In rapid succession in these few short weeks of 2018, the global fashion community has already been shaken by three cases of blatant and internationally publicized racism by three major forces within our industry – one a dominant fast-fashion brand, one an American contemporary retailer, the other a celebrated young couture designer.
While these events are horrific and incredibly traumatic in their own right, they become less surprising with each occurrence, and while that does not help dull the pain, it does force one to wonder whether racism in our community is merely becoming unearthed more easily, or if it is growing with the same entitled boldness that we in the U.S. have come to refer to as the “Trump Effect”.
In the more recent case of ignorance breeding violence, a racist note exchanged between couture designer Ulyana Seergenko and influencer Miroslava Duma that was then broadcast to Instagram, the most upsetting and heartbreaking element of the resulting uproar that unfolded was watching some of our most admired people of color in fashion, including Elaine Welteroth, Shiona Turini, Bryanboy and Danielle Prescod, react so eloquently and with such dignity to such a pathetic, blatantly stupid exchange between two exceptionally privileged white women. We now live in a world of social media and a 24-hour news cycle, and this means that truly no matter where you are on the planet, the course of your day and your emotions and your energy flow can be so casually interrupted by the actions of two dangerously ignorant people in completely different time zone (or, apparently, century).
But what was perhaps the most heartbreaking about this event in particular is that is underscores the deafening silence, with few exceptions, from white people in positions of influence. When micro or macro aggressions occur across the world, we have become somewhat conditioned to expect accomplished and eloquent people of color to stop what they are doing, take time from their day, address the issue, field the responses and do the work of educating and unifying the masses while also still overachieving and providing for themselves and their families. And in turn, we have come to expect from white people a simple show of solidarity. “This is awful!” “Unacceptable!” “We have to do better!” These are all responses that I saw on social media from white people in response to the screenshot of Seergenko using a racist slur on a note to Duma. And they are all accurate comments, but they’re not enough.
Examples of racism like what we have seen in the last few weeks are a product of ignorance, stupidity, and lack of consideration for the world beyond a personal bubble. In an international industry that is racist by design, with large swathes of production taking place in nations populated by people of color and executive boardrooms populated nearly exclusively by white people, to be a white person and simply disavow racism is simply not enough. In an industry that promotes progressive values, no one proudly proclaims themselves a racist. But please know, if you are content to assure yourself that you are not a racist while allowing the burden of oppression to be shouldered exclusively by people of color, you are supporting the system that allows racism and bigotry to exist in this world.
We win with diversity. There is no organization on Earth, be it as small as a friend circle or as big as a trade union, that is not benefitted by the thoughts and opinions of different kinds of people. What people of color truly need in order to continue tipping the extremely imbalanced scales in the world of fashion and beyond, is for some of the people on the side of advantage to throw their weight.
If you are an influencer doing work for a brand or organization, take the time to research that organization’s diversity and inclusion practices, and call it out.
If you are on a design team making slogan tees for an international fashion line and the team designing or approving the slogans is not made of lots of different kinds of people with lots of different points of view, call it out.
Talk to your friends, talk to your colleagues, talk to unearth problematic road blocks, talk to find them within yourself.
It may be uncomfortable, it may amount to you sacrificing a paycheck or a relationship, and it may be the first time in your life that you are the only person in the room like you. And so, for those moments, you will have a brief glimpse into what it is to operate from the position of the minority.
And more broadly, as we reshape fashion to answer to the demands and expectations of an ever-evolving marketplace, we as an industry need to ask ourselves in what ways we are stifling opportunities for diversity and inclusive thought. We need to ask ourselves loudly, and with frequency. That may mean looking at our hiring practices or financial awards, but it also means being selective and purposeful about the people we choose to promote to the upper echelons of celebration. For many people that walk in the world as minorities, seeing the 2012 video of Miroslava Duma making homophobic and transphobic comments about Bryanboy and Andrej Pejic´ was hurtful, but perhaps not completely surprising. What may be most shocking is that this video existed for six years on the worldwide web and Duma has evaded any reckoning until now, coming to only more wealth and fame since its publishing.
Who are we promoting? What do they stand for? And have we demanded more?