Kanye Collaborator Vanessa Beecroft Reveals A Common Misconception About Race

August 9th 2016

Vanessa Beecroft is best known as the artist who has collaborated with Kanye West on several of the rapper’s most noteworthy visuals, from the “Runaway” mini-movie to the Yeezy Season 3 fashion show.

But thanks to a recently published profile in New York Magazine, Beecroft is gaining notoriety in her own right. In the piece, she makes several bizarre statements, but her first quote in the piece is probably the most questionable:

“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.” Later she tells me, “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.”

After waxing poetic about being inspired by impoverished Rwandan refugees, nicknaming her Hollywood Hills home after the shacks found in Brazilian slums, and discussing “a Barbie doll project” featuring dolls with “caramel Beyonce skin,” Beecroft once again mentions her desire to be black:

“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.”

While outlandish, her statements reveal a common misconception about race.

The mainstream belief in the scientific community is that race is a social construct without biological meaning, with research demonstrating that genetic differences are not fixed along racial lines.

By that logic, there’s nothing wrong with what Vanity Fair describes as Beecroft’s “choose-your-own-race views.”

However, as a white woman from Italy, Beecroft is able to propose that choice from a place of privilege, while her black collaborator Kanye cannot. Also, no matter what racial identity she “feels” or identifies with at any given moment, she still benefits from white privilege, because she looks white and others treat her as such.

Who gets to "choose" their race?

And this is more than just a matter of public opinion. As the Harvard Gazette reports, American law for centuries determined the racial status of individuals based on so-called "one drop" rules.

In the United States, the “one-drop rule” — also known as hypodescent — dates to a 1662 Virginia law on the treatment of mixed-race individuals. The legal notion of hypodescent has been upheld as recently as 1985, when a Louisiana court ruled that a woman with a black great-great-great-great-grandmother could not identify herself as “white” on her passport.

Beecroft, who has made these inflammatory statements about race before, is reminiscent of Rachel Dolezal, who raised similar questions surrounding identity, race, and privilege by notoriously posing as a black women and leading a local NAACP chapter.

In an article in Politico, writer Errin Whack asserts that choosing to be black is the epitome of white privilege, saying:

"Unlike my gender identity, which I could alter by cutting my hair and wearing different clothes, asking people to address me with a male pronoun or even undergoing gender reassignment surgery, I cannot change the color of my skin, the trails of my ancestors or the way that a majority-white country still very much invested in the concept of racial identity will always perceive me."

"Race is even more emotional and personal, and unlike with some other identities, when it comes to race, fellowship is not kinship."

Beecroft's statements highlight the more complex issue of how white people can best relate to black people, especially in the fight to end racism. Why, a reader might wonder, would Beecroft feel compelled to claim black identity as a natural consequence of relating to black artists? Isn't being a good ally good enough?

In an essay on Medium, Asaid Haider offers another perspective, exposing “the dirty secret of the equation of identity with politics” in the aftermath of Rachel Dolezal:

"Strange as it may seem, Rachel Dolezal could actually be the typical case: she exemplifies the consequences of reducing politics to identity performances, in which positioning oneself as marginal is the recognized procedure of becoming-political."

By any measure, though, it would be extremely charitable to read Beecroft's claim of black identity as a conscious political act and not an ignorant whim.

Read the rest of the NY Magazine profile here.

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