Every time another fashion week rolls around, certain issues come to a head, usually for brief periods that don’t result in any significant changes. Think underage or disordered models, the intense pace of production that designers today are subjected to, the so-called circus of fashion, and, most prominently as of late, the lack of diversity on the runways. My thoughts on this latter notion—or fact, I should say—are pretty simple. The fashion world sucks at diversity, in every sense of the word, on all platforms (i.e. not just the runways, but advertising, editorials, etc.). Yet I’ve noticed that no matter how often people call “them” out for it, change is minimal, if nonexistent. That, or it’s downright offensive, like when Vogue Italia dedicated an entire issue to black models and then barely used them again. “You are a separate entity,” attempts like these seem to say, “and we’ll acknowledge you that way only.” But I don’t think the fashion world needs another white girl trying to unpack this issue—as my friend Najla put it bluntly, “the articles are rarely written by a minority and they always scream of the same white guilt that perpetuates all of these situations.” I think that’s a fairly accurate statement—all of us do things for complicated reasons, and I can’t confidently say that I’ve never come at an issue from a place of white guilt. That doesn’t mean I myself harbor racist tendencies I need to make up for (that I’m aware of, at least), it’s more a fact of being white in this day and age. Most white people, inherently (assuming they’re not, you know, Fox News anchors) probably harbor some of this white guilt for past monstrosities, even if they didn’t have anything to do with them directly. I don’t think this means that ALL white beliefs or attempts to alter the world’s racist perspectives come from a phony place—most of these people mean well and genuinely want to see these changes come about—but I also don’t think that merely harping on and on about it from perches of white privilege [which, yes, white people do live on] is the way to make change come about. So, with that said, and due to my own naiveté on the issue, I decided to ask other people (who are either better informed or who could come at the issue from a more enlightening perspective) what their thoughts were. I specifically showed them this article, which–it should be noted–is one of the few I’ve seen on the subject that’s actually written by a black woman.
NAJLA: This is a forced discussion that happens every fashion season, and it’s tiring. As a black woman, I see the ocean of white come out on the catwalk and I’m unfazed. Welcome to life as a black person! Almost every person in the media considered “beautiful” or “fashionable” is going to be white and blonde. I get that people think it’s wrong and think, “lets grab our pitchforks and yell,” but it’s a lot broader than fashion week, which is probably the smallest offender. I think the article is ridiculous. She mentions in the article the idea that, “a designer’s aesthetic is part of their work as an artist.” We can’t start forcing artists to change the way they do their craft to appease a PC public. Yes, maybe the lack of blacks in fashion harks back to eons ago when blacks were publicly deemed inferior, but the conversation is just getting redundant. The media has never done anything to close the gap—why is everyone surprised it’s not starting now? Nothing can be done about a country’s racist psyche. We have a black president and surprise—people still suck! Proenza Schouler adding two black people to their runway isn’t going to do anything for “equality.” If people are SO worried about blacks not being involved, they should ensure that black children have a better education so that they can go to college and start their own fashion houses and modeling companies and then everyone can start crying about reverse discrimination and we can do this all over again! Affirmative action does not apply to artistic judgment. I don’t think they should be held accountable to this mad woman’s rampage. She needs to put her focus into something that actually holds weight and isn’t dressed up in this season’s trends. [Sidenote: Najla wanted me to tell you that she’s not usually this angry, which—having known her since the 7th grade—I can confirm.]
SAM: I have done a lot of thinking about racism and my role in it. Since I work at a labor union, I spend a lot of time thinking with diverse groups of people about the experience of racism, discrimination, and social policy. I’ve also attended a few anti-racism trainings, both within my job and outside of it, in an attempt to analyze and recognize my own white privilege. My ultimate goal in looking at this and thinking about it is to become a better anti-racist activist. All of that is to say, I am in no way, shape or form an expert on the topic. Furthermore, I think the only thing white people have a role in being experts on in this realm is how to be anti-racist activists with other white people: how to challenge existing power structures that are based on racism/white privilege, and to have hard conversations with white people who refuse to acknowledge their part in promoting racism – no matter how benevolent or unintentional their actions may be.
I think the important thing – in looking at this issue of racism in the fashion industry – is to first listen to and understand the experience of people of color inside the industry. This article is a very good example of women of color shaping the direction and dialogue they want to have about their experience of racism inside the industry. I believe that our job as white people, who also like fashion and/or are in the industry, is to follow their lead and push other white people to do the same.
The part that is tricky about this is that often people like to isolate racism to an individual person or in this case a specific design house. That is important, one because a person of color has chosen to lead on addressing racism via this approach and two, because it highlights and puts a target on a specific, tangible person/house (rather than the general issue – i.e. the fashion industry is racist). It puts a name to the problem, which then provides a goal and a pathway for people to address, acknowledge, and solve the problem.
The more insidious thing about racism in the fashion industry (and frankly within any institution or industry) is that it is systemic. By that I mean that the fashion industry is made up of people who live in our world. People who have experienced racism, people who have perpetuated racism—they all come together in a system that makes rules, customs, and norms. And in any industry or institution those rules, customs, and norms are shaped and promoted by people in power. And generally the majority of the people in power are white, due to our long history of slavery, racism, and oppression. Thus, without being fully aware of it, white people have created norms, customs, and rules that make sense to them. In the anti-racism world, I think the common way to describe this is “white culture.”
So there’s the systemic racism inside the industry. Then you have the very important layer of capitalism as a driving force of fashion. Fashion is not setup to challenge power structures, it is setup to dress up power and make it look good. Clothes can be art but most of the time they are simply status symbols. Therefore, the fashion industry is not just concerned within their inside game (i.e. the leading designers, editors, creative directors, models, agency teams, etc.), it is also concerned with who will buy their product and how to sell it to them.
I don’t think it would be a big logical leap for people to understand that in high-end fashion the clothes are expensive, thus, the people that buy them have money, access, or positions of power (or all three as it often works). I also don’t think it would surprising to note that the majority of people with 1-3 of those characteristics are white. The majority of people in poverty in our world are people of color. And as a result, my understanding is that marketers and fashion houses are pushing for a primarily white audience to buy their clothes.
There’s the rub: work needs to be done to address racism nationally, to ensure that people of color live in communities with good schools, get a great education, and are able to get well paying jobs. If we don’t address and build a culture that acknowledges that black is beautiful and that white is not a superior beauty, well then none of this works. Because you have the people in power saying, “well white women buy our clothes so white women should be promoting/modeling/selling our clothes.” Modern day, hyper-capitalism discourages critical thinking around how to share power, ensure lots of people earn money and gain wealth, and develop systems where many people can access power and money. It privileges the few who ascend and encourages them to make more money, hold on to their power—because if you don’t share well then there is more for you.
So it is a multi-layered problem that lives inside and outside of the industry—it’s not just about models, runway shows, or advertisements. But that is a very good place to start and to raise awareness. And the fact that the fashion sphere is big should not be an excuse for these design houses to dodge the problem. There are specific, incremental steps they could take to make their brands and shows more diverse.
I might be being a little pie in the sky. But all of this is to say that I think Bethann Hardison, Naomi Campbell, and Iman are absolutely right—and we should follow their lead on what to do next.
TAWN: I never really paid any attention to the fact that there weren’t many black runway models. When I hear that, the first thing that comes to mind is body type. There are certainly a lot of black women out there who can fit the mold of a runway model, but probably not outnumbering the amount [of super thin women] that other races may have. We’re generally curvier. With print modeling, that fact can be touched up and tweaked, but on the runways you are expected to have a stick-straight, thin body. Yes, there probably could be a few more black models in the shows, but because of these body ideals, I would never expect to see more than three at a time in a runway show. Like the article said, the agencies probably don’t have a lot of black models [with said-body type] to choose from. If their scouting was more aggressive and the fashion world allowed for more diverse body types, then I think we would see more black women on the runway. I personally don’t think it’s intentional racism.
JENN: I definitely agree with what’s being said, but I think there’s the larger issue of what is attractive in our society and being brown isn’t it. When you are considered to be brown and attractive, you typically have pretty white/Anglo features. I’ve had boyfriends/guys tell me that they think I’m prettier than my other black friends because I look whiter than them–which is just weird. So by larger issue, I mean that rather than focus on making sure we include starved black women on runways alongside starved white women, we focus on changing the overall body-type and Anglo-esque feature expectations.