In light of Black Lives Matter protests the world over, writer Chidozie Obasi explains why it’s time for real change – and how we can achieve it
Fashion is living a painful reality. Whitewashed runway shows, campaigns and editorials have been a lasting truth in the world of fashion and, despite movements otherwise in the past decades, racism in the industry continues to be unavoidable. Now more than ever, in light of the myriad brutalities inflicted on the black community in America and beyond, the murder of George Floyd by white police officers has triggered an all-round revolution enough to make fashion wake up and consider its future.
Marches all over the world want to bring a tangible change to the system, for which protesters have emblazoned cardboard placards with phrases like ‘I Can’t Breathe’ and ‘Black Lives Matter’. The fashion community has shown, over and over again, that it is willing to fight for social justice and progressive causes. So it’s worth asking how, past the solidarity shown since Floyd’s passing, the industry will grapple with racial injustice within its own ranks. Our world holds an abundance of diversity, but how come that isn’t reflected in fashion? Lindsay Peoples Wagner, Teen Vogue’s editor-in-chief, highlighted the extent of the problem back in August 2018, in an exhaustive feature for The Cut titled What It’s Really Like To Be Black And Work In Fashion which detailed the personal effects the lack of diversity had on those who work in the industry; Peoples Wagner interviewed over 100 individuals about their experiences. The Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), raised concerns regarding the obvious lack of diversity in the upper strata of the industry in a report on diversity and inclusion published in 2019, which paints a picture of the systematic marginalisation of black and brown people in an industry that has consciously fashioned itself to be the epitome of taste and beauty. But to the many observing the industry from afar, the message communicated through this marginalisation is that ‘blackness’ is not beautiful.
This past week has seen how communication from non-black businesses is challenging. Model and activist Munroe Bergdorf offers a clear example of how the industry should change for the better. “Fuck you, L’Oreal Paris,” Bergdorf wrote in an Instagram post last week, in response to the brand’s own post encouraging its followers to speak out in light of the Black Lives Matter movement; three years ago, Bergdorf herself was fired by L’Oreal for comments about white supremacy in the wake of a neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville. “You dropped me from a campaign in 2017 and threw me to the wolves for speaking out about racism and white supremacy. With no duty of care, without a second thought. I had to fend for myself being torn apart by the world press because you didn’t want to talk about racism.” Seeing such occurrences happen during a time when the industry is seeking a reprisal in equality is deeply draining.
In fact, the past week has seen several such fleeting performances of anti-racist activism, particularly on social media. On June 2 – #BlackoutTuesday – the world shared black squares on Instagram in honour of Floyd. Social media has become a valuable resource to spread awareness, but it has to be used with consciousness.
Some posts on #BlackoutTuesday felt empty: “I’m joining Blackout Tuesday today and muting my feed to give room for black voices that clearly need to be heard! Join the movement and give space while continuing to listen and learn,” said influencer Leonie Hanne, echoing the voices of other influencers and brands who partcipated in the #BlackoutTuesday movement. Others felt bolder: American Vogue critic Sarah Mower posted an image reading “I had a disgraceful British education” the day prior, writing that she condemned “racism in all its forms, but what I know is that it isn’t enough to say that. It’s the duty of all white people to listen, examine, question and re-educate.” In comparison to Hanne’s ‘tokenistic’ agenda, Mower encouraged a shift in constructive thinking, advocating for a purposeful cause by admitting she’s “ashamed and ignorant” of Britain’s white-focused educational curriculum. That implies a willingness of change, and her bravery of thought is valid.
It’s understandable why we’ve noticed influencers, celebrities and companies hold back on social media – but we must remember, silence isn’t a neutral stance. Many are hesitant to speak about race because they are scared of getting it wrong. Of course, we want to get it right – the worry of criticism stands, and there are a lot of heightened emotions right now. But the outcry and demonstrations are good: it’s exciting to see how enlivened people are.
Filling the void in fashion, just like in society, is simple: it’s about tackling white privilege and carrying out painstaking research and education. It’s not about stating ‘I’m white and I’m aware of my own privilege’. Rather, it’s about speaking up and choosing the way forward by actively aiming at inclusivity in all its forms – from utilising black creatives to diversifying workplaces and boardrooms. We have to understand how whiteness operates: I have mulled over my own white colleagues’ reactions to Black Lives Matter on social media, which have often felt performative. If we want activism to continue offline, we must keep on talking and not be deafened by silence. Fashion needs to go beyond promoting eye-catching and evocative content about black lives, but needs to think about people experiencing it, whose lives are in danger. Posting helps further the conversation, but this has proved that we need a radical shift in awareness – the excuse that fashion doesn’t know what to say is no longer good enough, smart enough, powerful enough or radical enough. White people in the industry must be held accountable: do your research and find out what’s really going on. And with that, I don’t mean black people should tell white people in industry how to approach issues – it’s not the job of the oppressed to educate on the burdens of race.
“I firmly believe it’s time for people to finally advocate for an evolution, and I say finally because prior to this moment, inclusion and diversity were outpouring on social media and not beyond,” says Adebayo Oke-Lawal, brand director of Nigeria-based fashion brand Orange Culture, who defines what he does not as a clothing label but a ‘movement’. “Now people are charging businesses to show off that their ethos actually stands for inclusion and diversity. Actually hire black people, buy from black people, support black writers, stylists and models and not one black person a season to fulfil your tokenistic righteousness.” I couldn’t agree more.
Society is frustrated. We need to reflect on the purpose of all we’re doing, to try harder to have these conversations day-to-day. For the white leaders in fashion, as discussed in Peoples Wagner’s The Cut feature, authority comes for granted – but privilege can be unpacked through commitment and education. A seat at the table is worthless without the ‘other’ seats at the table understanding how their own whiteness operates. Working together, thoughtfully, we can incite real change.