Words by Valentina Carrizo
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” - Martin Luther King Jr, Letter from Birmingham Jail, 1963
Photo by Joe Crimmings
Confronted hourly with images and visions of the police brutality befalling the US right now, you may be feeling any number of emotions - confusion, betrayal, or like me - violent, seething anger mixed with exhaustion. All of these are valid. What you shouldn’t be feeling - is apathy.
There have been a number of fashion retailers and companies who have declared solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. While some brands have hit upon the zeitgeist constructively, others have garnered anger from customers for their lack of action, or for posting half-hearted, transparent PR attempts at getting in on the #BLMtrend, causing customers to boycott these companies.
On the 30th of May, Nike released a video subverting their tagline with the message: “for once, don’t do it.” The video became widely shared on social media, many finding a glimmer of solace in Nike’s solidarity with the cause.
Simultaneously, Nike CEO John Donahoe released this memo to Nike employees: “Nike is opposed to bigotry. We are opposed to hatred and inequality in all its forms, indirect and overt. While Nike cannot solve injustice, I believe we have a responsibility to work toward addressing it to the best of our ability. What we can do is inspire and empower ourselves and others to action – and try to help shape a better society by serving as a beacon of hope and resilience.”
Nike’s messaging works because it is aware of its place in the broader community. It realises that it doesn’t have the capability to “fix” anything, but it does have the ability to take steps towards overcoming systemic racism. It has a responsibility to its own employees, the majority of which come from an ethnic minority according to a 2016 internal report.
Nike has taken active steps towards becoming an anti-racist corporation for years, likely as a response to their ingrained connection to black culture. Black sportspeople, musicians and cultural icons have built Nike up to the cultural notoriety it has today. It has also stood with its sponsee’s in times of media scrutiny. NFL player Colin Kaepernick was featured in a well-placed campaign where Nike showed their solidarity with Kaepernick after he knelt during the American national anthem at a preseason game in 2016. Kaepernick did this in protest of the continual police brutality against black people in the United States. While this was undoubtedly an advertising campaign as it coincided with the start of the NFL season, it was also a statement of solidarity. Nike stood with Kaepernick at a time when he was no longer signed to the San Francisco 49ers and had been blacklisted from the NFL for his actions. Both parties acted as free agents and both remained stoic during the backlash.
Nike’s symbiotic relationship with the black community has allowed their business to be bolstered by black people, and they, in turn, have sought to support diversity in their organisation.
Nike’s latest video proclaimed: “Don’t think this doesn’t affect you. Don’t sit back and be silent. Don’t think you can’t be part of the change.” Adidas put years of competition to the side to retweet Nike’s message and add to the caption: “Together is how we move forward. Together is how we make change.”
While Nike’s minute-long video can be construed as capitalising on a crisis for commercial reasons, Nike’s position as a vehicle of black culture is arguably more salient and influential when used to progress towards an anti-racist society. The impact of this is not comparable to any commercial gain they might achieve.
In his book, Ibram X. Kendi says that the opposite of racist is not ‘not racist’ but ‘anti-racist.’ In order to be anti-racist you must acknowledge where you exist in a racist world, understand whether this makes you privileged, and be dedicated to actively eradicating systemic racism in the world you experience; at work, at school, at your friend’s house. Anti-racism is not passive. While non-racists see racism in groups around them, anti-racists acknowledge their privilege, and the benefits they have received from a racist system, and actively seek to uproot these. “There is no in-between safe space of ‘not racist’. The claim of ‘not racist’ neutrality is a mask for racism.”
Nike is not perfect. A 2019 internal report revealed that only 10% of its vice presidents were black. Nike has publicly said that they continue to focus their efforts on hiring more black people and other minorities to all areas of their organisation.
Now is a good time for me to explain why silence which is equal to neutrality is not acceptable. In a speech addressing the Vietnam War, Martin Luther King Jr postulated that “there comes a time when silence is betrayal.” Movements like Black Lives Matter and Indigenous justice occur in response to systematic oppression.
Fashion - as the epitome of self-expression - allows us to choose to be a part of various micro-communities by doing anything as seemingly insignificant as wearing a brand’s apparel or following a brand on Instagram. We find inspiration and a sense of belonging in these outlets. When a brand that we support chooses indifference over active, anti-racism, we run the risk of buying into the same removed indifference that is proliferated by the very act of silence.
Racism occurs when prejudice is institutionalised and upheld by authorities such as governments, education systems and corporations, Robin DiAngelo maintains. These systems transform the once individual ideas into far-reaching, all-encompassing ideals embedded in institutions and “become the default of society and [are] reproduced automatically.” Racism is a system and you are part of it.
From birth, we are moulded to accept these embedded racist ideologies or big ideas through schools, textbooks, pop culture, speeches, advertising and the language your friends use when they are describing a film, book or music. When someone questions these ideologies, the ideas are strengthened through punishment and penalties. This is why police brutality occurs. This is why offenders who function from the tentacles of authority are not convicted. These ideas are implicitly reinforced and become internalised. Western ideologies include individualism, capitalism, consumerism and meritocracy - all upheld by the notion that these are superior systems. These ideas are damaging if you are not white.
Whiteness often goes unacknowledged by white people as the ideologies and systems described above use whiteness as a default which is imposed on everyone.
Don’t take my word for it, or anyone else’s. Look at who you are following on Instagram. Look at who you allow to “influence” you, or where you spend your hard-earnt money. Do these people and these companies speak out as an ally to victims of injustice or do they - in their silence - promote apathy and mindless subservience the oppressive mechanisms inbuilt in our lives.
Just like individuals, brands have a responsibility to stand up with First Nations people in Australia and Black people in the United States; firstly, because they are humans just like you, secondly, because these companies have benefitted in some way from the very system that oppresses black, indigenous, people of colour (BIPOC) groups, and thirdly because they have knowingly or unknowingly upheld and celebrated the white default and anti-blackness.
A 2018 article on Fast Company outlined that racism in the fashion industry manifests in systematic ways. Hairstylists usually don’t know how to style black hair, which is why often black models are not booked for runway shows. That year, only 13% of minority-run businesses were able to secure venture capital funding.
The foot-in-the-door tactic for young hopefuls in the fashion industry is to undertake unpaid internships. While this is accessible to most independently wealthy people, many BIPOC who exist on the lower end of the socio-economic scale do not have access to such an opportunity, thus locking them out of the industry.
The rise of streetwear not only seen in brands like Adidas and Nike, but also on the catwalks of luxury fashion shows is co-opted directly from black culture. In the 90s, streetwear legend Dapper Dan made Gucci accessible to those who couldn’t afford it by placing bootleg logos on tracksuits. These were worn by famous African American cultural icons of the time. Gucci was just one of the brands which went on to sue Dapper Dan for copyright infringement as a way to get their logos out of the black neighbourhoods they were being worn in, destroying his business. A few years later when streetwear migrated beyond these communities, the same brands replicated Dapper Dan’s work for the runway on white models.
In 2017 Gucci collaborated with Dapper Dan and aided him in re-establishing his business and placed him in their marketing campaigns. In this, not only did Gucci make amends but did so while acknowledging their culpability in the loss of his business.
In 2017, L’Oréal terminated the contract of their ambassador Munroe Bergdorf - a black transgender woman - after she condemned white supremacists following the Charlottesville Neo-Nazi rally. L’Oréal stated that Bergdorf’s comments were against their brand values. This week, L’Oréal posted a black tile on Instagram with the words “speaking out is worth it.”
It is imperative that professionals in the fashion industry fight against the very system that benefits it. This is necessary to uncover and dissolve the biases and prejudices that it is fraught with. As a member of the fashion industry you have been not only complicit, but instrumental.
Racism has been intricately woven into the fabric of society over decades. Uprooting it isn’t as simple as reposting Nike’s video on Instagram.
A week after George Floyd’s murder, Urban Outfitters had failed to comment on the issue or to denounce racism. After days of ‘business as usual’ posts with peeved comments from customers pointing out their blatant inaction, Urban Outfitters finally posted a ‘we stand with you’ image on their Instagram. Social media users were quick to point out their failure to respond adequately, one user telling of the racism she witnessed while she worked at Urban Outfitters.
How many of the influencers that you follow have kept to their usual seemingly benign schedule of posts - a medley of fitpics, makeup shots and product placements? How many of them have used this time to reassess their priorities and speak directly to their followership about racism? How many of them have mobilised their followers, and how many have silently proliferated suppression of the people and of knowledge? You yourself may have to reassess how you use your own platform, the discourse you open with your friends and whether the internet really needs another picture of your face with a lyric caption.
If you feel you don’t have the knowledge or the language to discuss this on a social platform, that’s ok. What isn’t ok especially for people in an industry which piggybacks off of black culture, is to keep it this way. Part of being anti-racist means educating yourself and opening a discussion about it with your friends, and at your workplace.
The fashion world has the capacity to be frivolous, temporary, unaffected, and evasive. But it has also proven to be activist, resourceful, and culture changing. Racism is not a checklist item. It is a battle that needs to be constantly and mindfully fought. The fashion industry needs to constantly make moves towards becoming anti-racist and reflexively question their own biases and prejudices.
The first step companies take shouldn’t be to brand human suffering, it should be to create meaningful internal change within the office. Stay away from performative acts of solidarity, or from donating money, speaking out, or being outraged only when a crisis receives international media attention.
Data uncovered by Morning Consult revealed that of 1,990 American adults, most of them wanted companies to commit resources to the cause and to introduce measures internally that would make their organisation more culturally competent.
Both brands and individuals can often lean away from expressing a political viewpoint so as not to alienate others. Here is why being anti-racist is not a political persuasion.
If it is your natural instinct to be apathetic, that is not the result of politics - it is the result of years of social and psychological conditioning. A prime example is seeing the violence unfold in America, feeling sympathetic but removed - because you are, and then going about your day without paying it another thought until you are confronted with the 6 o’clock news. What you may not have considered until recently is that you are part of a system in Australia that promotes the same systematic racism towards First Nation peoples. If a local Australian brand that you love has spoken out about the US situation, but never about the multiple deaths of Indigenous people in custody, then you have seen it. If an educational institution you attend has failed to acknowledge that it previously proliferated biased ideals or promoted apathy on the issue - then you have been instrumental in it.
If within an industry dominated by young, passionate minds we are not proactively anti-racist, then we are repeating the cycle perpetually and can expect to continue to see corrupt police forces, corrupt governments, and further senseless death.
In Australia since 1991, over 400 Indigenous people have died while in police custody. There have been zero convictions and little to no media coverage. As recently as June 1st, a video surfaced on the internet of Australian police using unnecessary force to arrest an Indigenous teenager in the park not 100 metres from his home. This happened in spite of the ongoing protests in the US. A spokesperson for the AFP defended the officer claiming he was “just having a bad day.”
A brand who has only jumped into action this past week as a result of public pressure has not done enough, but they have begun on the right track. Nike takes up ample real estate in this article because, in my opinion, they have been on the road to becoming an anti-racist company for many years. Brands that posted about it for the first time today haven’t yet transcended to the self-awareness that Nike has. That being said, I accept that Nike is a highly visible, multinational corporation which has made their progress more apparent.
Where you see silence, you should be suspicious of it. It almost always leads to systematic oppression or post-racial delusions. Right now, whether you have 5 followers or 50 000, tell them what’s happened, tell them why it’s wrong, and tell them how they can help. The rest is up to you.
How brands can become anti-racist:
Brands that benefit from black culture should employ more black people.
The beneficiaries and power brokers behind multi-million-dollar corporations should donate their own money to charities generously before asking poor people to donate to other poor people.
Allow black/indigenous employees the opportunity to climb within the business.
Facilitate black/indigenous employees’ access to upskilling courses.
Equal pay across your organisation.
Ensure ethnic diversity across the company.
Brands should focus on what will have the biggest tangible impact rather than spending money on campaigns that might inspire but have no tangible outcome.
Measure progress and showcase milestones.
Action over words.
Brands should take action to call their government out and push for appropriate action from legislators.
Do not continue business as usual during a crisis.
Brands should seek to educate their employees and customers always, not only during times of crisis.
Do not exploit human suffering for commercial gain. Consider ceasing to post product images on Instagram during a human rights crisis. Consider not driving sales when efforts could be better spent donating to a charity.
Pay a living wage to garment workers.
Be mindful of which celebrities and influencers they are associated with. Do not support individuals who do not actively donate and protest such issues.
Retailers should stock black/indigenous-owned businesses.
As a consumer, email your favourite brands or comment on their posts and ask them what they are doing specifically to pursue change. Are they employing Indigenous people and supporting Indigenous businesses?
At a job interview when you get a moment to ask questions of your potential employer, ask them what kind of things they do internally to promote an anti-racist functioning, and if they are open to continuing and expanding these efforts.
Netflix: When They See Us
Books: Have Black Lives Ever Mattered by Mumia Abu-Jamal
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism, by Robin DiAngelo
Racism Scale https://racismscale.weebly.com/
It Does Not Matter If You Are Good, by R. Eric Thomas https://www.elle.com/culture/career-politics/a32712287/cnn-omar-jimenez-arrest-response/
75 Things White People Can Do For Racial Justice (American resource applicable to Australia)https://medium.com/equality-includes-you/what-white-people-can-do-for-racial-justice-f2d18b0e0234
DONATE TO INDIGENOUS CHARITIES HERE:
https://www.justiceaction.org.au/donate Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Watch Committee
https://au.gofundme.com/f/d9qkb6-justice-for-david Justice for David Dungay Junior
https://aimementoring.com/ AIME Mentoring
http://www.blackrainbow.org.au/donate/ Black Rainbow
https://fnwa.org.au/ First Nations Workers Alliance
https://au.gofundme.com/f/paytherent-to-grandmothers-against-removals Grandmothers Against Removals
https://sistersinside.com.au/ Sisters Inside Bail Fund
https://www.givenow.com.au/fvpls Djirra Aboriginal Women’s Safety and Wellbeing
If you would like to fact check me, or access more resources please leave a comment below.