Artist and Kanye West collaborator Vanessa Beecroft seems to be a pretty bizarre person in a number of ways. (Read the full profile on her in New York magazine to understand.) One way, writes author Amy Larocca in the piece, is Beecroft’s assessment of her own racial identity.
Beecroft has apparently experienced an incredible creative “mind-meld” with West, through projects like the Yeezy season three fashion show and designing his wedding to Kim Kardashian. The collaboration is so intense, in fact, that she is playing with the idea of not calling herself white anymore — ostensibly so that her new racial identity will reflect the way she feels as an artist and the people she enjoys being around.
“I have divided my personality,” she says. “There is Vanessa Beecroft as a European white female, and then there is Vanessa Beecroft as Kanye, an African-American male. I even did a DNA test thinking maybe I am black? I actually wasn’t. I was kind of disappointed, and I don’t want to believe it. I want to do it again, because when I work with Africans or African-Americans, I feel that I am autobiographical. If I don’t call myself white, maybe I am not.”
There’s more where that came from.
She says race always fascinated her, even during her childhood, when she rarely saw people of different races. “When I was a child, I won a prize at school for drawing black children in a ship,” she says. “There were probably 30 or 40 of them. A lot. I drew so many of them, and I won a prize because the sisters of the nursery school were kind of mesmerized. So you see, everything comes from somewhere.”
As an adult, she began to cast black women when she first came to America. “My first black project was originated by the fact that I met a bluesman from Chicago in Italy and he was white and he was really, really upset by being white, he kept saying, ‘If only I was black.’ He felt discriminated against. And that really triggered something for me. I said, ‘I’m going to be black, too,’ ” she tells me. “I had wanted to move to the States because of the presence of African-Americans. When I landed at JFK, my first impression is being welcomed by all of these African, or maybe Jamaican, air people that help you at the airport with your luggage. They were so kind. Welcome! I was so happy to see mixed races. In Italy, they are in the street selling gadgets.”
Race is socially constructed — but not through collaborations with rappers
Sure, you may ask why her comment is even worth exploring. Beecroft could easily be written off as an eccentric art world figure whose words probably wouldn’t raise an eyebrow in “new black” celebrity circles.
Still, there’s plenty to unpack. Why? Because her assertion is sure to be echoed in a country that is becoming increasingly diverse, where there’s a growing multiracial-identified population and more and more people understand how elastic racial categories can be.
Since the artist’s statements represent bigger questions about race and identity, it’s worth giving them more than the eye-roll emoji that many readers shared on social media in reaction to the profile.
Beecroft’s cringeworthy views of people from Africa and Jamaica as essentially interchangeable, her uncritical celebration of the role of black people in her life as doing menial labor, and the lazy false equivalence behind her allegation of reverse discrimination against white musicians are beyond the scope of this piece. Put those aside.
At the core of what’s interesting and unsettling here is that what Beecroft said reminds us — similar to last year’s flap over Rachel Dolezal — of the uncomfortable truth that there is no objective or scientific test for racial identity.
As C. Matthew Snipp put it in Defining Race and Ethnicity: the Constitution, the Supreme Court and the Census (an essay published in Doing Race, edited by Hazel Rose Markus and Paula L.M. Moya):
[T]he notion of race is an old idea that dates back to medieval Europe and possibly earlier. At different times, it has referred to differences in blood, differences in a variety of biological characteristics, differences in character, and lately, to a set of social categories constructed to achieve some set of legal and political objectives. These different meanings are rooted in mythology, pseudo-science, and the intentions of governments and other institutions with particular agendas in mind.
Because of these shifting rules, while today’s court of public opinion would almost certainly deem Beecroft to be not black, there wouldn’t be any indisputable evidence to provide to the judge.
That said, the same understanding of the history of race that tells us a whole list of forces have shaped the way we think about who gets which racial label at which particular time in American history (institutional decisions, government priorities, political agendas — think of the way which ethnic groups are thought of as “white” has shifted over the years) tells us that individual creative collaborations with Kanye West are not among these forces.
Yes, racial identity is highly malleable for groups and occasionally even for individuals. But to suggest that a person’s artistic impulses and affection are legitimate determinants of racial identity flies in the face of history and in the experiences of the vast majority of people whose labels have been determined by factors outside their control.
It’s not that Beecroft isn’t being “politically correct,” as Larocca writes in the New York magazine piece. It’s that her thinking is totally divorced from the many ways racial identity — complicated as it may be — is assigned and claimed in this country. Can she say she’s black? Sure, nobody can stop her. Will it reflect the reality of her life in America in a way anyone (aside from maybe Kanye) will respect? Unlikely.