Kickin’ Facts | How much responsibility do white influencers who eat off of Black culture have when it comes to speaking out about justice?
With today’s protests for racial equality, silence begets erasure, setting the stage for an already gentrified sneaker culture to expel the voices, stories, and thoughts of Black people.
“Kickin’ Facts” is REVOLT’s new sneaker column, written by sneaker expert Jazerai Allen-Lord, where she dives into the culture and discusses all things kicks with a special emphasis on black people who are in the scene, but who the now very-gentrified sneaker industry often overlooks. Come here for the real from an absolute sneakerhead who truly is of the culture.
The term “influencer” is just as it’s stated; someone commissioned by a brand to influence us to do a particular behavior, for example, buying. In the sneaker world, today’s influencers are born through brand endorsements, design partnerships, store ownership, and contributing to the culture through multiple forms of media such as YouTube, targeted news outlets, and social media. The brand amplification of influencer voices is what grew their tremendous visibility. However, it’s the dollars of sneaker culture that sustains their livelihood. Bottom line: They need us more than we need them.
In the footsteps of the revolution, we looked to the influencers of sneaker culture to light a path forward for justice. With sneaker culture created by Black people, it’s nearly impossible for this community to remain quiet. Yet, a lot of us were wounded, bewildered, and insulted at the silence and behaviors we were met with.
“As an influencer, I’m not particularly required to do good or shine a light on any specific issues, but personally, especially being a Black woman, it feels almost irresponsible NOT to speak on the current injustices. It’s a fact that sneaker culture was built and continues to thrive as a derivative of Black culture. Ignoring this is wrong. Whether influencers realize it or not, their audience respects their opinions and, often, looks at them as role models.”
– Simply B, Digital Creative & Influencer
When the disparities within Nike began to show their face again, Kerby Jean-Raymond was on Twitter letting the choppa sing on fashion and sneaker companies. This was no surprise to the culture considering Blackness is weaved into the DNA of his brand identity.
With so few of us allowed “in the room,” Black people depend on those who hold space to hold space for us ALL. And that goes triple for non-Black POC and white sneaker community influencers, who have built their careers on the back of Black culture and have yet, remained silent when it comes to defending it.
“White supremacist culture is woven into the fabric of each and every one of these sneaker brands — just ask the long string of Black employees that voluntarily (or involuntarily) resign year after year. The influencers who are partnered with sneaker brands need to request survey data and then have closed-door conversations with the Black employees so they can understand the true culture, and then take action. That’s how you display Black privileged allyship.”
– Darla DeGrace, D&I Strategist and CEO, DeGrace Group Consulting LLC
Now that the revolution is alive, we’ve seen significant questions exploring the character of the influencers who steward the sneaker movement and calls for a lot of their cancellations. At this juncture, I don’t think Virgil Abloh will ever live that fifty dollar donation down because true to the nature of Black people, who can find laughter in any struggle, we took that and RAN.
Apart from the donation, Virgil became a topic again when he revealed grief over the destruction of Round Two and outrage over the looting, yet had very little to say about the inequities faced by Black people. His support of Sean Wotherspoon, a former Nike employee and owner of Round Two, did nothing but add fire to the flames, as accounts of Weatherspoon’s personal biases and mistreatment of women during his tenure at Nike began to surface on the timeline. A former Black female employee (who also tweeted a design sold in Round Two that looks eerily close to the Confederate Flag) discussed Weatherspoon’s callousness when confronted:
“So I pulled Sean aside before opening and asked him if he knew what that flag looked like? He chuckled, then shrugged and said, “Honestly, I don’t know, but someone will buy it.” I told him it looks dangerously close to the confederate flag, representing white supremacy, and he just walked away…That bag ended up being purchased by a young Black kid.”
Sneaker store owners, artists, journalists, brand founders, and talent were immediately pulled into focus, as we watched the already gentrified sneaker culture finally split. After days of backlash, a flurry of posts began to go live, including one from frequent Nike partner and sneaker OG Jeff Staple. In his Instagram statement, Jeff acknowledges his silence and offers an explanation that I have privately received from many of my Asian peers in the sneaker industry.
“I did not want to influence you all to believe that a well-versed tweet or photo of George Floyd on my stories in between a pair of shoes, a sale, and a new collection dropping, would make any change whatsoever.”
He then goes on to say:
“I realize I was wrong. By not posting, I was carrying out the tradition of Asian Americans being silent in the face of Black Americans experiencing oppression. Black culture has always welcomed me in, and I am committed to figuring out ways on how to give back.”
– Jeff Staple, Founder, Staple Pigeon
Silence is not only toxic, but it’s also deadly. As Black people, we recognize the power of silence profoundly, as we have spent 400 years in an unjust America living unseen and going unheard. We have protested for decades for the same freedoms we’re marching for today, guided by our own National Anthem, which charges us explicitly to “lift every voice and sing.”
For me, silence is terrifying. Silence begets erasure, setting the stage for an already gentrified sneaker culture to expel the voices, stories, and thoughts of Black people. For people who don’t look like me, silence seems like a natural response, reminding me of an expression acquired from our grandparents that prevails valid today: Everybody wants to be Black until it’s time to be Black.
Whether you’re comfortable with it or not, the revolution is here, and this time, it’s being televised. The battle for justice for George Floyd ripened into a moment of reckoning for the defective systems designed to hold us back. We have been compelled to take a sincere look at ourselves, our friends, the brands we spend with, and the influencers who lead us to begin to “right the wrongs.” We’re examining systems — all of the systems — commanding equity and accountability. And undoubtedly now, we have questions.
We understand that the buck stops with the brand, and given the recent news on Adidas and Nike, we suspect to see slow, but real change. Concerning the sneaker influencers, who represent not only the brands but the community as a whole, who are they accountable to? How much responsibility do creatives who eat off of Black culture have when it comes to protecting it? What is their role in the revolution, and where does the buck stop with them?
“When it comes to accountability, I think there is a need for the people and brands that profit off the culture/community to speak on its behalf, but more importantly, take action to incite change. I think it should be approached in three parts; statement, commitment, and lifelong action. For the change we all seek to happen, all three need to be done. If you can be vocal about the next release or about your next influencer product drop, you can also speak to, and seek change, when it comes to the hardships that plague the community you profit off of.”
– Jacques Slade, Executive Producer & Host of What’s Poppin?
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