James Whitner is the founder of The Whitaker Grp, a black-owned retail company that owns boutiques like Social Status, A Ma Maniére, APB, and Prosper. An outspoken advocate for black business owners and civil rights, he recently penned an op-ed for Complex challenging companies in the streetwear/sneaker space and beyond to do more for the black community.
He's also dedicating The Whitaker Grp's social media channels to thee #TWGBlackout, using them to suggest radical solutions and educate people on the issues currently plaguing the black community and what we can do to start solving problems from their root. Listen to the episode to find out how individuals and companies can hold themselves more accountable when it comes to contributing to the cause.
The following interview has been edited and condensed.
Jian DeLeon: Without black culture, there's no sneaker culture. There's no street culture. There's no streetwear. What other ways can people in this space, including media brands like Highsnobiety, help raise awareness and do more to help black communities?
James Whitner: Everybody has to just look at everything as a whole, right? Because if we look at our industry in a bubble, that's one part of it. Because people could say: “We want to hire more black candidates, but there aren't enough qualified candidates.” But does anyone take a step back further and ask themselves why there aren't any black candidates or what they can do to help black candidates be qualified? Do they understand why the situation for black Americans is much different than their white counterparts or their other minority counterparts?
As black Americans, we get a tougher go at it. And then when we start looking at the things that a lot of the companies can do, it's going to black communities and helping people get better early on. Are people willing to go in and stand up for education? Stand up and help people understand their voting rights? or any number of things? That's why we're doing this blackout.
I got a lot of calls from a lot of people who I consider friends — and many of them aren't black — and the thing that they're wrestling with is what they can do. So for us, the blackout is about pushing out solutions, things that you can do personally to get involved and help with racial disparity in America and around the world. We have to hold ourselves accountable for our health; we should hold ourself accountable to humanity.
JD: Accountability's definitely the key word here. Every time we speak about protests and dissent, there's always a conversation that takes the focus away from people and focuses on property, like tha James Baldwin Esquire interview. I can't believe I have to emphasize this: No hoodie or no pair of sneakers is more valuable than a human life, and it seems that's hard for some people to understand.
JW: Part of privilege is when people want to make this about them. This isn't about anyone. This is about a whole race of people that has been fucking completely ignored for 400 years. The playing field has never been equal for black people. I have had seven stores completely demolished. Total loss — and I could care less about them.
The plight of black Americans is so much more important than that. You can't insure for racism. We can insure for property damage, but if we could have insured for racism, it would probably be over by now. The things that people get most upset about are deaths, right? A cop kills a black person. But what about all the subtle racial injustices that we see in our everyday lives, that no one speaks on?
JD: To what extent is the onus on Highsnobiety and other media brands? In some ways, streetwear and sneaker shops getting hit is logical end point of the gentrification of street culture. When it went from being about personal values to resell value, community became commodity. We're not absolved of teaching people that these things are valuable objects — that a KAWS “Companion” is the equivalent of $10,000 on StockX.
JW: 100 percent. All media has helped build up street and luxury culture, so they're all culpable also. To your point, if you guys helped change the narrative some, people would fill a little cooler doing the things they should actually do. No kid that can barely afford an apartment or doesn't have savings should be buying shoes for $500.
JD: Tell me about the Juneteenth challenge. It's named for June 19, the day in 1865 that abolished American slavery. You're challenging people you work with to come up with a rudimentary plan to dismantle oppressive systems. What are some of the ways we can do this?
JW: The first is just lend your voice as a resource. Lend yourself and your team as a resource, because you're knowledgeable. It goes back to intent. For me, setting Juneteenth as a deadline date was me holding myself accountable and saying: “Everybody in this industry knows how to work on tight deadlines, and we all lock in, understand what needs to be done, and we focus on doing it.”
If you guys are willing to be a resource for people and companies, or a filter to help point them in the right direction, that's a big enough step. I'm here for all of our partners. We sent a note out to everyone we do business with, willing to help them move forward and help us get to a good place, just so once the news cycle changes, we're not in the wind again.
JD: How do we keep that energy going long after the TWG Blackout? We're dedicating this week at Highsnobiety to social justice. Our goal is to focus on these issues so it becomes more natural for us to post about this as much as a new Jordan sneaker. Because if we don't support this community we're all a part of, then what are we doing?
JW: Another thing to think about is how we can scale that message. If social change and racial justice became a part of the ethos of all of our personal brands and all of our corporate brands, imagine what could happen. It's about us being intentional about weaving it into our day to day journey. That's it. With that level of intent, I guarantee we'll see change.
Stay tuned for new episodes of Vibe Check every Tuesday and Thursday.