Keeping Up with the Kardashians is a hegemonic pop-cultural phenomenon, and it is crucial to understanding race, anti-Blackness, and desire in the US today. Let’s look to the first scene of the first episode of KUWTK. With telenovela-style jump cuts from Kardashian face to Jenner face, the family reacts to mother Kris Jenner’s (née Houghton’s) remark that Kim Kardashian has a lot of “junk in the trunk.” Her remark jests, and it also reveals that Kim has a photo shoot the next day. Instead of eating food from the fridge, perhaps Kim should fast and reduce her “jiggles.” Remarkable in this first of thousands of seductively unremarkable KUWTK scenes is how the white, domestic parlor setting around Kim’s white ass secures Kim’s non-Blackness, which, through time, has secured her and her sisters’ highly financialized capacity to play with nonwhite racialization’s fleshy shapes and profitability, especially for the consumption of those who are non-Black.
This all-American, foundationally non-Black family gathers around a shared hearth: Kim Kardashian’s physicality, her body. With her body, she plays with flesh, but never risks a disfiguration of self that would make her not white, never risks placing herself beyond the legal and social agreement that she is, indeed, possessed of humanity.1
Here, in the first simple moments of the show’s 13 years of material, we see the fundamental—and morally sinister—emollients of the show’s racial palate. We also see a foreshadowing of the highly metamorphosing project of Kardashian multiracialism: the family and the show’s multiracialism are, actively, anti-Black.
The Kardashians are a prime example of multiracial white supremacy.2 A commercial enterprise posing as a family, the Kardashians are hell-bent on extracting financial gain from Black people and Black culture, even as they stigmatize, in particular, Black women through their project of multiracial whiteness.
To modify “white supremacy” with “multiracial” is the key to understanding the stakes of the Kardashian domestic empire, as well as its anti-Black violence. In short: they produce raced reality and value for, not apart from, the homogeneous project of the (white) human. And they do so by aesthetically and biologically incorporating selective, “soft” variations on tropes of Blackness: be it in the form of an ass implant, a cheekbone restructuring, or a mixed-race child. They endlessly play with race. The sisters have completely reshaped their faces through surgeries to appear like white, European stereotypes of different indigenous African people, and, simultaneously, Kim has recently become interested in social justice. For her 39th birthday, in October 2019, Kanye West donated $1 million in Kim’s name to four social-justice charities.
The latter is not done to absolve the former, much less to “end anti-Black racism.” On the contrary, from these simultaneous actions, the Kardashians profit from and play with the lived brutality of anti-Blackness for Black people.
The many faces of the Kardashians (by which I also mean the Houghtons and the Jenners) are, themselves, the many faces of the monstrous hydra of blackface. And these many faces must be critiqued to a cultural halt. Any complicity (whether ethical or aesthetic) in their private accrual of Black cultural wealth—which is premised on the destruction of Black women’s vitality and the nefarious, distorting emulations of their forms—must be reckoned with.
The Horror of Kardashian Multiracialism
What is tricky about this argument is how Kim’s physicality is a non-Black formation that becomes multiracial, just like the last name Kardashian, into which the family of Houghtons, Jenners, and Kardashians congeal their public, domestic brand. Such foundationally non-Black multiracialism is pivotal not only to the family’s billion-dollar enterprise, but also to contemporary anti-Blackness in the US.
Profit, in the show, is made from explicit forms of white supremacy and anti-Blackness working together in a Western, white humanist project. Specifically, this project positions people of African descent as nonhuman and/or constitutively different from white humans, and dispossesses African diasporic culture into systems of capitalist, generationally white value. Profit is also made from liberalism—part of white supremacy’s dominion—and other harder-to-detect guises.
What is more troubling is how the Kardashian enterprise of multiracial white supremacy expands (particularly with Kim’s marriage to Kanye West) through its production and surrogacy of healthy multiracial children.3 In so doing, the commercial-enterprise-posing-as-a-family retraces the historical dispossession of Black motherhood, as well as the arrest and theft of African being as Black and brown flesh. Further, through the heteronormative, domestic enterprise of having Black children touched by a white mother—in a country libidinally founded on interracial sexual and rape fantasies—Kim and her family biologically reproduce non-Blackness-as-multiracialized-whiteness.
And so, their empire must be approached with as much critical seriousness as we apply to 18th-century texts about the horrors of white domesticity in the Americas—their historical taste for slavery, rape, and Black children’s captivity—such as Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of Harriet Jacobs.4 What would happen if we took race in KUWTK seriously? If we heard the Kardashians’ voices like the whispers of the wicked and sexually perverse Mrs. Flint, who tortured Jacobs to punish her for Flint’s white husband’s rapacious, invasive behavior?
Multiracialism takes on still more commodity forms. The Black human skins that shadow Kim’s shapewear brand Skims are, in her aesthetic economy, like textiles, adornments, and garments to be bought, reshaped, sold, and shipped. Just as skin tones, when pressed into Kylie Cosmetics’ magical market form of foundation, gradate and smooth the violent force of blackface.
And yet, this sentimental white family—their billion-dollar racial drama, their feminization of anti-Black caricature, their self-adornment with Black women’s parts, under the protected corporeal racial schema of whiteness—does not frighten all of us. Indeed, millions are enthralled.
Which means that millions do not see what is less obvious and harder to talk about. They don’t see the horror in the Kardashians’ reproduction of mixed-race children, nor do they see how that horror is of a piece with the commoditization of everything they do.
Rise and Shine—and Contour, and Shade, and Post
After this first scene, the show’s opening credits in 2007 begin, with the Kardashian-Jenner-Houghton family presenting themselves as a Brady Bunch with libido. We watch them come together, in proportions that portend the show’s profitable, racialized distortions to come.
Behind the family hangs a tarp with a blown-up image of part of the downtown LA skyline.
When a sprightly, then 10-year-old Kylie Jenner pulls down a rope dangling in the foreground, the city drops like dead weight. Now revealed is what the skyline hid: a meticulously landscaped green front lawn, a porch with a white picket fence, and a sprawling “ranch-style” house (an architecture that derives from Spanish colonial plantations). The whistling soundtrack of the credits underscores that although they are a family with ties to LA, to “urban” Black culture, and to new money, the Kardashians are protectively positioned to produce reality, meaning race, outside all that.
Thirteen years later, KUWTK’s multiracial white supremacy has borne Kylie Jenner’s billion-dollar cosmetics company, Kim’s multimillion-dollar brand Skims, and Kendall Jenner’s standing as the highest-paid supermodel on earth. (Kendall has earned a reported [because there’s surely more] $22.5 million; meanwhile, the price tag on but one Instagram post endorsement by Kylie was remunerated at over $1 million). We are not watching their reality; they are producing too much of ours.
This past fall yielded a video of now 23-year-old Kylie singing “Rise and Shine” to her Black child, Stormi (performer Travis Scott’s baby). A writer for New York Magazine’s Vulture site framed this “viral” video as “a moment in it [sic] of itself pure in nature—just a mother singing to her newborn babe.”
Upon seeing this video on Twitter, I felt horror. The horror lies in how this hyperconstructed, non-Black Kardashian domestic world—a world increasingly populated by Black children—steals life (in the historical instance) from Black women. Think, in sharp contrast, of the police’s invasion of Breonna Taylor’s Black domesticity, and of her Black mother’s loss of Black motherhood in that invasion.
White mother Kris’s faux-chastening comments about Kim’s jiggles is a recurring theme in the show. These comments, which extend possession and fear no loss, simultaneously toy with and cover over white-supremacist notions of Black femininity as enfleshment.
Here, enfleshment is the historical calculation, in white US and European thinking, that equates Black women with symbolically and physically excessive flesh with no bodily order.5 The gendering of Black women in the New World is nothing like the gendering of white women. They are not analogous. Even when metonymized by genitals, white women’s corporeality and assigned sexual function are not rupturing threats to white patriarchal order. White womanhood abets white patriarchy, and sometimes does it better than white men do.
Attention should be paid to how the “junk” comment occurs in the setting of an archetypically sentimental, white domestic family drama. The foundationally non-Black family in the parlor anchors in our consciousness that Kim’s body, for its jiggles, is not flesh, for it is certainly not Black. This provides Kim with the capacity to use her body to play with blackface through makeup, adornments, and proximity to Black intimacy, to “play in the dark.”6 It also allows her to capitalize on such play and its many haywire effects. And, in capitalizing, to never risk being sullied by Blackness-as-enfleshment as ontological nothingness.7
This sleight of hand is important, and not only in a critique of Kardashian multiracial white supremacy. It also matters in critiquing the racist order the family propagates in its audience of millions.8
This reality TV show—constructed around Kim’s white ass, domesticity, and matriarchy—operates in and shapes so much of the public imaginary. To understand how, we must attend to how white, US matriarchy is fundamentally different from Black matriarchy.
The former is ancestrally sanctioned by a white patriarch, be he visible or not. The latter, as Hortense Spillers writes about the Moynihan Report, is responsible for the Black family’s inability in the US to uplift itself into the ranks of white civil society.9 In such a white-supremacist understanding, Black matriarchy is far more to blame than slavery and the police state. Black matriarchy in the Western imaginary is disorder; it is the aberrant reign of enfleshment.
In a Black heterosexist imaginary, Kim’s ass offers jiggles without Black history, without the baggage of the Black mother in the fictional racial reality of the Moynihan Report. Which therefore frees Kim up to “willingly trad[e] her body for a little piece of the patriarchal soul,” and a large piece of the American pie.10
“To lose control of the body” (i.e., of gender’s sexual meaning), argues Spillers, is “in the historical outline of black American women often enough the loss of life.” Kim’s figure of white womanhood’s constructed curves, on the other hand, is safely, and lucratively, underwritten by white ancestry and property ownership.11 Her ass routes to an address in Calabasas, California.
This makes the address of desire to Kim’s ass, rather than to her pussy (as seen in the show’s opening scene), peculiarly important. In a whitened public imaginary that pretends only gay men have anal sex, this address desexualizes—leaves something intact—even as it eroticizes Kim’s ass.
Profit, in the show, is made from explicit forms of white supremacy and anti-blackness working together in a Western, white humanist project.
In that opening scene, the camera cuts to Kim’s facial response to her mother’s banter. Frozen by injectables, the face makes no discernible expressive change. The surface bears no emotion. She is, after all, a businesswoman, a white entrepreneur of contemporary blackface. Her sexuality does not compromise her capitalist chops.
Episodically watching the sisters and their friends gossip and perform banal, highly financialized shenanigans—hair braided into corn rows, occasional Black friend in view—brings to mind the 19th century. Specifically, the appeal of both romantic novels and sentimentalist abolitionist literature, genres especially appealing to 19th-century white-lady readers, for whom their “parlors were the face of a house.”12
KUWTK is a reality show that, like 19th-century abolitionist and romantic literature, conveys white sentimentalism for Black objecthood. And it conveys this under the narrative guise of freedom, repackaged for sundry, multiracialized subject positions.
The Kardashians have not innovated anything in this regard. They have stepped into a categorical place well prepared for them by 19th-century US, middle-class white womanhood. This era’s idea of womanhood (as African American studies and art history scholar Jasmine Nichole Cobb argues) was obsessed with self-styling, posing, and selectively arranging Black people and Black objects visibly in rooms set for entertaining. The Kardashians make the historical eeriness of white womanhood and the artifice of white feminism explicit. (Recall how Kris, Kourtney, and Kim function as always emotionally and financially stable, in contrast to their variously hystericized male partners).13
Viewers of the Houghtons-Kardashians-Jenners are bound to the empire of white domesticity. This empire’s omnipotence is a lie. But its virtual omnipresence overpowers the truth: the anti-Black violence of the Kardashian enterprise’s effect.14
The Interracial Sex Tape
KUWTK’s fundamental success stems from sentimentalizing the family fame’s origins, which lie in the interracial sex tape. This infamous tape contains a scene of Kim having sex with Ray J, who is the brother of her former employer, the singer Brandy. Kim’s big break is often traced to her relationship with Paris Hilton. But it is a famous Black woman who engenders Kim’s first viral documented performance, alongside a less famous Black man.
That sex scene enthralls the (white) fantasy of interracial sex as the desirous outcome of racism. And it does so in a country founded (in its institutions and imaginary) on slavery and white men’s legally protected rape of Black women.
Kardashian wealth stems from the interracial sex tape on the scale of billions of dollars. Which means that their wealth and fame is the direct effect of racism (and its division of the species into races and hence the fiction of interracial sex) and, simultaneously, of anti-Blackness (which both fantasizes about the sex act and fears the Black hereditary outcomes of it).
This means that the Kardashians must repeatedly sentimentalize the sex tape so as to not appear merely racist. And, also, to never risk appearing like Black women do when visibly fleshed: not just scandalous, but threatening. (Think back, quickly, to how Justin Timberlake emerged unscathed [if anything, with erotic credit that his corny ass did not previously have] after tearing off Janet Jackson’s top at the XXXVIII Super Bowl halftime performance, whereas her career was derailed for a time.)
The maiden episode of KUWTK throws a private party for Kris and Bruce’s 16th wedding anniversary. Even so, that party is but the prequel for Kim coming to terms publicly (on the Tyra Banks Show) with the sex tape.
A domesticated motif of KUWTK, sex tapes reappear throughout the series. Khloé makes a sex tape for Lamar Odom in Season 4, episode 9. Scott and Kourtney—the white couple—make a “spoof” sex tape of Bruce and Kris in Season 8, episode 14, after Kris tells the story of another sex tape that she and Bruce made in the past.
But all these sex tapes are knockoffs of Ray J and Kim’s original. What the knockoff tapes repeatedly convey is that the interracial sex tape—again, a consequence of a racist psychosexual imaginary—is not a moral impasse for this foundationally non-Black family’s public life. It is constitutive of their visibility and profitability, which is their morality.
Indeed, the interracial-sex-tape fame ontology follows the script that US Black studies scholar and critical theorist Jared Sexton locates in the logics of contemporary multiracialism in the US, where “racism is not an obstacle to interracial intimacy but its condition of possibility.”15 The “‘superstitious imagining of the pornographic nature of interracial sex’ is, contrary to common sense, not what prevents healthy interracial relationships from flourishing, tarnishing their public standing. It is, rather, the very thing that enables them to be conceptualized in the first place.”16 Rape and racism beget the reparative fantasy of interracial intimacy.
Part of the success of how the sex tape has played out is that there is no superstition or speculation necessary: you can watch it online right now. Kanye West raps about it in “Highlights” (“I bet me and Ray J would be friends, if we didn’t love the same bitch. Don’t matter who hit it first. Only problem is I’m rich.”). He again reimagines it in the music video for “Famous,” repeating the resignification of Kim’s sex therein as his (Kanye’s, and not Ray J’s).
But I diverge from the lyricist’s logic and underscore: it is his because it is hers (Kim’s). (This is not a feminist intervention! If anything, it is written with anxiety about Kanye’s carceral relationship to white womanhood.) And it is hers (Kim’s) because it is hers (Kris’s). And it is hers, moreover, because it is His (the invisible whitened patriarch). No Black woman’s visibility on a sex tape would operate along these genealogical lines of sanction.
White Girls, Black Parts: Playing “Mulata”
All these sex tapes circulate in the same domestic space and imaginary as an archive of home videos of the young Kardashian children. Bits of the pre-KUWTK, ’90s home videos appear in various episodes. They are also spliced into the opening credits of season 17 with early footage of the Jenner children, made to match the ’90s camcorder aesthetic, emitting a nostalgic, baby-making aura.
Thirteen years and 18 seasons later, much has changed. For example, one may see the difference between Kim’s face in Season 1 and her face in Season 9 (after the outbreak of Instagram) in contouring makeup, injectables, skin “tanner,” and a cheeky manipulation of an abundance of selfhood. But for myself, the difference I see is a white girl now openly, sadistically playing mulata. This is not the mulata as tragic, nonwhite femme figure (one that the US literary, cinematic, and televisual traditions repeatedly render as a whore and cultural traitor, or drive mad and kill off). Instead, I see her playing the mulata as a hemispheric synonym for sex (as Caribbean literature and art scholar Dixa Ramírez D’Oleo identifies the mulata’s visual semiotics).17
To modify “white supremacy” with “multiracial” is the key to understanding the stakes of the Kardashian domestic empire, as well as its anti-black violence.
In the racist, and desirous, logics of the Americas, the mulata is only present, she only exists, by the anterior purchase and rape of Black women (by a white slaveholding man). And such existence through purchase and rape—in the Western imaginary—only embellishes the originary claims of whiteness. In other words, the mulata is figured as the generative outcome of white masters raping Black enslaved women. And, again, the idea of interracial sex is not a contradiction of racism, per Sexton, but is made possible by it.
With that being said, the mulata’s sex is specifically there in white domestic space to be touched, and to increase the wealth of the white proprietor, which, in this family context, is rerouted to Kris. As white matriarch, Kris ensures that Kim and her sisters, as the entrepreneurs of their own houses, can play sadistically with the violent meanings of mulata, like with so many rag dolls. They can chatter on about their desires for “chocolate men” and retain their constitutive white-supremacist form.
But how can I be building a case that these white women—with Black children and nieces and nephews, with Black husbands, Black exes, and Black women friends—are anti-Black racists? What about Kim’s recent foray into law school, following in the footsteps of her father? Her hack of the criminal-justice system to have Alice Marie Johnson’s unjust sentence commuted—and Johnson herself pardoned—by President Trump?
To my eyes, and on a macro scale, it is all more makeup. And this in a world where makeup—like the prison industrial complex, like white- and Black-produced hip-hop—is a billion-dollar industry. It is just another iteration of a Kardashian playing with race, and adeptly disguising anti-Black violence.
The most crucial part of the invisibilizing of their violence has to do with dressing up historical malevolence toward Black women. And this is not only the Houghton-Kardashian-Jenners’ malevolence toward Black women (see, Blac Chyna, Jordyn Woods, and Megan Thee Stallion, who was shot multiple times on July 12, 2020, after leaving a pool party at Kylie Jenner’s Hollywood mansion). In fact, it concerns a foundational malevolence toward Black women, at the bedrock layer of the Western world we call our shared racial reality.
“I first wanna say, Kim, I couldn’t be happier for you. Kanye, I am so obsessed with you … and I cannot wait to have you legally as a brother …. I just cannot wait for this wedding, I am so excited. And let’s have more kids! More babies!” So went Khloé’s toast to Kanye’s engagement to Kim in Season 9, episode 5. Her toast includes a reference to baby North, who was born before the engagement.
In one sweeping, atonal, languorous, white-LA-girl utterance, Khloé inadvertently performed one of the scripts of multiracial white supremacy. Specifically, that the “interracial relationship has to await the legitimization of multiracial people before it can enter the public sphere as a renovated family affair.”18 In this very public racial schema, baby North fits the salvific narrative in being born before the interracial wedding.
Kim, Khloé, and now Kylie, in particular, have become masterful producers of raced visuality, have biologically reproduced white domesticity with Black children, and have capitalized on the phenomenon of multiracial white supremacy. Yet they have done so all while dressing up in a fashion that has never not been lucrative for whites: blackface.
Kim has even, deliberately, gone deeper into what is behind blackface’s performance: the dismemberment and expropriation of Black women’s aesthetic and physical forms. Recall, for instance, Kim’s pose retracing the sadistic, colonial, visual construction of Sarah Baartman (1789–1815) as “the Venus Hottentot,” on the cover of Paper Magazine, in 2014. Baartman died inexplicably, and in poverty, in Paris, at 26, after years of performing by coercion in “freak shows” on English and French popular stages, an ocean away from her birthplace, in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. French race “scientists” took Baartman’s skeleton and remains and placed them on display in the French Museúm d’histoire naturelle and, later, the Musée de l’Homme, until 1974. Just a few months ago, Kim’s blackface styling appeared on the cover of 7HOLLYWOOD Magazine, this time painted as Black actor Diahann Carroll—not two months after Carroll’s death.
What juts out in Khloé’s usage of the word “obsessed”? In the cry, “More [multiracial] babies!”? And how—I wonder, with deep sadness—does a family so attentive to the reproduction of family not attend to Kanye’s Black mother, Donda West, after her plastic surgery? How does she die in the city that is the dropped backdrop of the Kardashian domestic empire?
Kim recently announced that the show is officially over. The Kardashians do not need it, its thematic redundancy a metaphor of the show’s meta-redundancy given how much more of the US racial imaginary and its markets the Kardashian brand controls beyond seasonal shelf life. The romance of social justice in a white-supremacist country will endow them with many more lucrative platforms. KUWTK has primed white culture that loves the “afterlife of slavery” to see how specific thefts from Black women occur every day.19 But it would seem whiteness, that ethical impossibility, cannot understand what to do with the primer except thieve more, and kill. Perhaps the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing hemispheric uprisings in the name of Black existence will reveal the violence of all celebrity that profits from malevolence toward Black women. It will not be pretty.
The author thanks Dixa Ramírez D’Oleo, Axelle Karera, and Sarah Kessler for reading drafts of this essay, and Elizabeth Hinton and Vanessa Díaz for critical conversation.
- Alexander Weheliye, Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human (Duke University Press, 2014). ↩
- This argument builds on decades of the writings of African American literary-studies scholar Hortense Spillers, regarding the violent (un)gendering of Black women in the New World; the writings of Colin (née Joan) Dayan in Haiti, History, and the Gods (University of California Press, 1995), on white Creole women, their romantic love of domination, and malevolence toward Black women and the mulâtresse in Saint-Domingue—“prop in the … dream of whiteness against the fact of blackness” (p. 180); and the writings of Black studies and cinema scholar, and critical theorist, Jared Sexton in Amalgamation Schemes: Antiblackness and the Critique of Multiracialism (University of Minnesota Press, 2008), regarding the white-supremacist operations of both “colorblindness” and mixed-race self-exceptionalism (as the ideal future normative family structure of “the race”). ↩
- See Alexandros Orphanides, “Why Mixed-Race Americans Will Not Save the Country,” Code Switch, NPR, March 8, 2017. ↩
- On the culture of taste for slavery, see Simon Gikandi, Slavery and the Culture of Taste (Princeton University Press, 2011). ↩
- This draws on Spillers’s notion of “the potential for pornotroping.” Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics, vol. 17, no. 2 (1987), p. 67. ↩
- Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (New York: Vintage, 1993). ↩
- Calvin Warren, Ontological Terror: Blackness, Nihilism, and Emancipation (Duke University Press, 2018). ↩
- See the Instagram account @kardashian_kolloquium for detailed analyses of the show’s postmodern elements, and its constructions—not reflections—of audience and “reality.” ↩
- Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe.” ↩
- Hortense J. Spillers, “Interstices: A Small Drama of Words,” Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture (University of Chicago Press, 2003), p. 163. ↩
- Spillers, “Interstices,” p. 172. ↩
- From Godey’s Lady Book, cited in Jasmine Nichole Cobb, Picture Freedom: Remaking Black Visuality in the Early Nineteenth Century (NYU Press, 2015), p. 14. ↩
- They also invert the figure of the patriarch. It is important to this schema that the Kardashian progenitor is not Anglo; ethnic enough to be interesting, he is non-Black, however, and so his absence is validating rather than distorting of his heiresses. Kris Houghton’s matriarchal management in his absence reconnects her Kardashian offspring to Anglo, California, settler whiteness. Meaning, she bears a genetic association with multicultural, liberal sexual politics via her dead husband and with the Anglo-American patriarch via her father. ↩
- Spillers, “Interstices,” p. 163. ↩
- Jared Sexton, Amalgamation Schemes: Antiblackness and the Critique of Multiracialism (University of Minnesota Press, 2008), p. 175. ↩
- Sexton, Amalgamation Schemes, p. 175. The internal quotation is of Calvin Hernton’s Sex and Racism in America (1988). ↩
- Dixa Ramírez, Colonial Phantoms: Belonging and Refusal in the Dominican Americas (NYU Press, 2019), pp. 16, 182–88. ↩
- Sexton, Amalgamation Schemes, pp. 158–59. ↩
- Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe, vol. 12, no. 2 (2008), p. 13. ↩