In the wake of the killing of George Floyd at the hands of the police, protests have swept the United States. Social activist Tamika Mallory, speaking on Saturday at a Minneapolis rally, declared that black America was “in a state of emergency.” That rally cry reflects the extreme level of racism that has held black people down for centuries under oppressive systems geared to politically disenfranchise, socio-economically enslave and culturally — even physically — eradicate us.
On a human level, the despicable treatment of blacks in America, particularly when laid bare for all to see in brutal, damning video clips should create universal outrage. But racism doesn’t exist in these clips alone. It is firmly entrenched in every part of our culture, including the fashion industry.
Social media provides a useful litmus test for assessing the ways in which fashion brands have responded. Nike, whose core customers are young and racially diverse, is one of the few brands to have created original content on the issue. Their "Don’t Do It" campaign reversed the iconic "Just Do It" tagline, urging viewers: “For once, don’t do It. Don’t pretend there’s not a problem in America. Don’t turn your back on racism.” In a surprise turn, rival Adidas retweeted the campaign, saying: “Together is how we move forward. Together is how we make a change.” This unprecedented show of solidarity in the face of injustice by the world’s biggest sportswear giants garnered praise.
But overall, the fashion's industry’s slow and lacklustre responses to racial injustice in the days since the killing of George Floyd has overwhelmingly been underwhelming, all too often consisting of vague statements and repurposed content. And black people in the fashion business know all too well that these symbols of support are no reflection of the darker realities under the surface of the industry.
Why are fashion professionals still overwhelmingly white?
If it were, one might reasonably question why the industry looks the way it currently does. Are the social media posts quoting black leaders and the sentiment of support a true reflection of the industry’s actions? If fashion’s position is truly “It's not enough to be quietly non-racist, now is the time to be vocally anti-racist,” as so many in the industry have posted to Instagram, then why are fashion professionals still overwhelmingly white?
It’s no secret that we have very few people of colour and fewer-to-no black people in leadership, decision-making, gatekeeping roles in this industry. Perhaps, then, it’s no surprise that fashion has established narratives that effectively support white supremacy — from the sinister measure of beauty by white European standards to the criminalisation of black bodies in luxury stores to a legacy of erasing black culture’s contributions to fashion aesthetics to anti-black hiring practises and workplace bias.
Indeed, the fashion industry has been and still is one of the greatest racial oppressors in the world, a fact that makes all those social media posts a lot less credible.
In this age of inclusivity marketing, fashion seemed to be making improvements, if only in words and pictures. But as the pandemic hit, the race discussion receded. Meanwhile, fashion is focused on the important, but less uncomfortable issue of sustainability where inclusivity has never been included.
Now, after the latest police killing and subsequent uprising, the issue is coming back to fashion’s doorstep. This is a watershed moment that goes some way toward exposing the parallels between the structures and norms of oppressive governments and those of the fashion industry.
Social media posts, self-reflection and even well-intentioned gestures of support like donations are not enough. The time for lobbying fashion’s current leadership for change has passed. Black people themselves need equitable representation at the heart of fashion’s power structure, so that key topics that impact black lives can be a permanent feature of the fashion industry’s agenda.
When the AIDS pandemic ravaged the fashion community, the industry rallied to set up campaigns, events, funds and foundations. When Notre Dame was burning, companies like LVMH and Kering collectively contributed a billion dollars without the slightest hesitation.
Only with a new order in fashion, where black people are represented in the corridors of power, will our significance and ongoing contribution to the fashion industry be honoured with real rigour and vigour.
Only with black people in leadership roles can we start to do the hard and necessary work to dismantle and rebuild fashion’s racist system in our collective and more egalitarian image.
Jason Campbell and Henrietta Gallina are hosts of The Conversations podcast where they discuss the intersection of fashion, culture and the black experience.
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