This year has put another pandemic front and centre in fashion schools: anti-Black racism.
Over the summer, fashion schools released a flurry of statements on their social media platforms condemning anti-Blackness in response to the murder of George Floyd and the re-energised Black Lives Matter movement. But thousands of students and faculty members quickly called out what they saw as hypocrisy, leaving comments and creating new accounts to document practises that devalue and discriminate against Black lives at fashion school.
In my own conversations with Black students at the fashion school where I am Chair, I learned firsthand how fashion education undermined their love of fashion. These students said they learned about white fashion history in classes that ignored or trivialised Black fashion histories; they said faculty questioned the relevance of their designs when they were grounded in Black narratives or assumed they were creating work about their experiences as Black people; they said that they rarely had Black teachers and that they were judged harder than their white peers.
At my school, we are on a journey to radically transform our curriculum and culture. Based on the approach my colleagues and I have put into practice, here are five steps that fashion schools can take to create the conditions for racial justice. While these steps can be used to advance social justice more broadly, given the recent BLM uprising and the calls for fashion schools to address anti-Blackness, my examples confront and address anti-Black racism specifically.
1. Own up to racism and discrimination
Fashion schools need to recognise how they’ve inflicted trauma upon generations of Black students, faculty and staff. Academic leaders must create the time and space to apologise to their schools’ Black communities. These apologies should name the harm that has been caused, and voluntarily invite those who have been impacted to share their suggestions for change.
To redress the harm they have caused, fashion schools should take concrete steps towards reconciliation with Black communities. They should offer complimentary studio access, career mentorship and continuing education to Black alumni who were denied the opportunity to develop their potential and interests during their fashion education. At the same time, schools should offer ongoing workshops for faculty to help prevent anti-Black racism in the future. Workshops should teach them about racial injustice in fashion education, encourage deep reflection, and start their journey of learning about Black fashion histories and practices.
2. Develop a collective and comprehensive vision for justice
Embedding justice into fashion education has to be everyone’s work. However well-intentioned, creating equity committees limits anti-racism to those already committed to change and often to the Black staff and students who experience racism every day. It is vital that all faculty and staff play a role in advancing justice in everything they do because injustice shapes the entire system of fashion education, from student recruitment to developing course content to faculty hiring.
Rather than assume, schools should hold workshops to find out how their community understands justice in fashion education. Workshops should focus on the experiences and interests of Black students and faculty, but must also engage all stakeholders for the entire community to feel invested in change. The objectives that come from these workshops should be established as the school’s guiding principles that direct all planning and decision-making because justice must be intentional and deliberate to result in meaningful change.
3. Embed justice into curriculum
Once the guiding principles have been established, schools must embed them into their curriculum. Programme directors and curriculum committees should first evaluate and revise their mandatory classes — the course descriptions, learning objectives and content. These revisions should acknowledge and teach multiple and parallel fashion histories and systems, as well as the impact of colonisation and slavery on these fashion systems. In my school, we include a section in all course outlines that explain how the class honours our guiding principles. It allows us to hold ourselves accountable to teaching about Black fashion world views, cultures and practices.
Educators should also introduce new elective courses that offer students opportunities to deepen their knowledge and skills in Black fashion histories and practices. New electives might include Carnival fashion design and Black queer fashion histories. Alongside curricular revisions, schools with fashion research collections should acquire new objects to provide students with ample access to garments designed and worn by Black people. Schools will also need to develop sliding scales for guest lecturer honorariums. Due to discrimination in employment, many Black speakers and critics have to take time away from paid work to accept invitations to visit classes.
4. Welcome diverse ways of being
Fashion schools have often been hostile places for Black students and faculty. Current approaches to inclusion invite them in, but expect assimilation into white culture. For many prospective Black students, this hostility starts with the application process because they do not have access to the same training and support as their white peers to develop their portfolios. One approach to help prospective Black students might be to hire the school’s Black alumni to host workshops for Black youth. At these workshops, alumni can share their experiences and mentor those youth who want to apply to fashion school. Schools should also redesign portfolio requirements to encourage diverse ways of knowing and practising fashion. But this redesign will only work if schools retrain faculty who evaluate portfolios. As the gatekeepers for schools, faculty need to recognise the barriers many Black students face and deliberately welcome them.
Once Black students start their education, schools need to cultivate culturally relevant student groups and mentorship programmes to support them in the face of continued anti-Black racism and discrimination. In my own school, Professor Caron Phinney established a Black Fashion Students Association to provide space for Black fashion students and alumni to discuss topics facing Black people in fashion and to host Black fashion professionals to share their experiences and mentor students in the group.
One of the most crucial steps fashion schools should take to eradicate the hostility facing Black students is to hire Black faculty who will reflect them and bring urgent knowledge into schools. However, there are significant barriers preventing Black faculty from gaining employment. To start, most job postings don’t take systemic barriers to higher education and employment into account; they narrowly define job requirements and thereby limit who is deemed qualified. Hiring committees need to develop job postings that may better attract Black applicants and rethink qualifications outside of traditional understandings of success. For example, postings should consider community activism, public education and micro entrepreneurship as equivalencies to terminal degrees, academic experience and jobs at renowned fashion brands.
Current approaches to inclusion expect assimilation into white culture.
Faculty evaluation and promotion committees must develop new metrics for assessing Black faculty or they risk inviting their new employees into workplaces that do not allow them to flourish. Black fashion faculty are called on by students at their universities and beyond for guidance because they are often the only experts in their fields. Schools need to credit this time-consuming, invisible labour. Assessments of faculty must also equally reward research beyond journals and exhibitions to include public education and community work. It is only by valuing a range of contributions that Black faculty will advance to leadership roles in fashion education.
5. Establish partnerships that facilitate justice
Fashion schools must develop new partnerships and revenue streams to support Black students and faculty. For example, they should consider extending their teaching and research expertise into the fashion industry. My school takes what we are doing in the classroom and offers executive education on anti-racist and inclusive fashion practices for fashion organisations.
With this revenue, fashion schools can create scholarships and bursaries dedicated to Black students. The combination of racial and class barriers that many Black students face require them to hold multiple jobs to afford the costs of tuition and materials for class. As a result, these students are exhausted — with less time and energy to focus on school-work compared to their white peers. Partnerships and revenue streams can also be used to hire new Black faculty members through endowed professorships, such as named Chairs in different areas of Black fashion, and to support cluster hires of several Black faculty members concurrently.
Fashion schools should develop relationships with Black-owned fashion businesses and Black-focused non-for-profit organisations. Rather than financial support, these partnerships can facilitate student internships and in-class projects. They allow schools to extend learning and mentorship opportunities for students beyond the status quo of white fashion organisations and professionals. These relationships can also provide pipelines for student and faculty recruitment.
Applying these steps will start the process of redressing the historic and continued injustices that Black communities face in fashion school. But justice is only the start. Liberation is that which justice ultimately strives towards. Then and only then will fashion education be transformed.
Ben Barry is Chair of Fashion and Associate Professor of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at Ryerson University and incoming Dean of Fashion and Parsons School of Design.
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