It is time to introduce nuances to the black and white thinking about identity. In the past six months, the anti-racism movement Black Lives Matter in the US has sent a copied version of the cancel culture to Western Europe. It is understandable that disadvantaged groups claim their place and so-called privileged groups are called upon to give up their preferred position. It is not a gentle way though when people, because they are white, are denied the right to speak and are socially excluded. But conditions in the US are different from those in Western Europe because an old white society cannot be retroactively blamed for being white. The core of criticism cannot be that white Europeans have a certain position or identity, but that they are not willing to allow newcomers from other countries of origin into their professional group, environment or mental space.
This identity debate is usually dominated by political activists who profile themselves as black underprivileged people. This approach reduces it to discrimination against people with black identities. This alone indicates how misleading this debate is. Because in reality the black community is extremely diverse, economically, socially and culturally. Politically it is probably only more or less homogeneous by voting predominantly on the left, although in the Netherlands the old automatism of voting for the social-democratic PvdA has disappeared.
It is amazing how public opinion can take shape in this way and the media go along in a one-sided interpretation of the black story. Even the liberal Dutch newspaper NRC, which claims to seek nuance, loses the nuance in an article about identity in which it lets five visual artists have their say. They are given room for their simplifications, assumptions and individual marketing that stimulate their self-interest in this debate.
This indicates that it is not necessarily catching up, but that this debate about identity can serve as a cover for members of the black community to achieve their own goals. There is nothing wrong with that if that individual scoring drive is honestly recognized. However, things get confusing when a black mask is applied to disguise commercial or individual motifs. Then the black struggle for equality only serves its own purpose. Lack of talent can thus be disguised by hiding it behind a political debate about identity and deprivation. But the individual is never equal to that.
How this works in practice is shown in the recent Walter Van Beirendonck – Virgil Abloh – Louis Vuitton issue. Van Beirendonk is a renowned white Flemish fashion designer. Virgil Abloh is an African American who is employed by fashion brand Louis Vuitton. He is not a fashion designer, but someone who deftly “borrows” from fashion designers whom he is “inspired” by. Abloh refers to Marcel Duchamp for legitimacy, but does not seem to understand the essence of the conceptual art of which Duchamp was one of the founders. Van Beirendonck accuses Abloh of plagiarism, but because of Abloh’s “black mask” and his position at fashion company Louis Vuitton, that criticism does not get through. Or rather, Abloh’s background as an African American and the complexity of the identity debate neutralizes the criticism of Abloh’s grabbing.
An article by the Flemish business newspaper De Tijd also shows that Abloh’s friend-rapper Kanye West, who has a special talent for drawing attention, is getting involved in the debate. In a tweet he expresses the gist of what matters and the way Abloh works: “Virgil can do whatever he wants. Do you know how hard it’s been for us to be recognized? Coming from Chicago?”. According to West, the end justifies all means. He suggests that his and Abloh’s black background is the justification for stealing ideas from someone like Van Beirendonck rather flat and creativeless and for taking over the position of white artists by accusing them of anything and everything in a political debate about identity. Most striking about this issue is that fashion brand Louis Vuitton willingly and knowingly offers Abloh a cover for individual and corporate marketing, while he can cunningly hide behind a black cover of victimization and disregard.
NB This comment is a slightly modified English translation of ‘Kwestie Walter Van Beirendonck – Virgil Abloh – Louis Vuitton is waarschuwing voor een valse claim op zwarte identiteit’, August 16, 2020.