HOW IS THE FASHION INDUSTRY CONNECTED TO POLICE BRUTALITY?
Earlier this week, I received an email from my agent. The contents: A photo of me from the Calvin Klein Fall ‘16 campaign and a message that simply read, “Really proud of you.” As I studied the photo, my heart swelled with pride. I reveled at the image of myself - nostrils wide and angled toward the camera, lips full, hair defying gravity in all of its natural glory. I could not help but to think back on how I had thought less of these features in the recent past, and why. I thought about how hard I tried to assimilate into the fashion industry, straightening my hair and constantly wearing weaves and extensions. I heard once, that the industry only wants a black girl if she looks like she’d been “plucked from a remote village in Africa”, or looks like a white model dipped in chocolate. Those unforgotten words were the code I lived by from the start of my career in 2011, until last year when I made the decision to wear my natural hair.
On the same day I received the email, Twitter informed me that Alton Sterling, a black man, had been shot and killed by the police. I searched #AltonSterling and scrolled through a stream of tweets filled with grief, sorrow, anger and bewilderment until I regrettably found the footage of his murder. Heartbreak instantly consumed me and I was made ill after watching Sterling executed on camera. “Not again,” I thought to myself. In an instant, a man’s entire existence had once again been reduced to a hashtag. Less than 24 hours later, I checked my news feed again, only to find that yet another black man had been killed by the police.
It dawned on me that the problems facing the fashion industry and the problem of police brutality are two branches of the same tree. Varying in severity, no doubt! But nonetheless stemming from the same root, systemic racism. Embedded deeply within American soil and fertilized by American policies, bearing the fruits of inequity.
WHAT DOES SYSTEMIC RACISM LOOK LIKE?
It is no coincidence that the selection of beauty products for people of color has historically been much smaller. Why are products for “black” hair are in a section of their own, “the ethnic isle,” isolated from other similar products? Why do models of color only make up 24.75 percent of models seen on the runway? Including Asian, Indian, Latina, Middle Eastern and Black. These are consequences of systemic racism, not unlike the shooting deaths of black men by police.
Every year, particularly during fashion week, there is an outcry felt throughout the industry. From the lack of makeup artists trained to do makeup for all shades of skin, to the mismatching of foundation, to the scorching of hair and general lack of knowledge in handling all hair textures. Models sit in silence for fear of being labelled “a diva” while they are inflicted with pain. Let’s not forget the disproportionately low number of models of color walking in the shows, blacks making up less than 10 percent. It is all too familiar and yet it continues to be a problem. Are models of color unworthy of the same treatment as their peers? Are they undeserving of knowledgeable aestheticians who will not rip out their hairlines, nor paint their faces grey?
Similarly and with even greater frequency, we’ve experienced an uproar of outcry in regard to the shooting deaths of black men carried out by police officers. What’s the correlation? Inequity. Why are black men more likely to end up dead after a police encounter than any other racial group? Why are black men incarcerated at a rate of 6 times the rate of white men for the same crimes? Systemic racism began with slavery and has woven itself into the fabric of our culture. Manifesting through police brutality, poverty, lack of education, black incarceration and to a milder degree, advertising, beauty and fashion.
WHAT IS OUR RESPONSIBILITY AS PEOPLE IN FASHION?
It is paramount for us to recognize that we have as much influence and power as the news, the newspapers, and all other forms of media. As artists, we are the embodiment of free speech. We set the tone for society through the stories we tell with our art. Fashion makes people’s minds up about what is beautiful and acceptable. We cannot revel in black culture with disregard for the struggles facing the black community.
We must ban together to neutralize the phobias surrounding black culture. Stop vilifying people of color and produce positive, accurate and inclusive imagery rather than perpetuating trite stereotypes. Rebuild your repertoire of makeup and hair techniques. Use your personal platform to speak out against injustice and show your support rather than standing by in silence. Love black people as much as you love black music and black culture. Until then, inequity and injustice will continue. Thus, society will continue to buy into the false notion that people of color are less than - a concept already deeply embedded in our country’s collective psyche and reinforced again and again through depictions in media. The time for change is now.