Last year was a rude awakening for some, particularly liberal-identifying, straight, white men, such as myself. It finally brought to light that being open and not racist wasn’t enough; that there were uncomfortable conversations to be had at the dinner table, with friends, family, and colleagues, and that there was a difference between being inclusive and being actively anti-discriminatory.
Last year dug up a lot of shit that had been visible to some but ignored by too many. But it also brought about some positivity and the very start of a framework of change. So, if 2020 was a rude awakening, what do 2021 and the future beyond hold?
“The good progress has been the fact that we're now willing to have an open conversation. I've watched people struggle — I mean struggle — to have these uncomfortable conversations with me, but they do it,” says James Whitner, founder of the Whitaker Group, on what he perceives to be the biggest positive brought about by the widespread BLM protests and activism.
If there’s a leader on the topic, it’s Whitner. In the recent past — even before issues of gender and racial inequality hit the mainstream fan — Whitner penned op-eds for both Highsnobiety and Complex and appeared on Highsnobiety’s Vibe Check podcast to discuss racism and inequality in the United States, specifically as it pertains to our industry. He has used the combined reach of all of his businesses to educate people on the topic, keep the pressure on lawmakers and the topic in the news cycle, and, perhaps most important of all, give back to the community in the form of events, workshops, and charitable donations.
“People are now willing to be vulnerable. And if they can't make the action themselves, they're damn sure forcing their teams to not get in the way of the action,” he says. “What was happening before 2020 was people were so uncomfortable. They just stayed away from it. Now the really brave companies are saying, ‘Go. We got a strategy for it. Go with it. We need you.’ But the ones that I respect even more are the ones that are saying, ‘Man no, we're just not going to get in your way. How do we support what you do and how do we empower you?’”
Part of that empowerment has been giving Whitner and his peers a platform to tell their stories and inspire the next generation of creators and game-changers. One of his recent projects, which Whitner goes into detail on in Claima’s podcast series, is a partnership with Detroit-based gallery Library Street Collective. The project aims to change the relationship between community, retail, and the arts, and to help open the art world and all of its financial potential to people that may have traditionally had a hard time breaking down the door.
“The art industry is fueled by the secondary market. A lot of collectors own a lot of the space and new collectors aren’t allowed in,” Whitner laments the exclusionary nature of the art world. “If you can’t break the cycle of not being allowed in, then you’ll never have a meaningful collection. If the galleries, institutes, and museums own all the important work, how are people going to get a chance to participate?”
Another project recently launched by the Whitaker Group has been the COLOR CODE program, which is a product design platform focused on Black and minority-owned designers, brands, and creators. These creatives are given the chance to create exclusive capsule collections that will be sold through one of the Whitaker Group’s industry-leading retail outlets in A Ma Maniére, Social Status, APB, and Prosper.
When it comes to setting the next generation up for success, Whitner and I keep coming back to the analogy of the door being closed for some — or at least, harder for some to open. When asked if he would rather hold that door open or smash it down, Whitner laughs and says he wants to blow the damn wall up. “There shouldn't even be a door to start off with. Someone said to me yesterday, if you start any conversation talking about fairness as a mandate, you've already lost. Because if the world was fair, I wouldn't exist in the way that I do today,” he says. “Everything that we're building is about removing glass ceilings, walls, and doors for all of us.”
The notion of leveling the playing field is one that comes up often, but it’s one that can be argued is misplaced — focusing on the wrong solution to the right problem. As Whitner said, in an ideal world, there wouldn’t even be a door, so it’s not so much trying to level an uneven playing field as it is about building a totally new playing field from the ground up.
Sometimes things — social or political systems, foundations, or traditions — are too far gone and broken to try and fix. It’s cheaper, quicker, and less painful in the long run to abandon ship and start over. “If we’re not acknowledging that the whole system is off, then we’re not even being real with each other,” Whitner says.
It’s clear that the current setup is not working for a large part of the population and that a lot needs to change. Unfortunately, the kind of change that is needed comes slow. But 2020 was a start, as there was widespread acknowledgment that racism is far more rampant than non-minorities would have liked to believe it was just over 12 months ago.
Whitner is aware that change and impact come even slower in the fashion industry, as it’s an industry intrinsically linked to product — and product takes time, especially when that product can be a key driver for change-focused storytelling. A sneaker collaboration usually takes at least a year to come to fruition. Apparel can take just as long, and brands’ timelines change depending on the size of their operations. Nike or adidas will need more lead time than an independent brand.
“What we’ll start to see at the end of this year is how we're being empowered to do more on our side,” he says. “Action takes 18 months as it connects to product, and if you look at the stories we've been telling, we've consistently been us every day. But the consumer and the marketplace generally acknowledge action through product, and for us, that'll start to happen more as the year goes on and beyond.”
When lead times are long, these storylines and causes are rife for hijacking. “The difference is managing the narrative in between. Because we live in a world of sound bites and headlines,” explains Whitner, highlighting the importance of keeping the pressure on. “It can’t be ‘Asian hate is more important than Black lives.’ It can’t be ‘or,’ it needs to be ‘and.’”
“The soundbites and headlines shift priorities and shift focus. There's a responsibility by media to make sure that we continue to have these conversations every day. Not just when it's June 19th,” Whitner challenges, before posing a question. “The most impactful human beings have the capacity to do many things at one time. Why the hell can't we do all of this at once?”
By relying on headlines or highlights and without diving further into the story, the audience is missing out on important context and perspective, which is another tendency Whitner believes we need to improve on culturally if we’re to see any meaningful change.
“You have to have perspective on everything that's happening. Because without context, can you ever really understand anything? With one headline, you're actually never learning anything,” he says. “I'm going to be very consistent in talking about the things that are important to us, and they're not going to change. When you come, you understand that James Whitner and The Whitaker Group are aligned to these things. These are the things that will always be important to them, as long as I'm leading our team and as long as I have air in my lungs.”
Whitner and his team are very clearly doing more than their part in the fight for social justice, but just as sexism is not a women’s problem but rather a problem created by men in need of a solution by men, figuring out how to destroy all the doors that are keeping people of color and other minorities out is a white person problem that needs to be fixed, at least partly, by white people.
Acknowledgment and waking up to the social issues our world is facing is all well and good, but it needs to be followed by action and the willingness to make a change. “The system is acknowledging what's happening. It just does not want to fix itself yet,” notes Whitner, before sharing his opinion on who needs to drive the change.
“This is a conversation of humanity. It's not a conversation of gender or color, it's a conversation of humanity,” stresses Whitner. “I think it's a joint effort. Listen, it starts with us, but white America has to be a huge part of that solution. It's specifically white males. Because if white males hold themselves accountable to the conversation, in general, the world changes.”
“I think the world has acknowledged that racism exists. And what we're doing about it is being informed differently by different people in different organizations,” Whitner continues, stressing that 2020 was just the beginning, that acknowledgment and accountability are only the first steps in a long process.
“We're at the edge of starting to see the 99 percent open their eyes and start to realize they have more power than what they ever imagined. When they do, then we'll really start to see the change, and then it's just going to get fun.”