As Black Lives Matter protests continue to spread around the world, I have watched in awe at the outpouring of empathy in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. New hearts and minds have been won, new voices joined to the fight. But, inevitably, among the actions that have provided plenty of reason for hope, there have been brands and businesses whose expressions of solidarity feel performative and paper-thin. As I've watched the fashion industry voice its support the struggle against racial injustice, as a mixed-race Black man who has worked within its power structures for years, I've felt the awakening of an unexpected personal pain.
This strange new feeling is shaped by experiences where I was repeatedly exposed to anti-Black sentiment. Sometimes this was carefully disclosed; at other times, it was openly discussed. I am the product of a Black Ghanaian father and white English mother. I am a mixed-race Black male, which has made me part of a tiny non-white minority in fashion's workplaces, as well as its shows and events. Despite my achievements, my ability, the talent attested to by my colleagues, none of it mattered. I was up against invisible barriers and obstructions. Racism stopped me dead in my tracks.
From beneath this glass ceiling, I watched as opportunities were handed to other, whiter people, whose rises were unimpeded. I know, with some certainty, that this was not about ability, but a direct consequence of appearance, thanks to revealing slips of drunken tongues. Though it had often been noted that I had ability, prejudicial views in fashion's upper echelons too often bar people who look like me from progression. At the time I accepted this treatment largely without public complaint, until I finally departed. This kind of discrimination in the workplace is unlawful in the United Kingdom, but it is often so hard to prove that its victims are forced to absorb and accept it. I have been unable to let the gravity of this fact fully sink in as of yet. It adds a significant personal burden.
While writing this article, I contacted a white ex-partner of several years, to ask if I had told them about this experience. It turns out I had never mentioned a word of it. You see, silence is a reaction well-practiced by minorities, over lifetimes. It is born of an unconscious need for to guard ourselves emotionally from the repeated unfairnesses we face. The reality can be too painful, and speaking out often requires an impossibly high burden of proof. It simply isn’t worth the bother of explaining. We probably won’t be taken seriously, anyway.
We live here, we work here, we love here, we contribute here and we belong here. None among us deserve second-rate opportunities, casual micro-aggressions or intolerant cruelty, just because we are fewer in number. It is being asked to accept a pale and ghostly imitation of authentic equality, and it simply will not do. Coercively barring minorities from participating properly in the workplace is just one part of what systemic racism looks like in action today.
On Tuesday last week, as black squares began to mushroom on my Instagram, I waited for those brands that rarely promoted people of colour to creative or business leadership positions – that treated me differently to my colleagues because of the way I looked – to pledge performative allyship to the Black Lives Matters cause. Sure enough, up they popped. But this is not just about singular experience. It is an endemic problem. Beyond the high-profile appointment of Edward Enninful at British Vogue, Black editors-in-chief across the UK and US are in startlingly short supply. Industry veteran Naomi Campbell reported as recently as last year that campaigns in which she was starring were not being used in certain countries, because she is Black.
From leading campaigns to e-commerce imagery, minority models remain scarce. Despite my arguments on this front, I've been ignored by those with the power to actually enact change. Recently, as pro-diversity momentum has gained pace on social media, and in society at large, concessions have been made. But they still have invisible strings attached. Where non-white models are used, more often than not they are, mixed-race. Those with exclusively African heritage are still, in effect, barred.
Even today, I note the persistent pattern of minority models being carefully excluded from the most important campaigns, or placed in less-prominent positions on website pages. This is a covert, perhaps unconscious, method of ensuring the survival and proliferation of a damaging, racially hierarchical beauty ideology. It places higher a value on Eurocentric aesthetic ideals. It is a meagre nod to diversity that doesn't embody the principles of true equality. This can be observed in the numbers of POC models on runways at fashion weeks. Though white people are a global minority, they are still heavily over-represented in fashion media.
Much of the diversity that has been granted thus far has not come from a place of true belief in equality, but as the direct result of public pressure. It is rarely reflected in internal power structures and can often seem like a smokescreen. It is why you are seeing more black models, while south Asian models (for example) are far less visible. If you are not making enough noise, then you will continue to be excluded.
POC make up almost half of London’s population, but they are rarely seen walking the corridors of corporate fashion brands. There are two important, unchallenged consensuses at play here. The first is that the white majority are effectively all colour-blind, which is too often an excuse for those with privilege to avoid making structural, impactful change. The second is the tacit acceptance of the idea of meritocracy, that everybody is more or less getting what they deserve. Those who subscribe to both those positions are unintentionally endorsing a racist position that they would most likely never dare to vocalise publicly.
This offers us only three logical conclusions from which to choose.
The first of these is that the disproportionate number of white people in London’s fashion industry is a result of natural better-suitedness, otherwise known as supremacy. The second suggests that our societal systems are actively working to the detriment of racial minorities. The third is that it is simply a matter of sheer coincidence. But this definitely isn't a coincidence.
In reality, there are only two options from which to choose. You can either subscribe to the ideology of white supremacy or acknowledge the harmful effects of systemic racism. There are no other moves. But it seems that, finally, this protracted game of chess might be approaching its endgame.
This is the essence of what Black Lives Matters is asking for: the end of systemic racism. The end to lies and corporate hand-washing from those who use their power to abuse, exclude and belittle those who they pretend to support in public.
There is a genuine hunger to see meaningful change in the fashion industry, not just on billboards, but in boardrooms, in workshops and in all facets of these businesses. Reality and ethics must always trump optics. Support those minorities whose images, words, culture and ideas that you seek to profit from. Perhaps they are the sons or daughters of those same minority citizens who may be cleaning your toilets or guarding your doors. Their children, too, deserve a chance to be seen, rewarded and valued for their talents.
It is an error to assume that scuttling for cover under black squares, empty words and the periodic use of vaguely ethnic models will prevent the chorus of discontent from arriving at your doorstep. Even if the noise abates, it will return with the addition of more and more voices, each time getting louder. There are plenty of initiatives looking to push for this desperately needed change. Design Can is one such example, specifically set up to address the issue of representation across the whole UK design industry, encouraging structural form. Pause Magazine, founded by Johnson Gold, is another, a Black-owned media platform which actively promotes and supports the interests of Black creatives and visual representation within the UK fashion industry.
The Black Lives Matter movement has never been about inflicting guilt, revenge or fanning the flames of chaos. It is a rallying cry of despair in response to the indignity of centuries of punishment, terror and gruesome cruelty. It speaks with painful urgency of a need to remove the conditions which have robbed so many Black people of their opportunities, joy, dignity and lives.
By allowing fair access to different types of talent, there is an opportunity for the fashion industry to be a powerful agent in spreading true equality, not just an image.
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