. She entered the Oval Office and spoke to that man in there. She saved a life.

Hours after their meeting, President Donald Trump tweeted a photo of him and Kim: “Great meeting with @KimKardashian today, talked about prison reform and sentencing.” The contrast between his cartoonish grin, the flamboyant national iconography squeezed into frame, and Kim’s somber businesswoman cloaked in black and beachy waves was ripe for jokes. Some responses were caught by a word, reform, the toothless, too distant relative of the radical spirit of abolition. Reform, favored by liberals and conservatives alike, reserves faith in the system that imprisons black people as a matter of due course.

Kim and her siblings sit in leery proximity to blackness, capaciously defined, inched closer by marriage, coupling, and children, but judged even less trustworthy in light of these milestones. Kim is prone to racial miscues that seem so minor next to the swath cut by her younger sisters, Khloé and Kylie especially, who each climbed their way out of ugly duckhood via full-figured embraces of hood aesthetics. The family investment in black Cool could yield days’ delight for cultural observers well-versed in the extended Kardashian-Jenner-West universe. They could cackle over the time Kris found herself blinged out, flashing imaginary gang signs in a circle of tall T’s, or tsk-tsk-tsk over forgery accusations (three in one summer). They might spar over the fates of the next generation, a topic made urgent by the fact that Kim, Rob, Kylie, and Khloé all have black children. All this good fun would barely breach the sea of signifieds from which the family sips its fill. All this while the American public is so unamused by the antics of genuine Negroes.

Miss Alice is some kind of free, a fact that cannot be undermined. Is she free because rich and powerful public figures united in an unprecedented chain of fortunes that singularly landed her on the other side of clemency? Or is she free despite so much else, those other forces: the modern-day plantation, poverty and police, the courts, the purgatory of the prison “like an unexecuted sentence of death,” in Johnson’s words, the clemency on offer but refused by our black president?

Johnson is free. “I started screaming, and crying and jumping. I think I lost it for a moment,” she recently told CNN reporters outside the facility. “I want to tell Kim, my angel, that you never gave up on me. You never gave up your fight. You were relentless and it has paid off beautifully for me and my family on this day.” Footage—“Watch Alice Marie Johnson celebrate freedom,” the caption reads—shows Johnson exiting a gray van, wearing a gray sweatsuit, running toward relatives with her arms high and outstretched, like a sprinter who’s won it all. On the line with Anderson Cooper, she sounds scattered, emotional, exuberant. “I feel like I was flying, not running.”

It’s now fall of 2019 and there is another joke here. A version of it is told on a recent episode of The Read podcast, where co-host Kid Fury said: “Kim is out here still trying to save niggas like Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side.” “She have to,” says Crissle, the other half of the duo, “She have to keep on letting niggas out of jail to offset all the stupid shit Kanye does.” Stupid shit like wearing the red hat, like censuring his wife’s affinity for tight clothing, like flippancy about slavery in a country that has only taken seriously the cost of slavery to white lives. The joke is that with each motion to supplant the black nationalist with a deity of another kind, Kanye leaves the earthly work to Kim; she liberates, he transcends.

In After Life, Kim entwined her interest in justice with “an odd obsession with true crime.” In the May issue of Vogue, she announced—writer Jonathan Van Meter playing medium—her already-in-motion plans to take the California bar exam in 2022. “What you probably don’t know is that Kim has been working with Jones and the attorney Jessica Jackson, cofounders of #cut50, a national bipartisan advocacy group on criminal-justice reform, for months, visiting prisons, petitioning governors, and attending meetings at the White House,” the profile chirps, as if we wouldn’t know these things the second Kim wished it so. (That second, apparently, is now.) Kim began reading the law shortly after Alice was released, pursuing her license by way of a four-year apprenticeship permitted in the state as a law school alternative. Kim even posted an Instagram photo with #cut50 attorneys in which they are studying “TORTS,” per the in-focus textbook on the table, “preparing for the baby bar,” says the caption. Passing the “baby bar,” or the First-Year Law Students’ Examination, would enable Kim to continue her studies. The baby bar is administered twice a year in California, in June and October. (No word yet on which date Kim chose, or the outcome.)

Racial reassignment is now, no blackface required, seeping through the cracks of the unfused demarcation of who is slave and who is free in the new millennium. Kim does good metachrosis. She is black in her best Fulani braids, playing Sheba at the 2018 MTV Movie & TV Awards. She is brown, or genuinely Caucasian, heavily kohled and somber visiting Armenia with her beautiful brown babies, now four in number. She’s color-corrected, olive replaced with pink, and believably, “Legally Blonde.” There is costume and so much more. She is niggerish compared with Chloë Grace Moretz or Taylor Swift. She is white again when a negress enters the frame: Blac Chyna, Jordyn Woods. Her race is performative, not in that it’s fiction but in the sense of doing something—doing race. She is amalgamation without the sex, passing without the melodrama—she is exactly what America deserves.

This essay is partly adapted from Lauren Michele Jackson’s book White Negroes.