It May Have More to Do With Race Than Age
Since late 2014 tabloids and celebrity gossip sites were abuzz with “are they” or “aren’t they” discussions of whether twenty-five year-old rapper Tyga was dating the then seventeen year-old reality TV star Kylie Jenner. Much of the coverage contains the explicit or implied critique that any relationship between them is inappropriate because of the eight year age difference between them, and the fact that Kylie is below the legal age of sexual consent in the state of California–eighteen years-old–where both live.
Speculation about the two blew up in mid-February, 2015 in a widely covered Twitter feud between Khloé Kardashian, Kylie’s older sister, and Amber Rose, ex-fiancée of Kanye West (now quite famously married to another of Kylie’s older sisters, Kim). But, with no evidence of a sexual relationship, and only photos of the pair together in public to suggest a romantic relationship, it seems there may be more to the tabloid fuss that surrounds the two celebrities. Like, for example, the long-standing taboo against interracial coupling in the US, which exists most strongly for pairings of black men and white women.
In fact, sociologists and race scholars see this particular taboo as playing a central role in anti-black racism, and recognize that it has been used for centuries to justify oppression and violence against black men. (For a detailed discussion of this, see sociologist Patricia Hill Collins’ landmark book Black Sexual Politics.)
**A WARNING TO READERS THAT THE FOLLOWING INCLUDES DISCUSSION OF RACIST AND SEXUAL VIOLENCE**
After the emancipation of slaves in the US, the stereotype that African and African-descended men were out of control sexual brutes served as an ideological tool for justifying their segregation from whites. This stereotype cast black men as a dangerous threat to US society, and played to a fear of racial miscegenation at the expense of the “purity” of the white race (despite centuries of rape of black women by white men on US soil). The black “brute” or “savage” was commonly depicted in racist cartoon caricatures, and in popular discourse from the mid-1800s through the twentieth century. This is perhaps most famously memorialized in the first ever feature film produced and aired in the US, Birth of a Nation, which depicts a white woman jumping to her death from a cliff as a “black” man–a white man in black face–lasciviously pursues her.
The consequences of this racist logic to black men has long been violent and deadly. Between the Civil War and World War II 4,000 black men were lynched by white mobs in the US. Often, the purported justification for these heinous murders was that the man had made a sexual advance toward a white woman or girl. In many cases, the alleged threat of black masculinity and sexuality was answered with castration, in addition to lynching.
Today, the threat of black masculinity, with its supposed hyper-sexuality, remains a tenet of racism in the US. This has been devastatingly illustrated by police and vigilante killing of unarmed black men and boys, and manifests in more mundane, though none the less destructive, ways. In her book on sexuality and gender in the high school context, Dude, You’re a Fag, sociologist C.J. Pascoe documented how black boys at a California school were routinely reprimanded and disciplined for sexualized behavior that went unpunished, and sometimes was even sanctioned, among white boys.
So, if you find yourself disturbed by the rumored relationship between Kylie Jenner and Tyga, it’s worth reflecting on what about it bothers you. As a culture, we are still very much mired in historical racial stereotypes of black masculinity and sexuality that continue to play out in old and new ways today. Which is to say nothing of the slut-shaming and hectic notions of feminine sexual purity (especially white femininity) that are part of this media storm. That’s another post entirely.