Black History Month Op-Ed: From Blackface to Nooses in Fashion, Why Enough Is Enough

In honor of Black History Month 2019, FN is celebrating African-American movers and shakers in footwear and fashion by recognizing their accomplishments and inviting them to share insight into how the industry can make bigger diversity strides. As part of this series, we have asked key thought leaders in footwear, fashion and diversity to contribute editorial content.   

Enough is enough. From blackface to nooses, the fashion world, it seems, has lost its mind. There is no need to call these particular fashion houses by name because it’s likely that it is exactly the attention they seek — even if at the expense of black people’s dignity or, worse, even though it empowers a racist, white supremacist culture that risks literal black lives. 

Fashion houses and their designers need no lessons in racism as systemic and institutional bias. They know these systems well. Their success is butt-rested upon the privilege and power they amass on the backs of black and brown creatives. 

That’s why expressions readily associated with blackness are considered unprofessional, ghetto or hood until co-opted.

That’s why sacred African, American Indian and Aboriginal traditions are labeled “ethnic” or “tribal” and then packaged for sale.

And that’s exactly why almost all of the world’s fashion houses are owned and operated by white men and women. It’s also why nearly all of the world’s fashion publications that celebrate said fashion houses are helmed by and financed by white men and women.

Surely it isn’t because God put more talent in white hands, more intelligence in white minds or more determination in white hearts. 

The game is rigged, and still it’s not enough. 

It’s not enough that white gaze negates the freedom of black expression under the ruse of respectability; not enough that those expressions are stolen, copied and commodified. 

It’s not enough that trends aren’t trendy until they are discovered by white people who wear them on their heads, feet and backs. Because nothing, not even the Western Hemisphere, existed before white people said so. 

And despite all this, still, it’s not enough. The white leaders of the world’s most prestigious fashion houses expect black people to explain to them the ways in which their blatantly racist choices are racist and negatively impact black people — all of this during Black History Month.

I don’t know when black people are going to get it that white people get it. White people understand racism better than black people ever will. 

White people want to win — and racism increases those odds. That is why white people are invested in racism, and that is why racism’s undoing, whether in fashion, police stops or how black people are summarily, extrajudicially killed in public and private places alike, will never be undone by op-eds and think pieces. 

In the meantime, fashion houses, like wider culture, can at least inch the inherent humanity of blackness along by not intentionally, systematically releasing the most inane and blatantly racist concepts only to apologize almost immediately and pull the product off their shelves shortly thereafter.

Let’s consider all the steps a consumer product must take before it hits a store self. How many desks does a sketch cross? How many hands hold the mock-up? And no one at no time, white, black or polka dot said: “[Wait a minute.] This is a bad idea.”

You have got to be kidding me.

That’s why it’s improbable that this vile practice is anything less than intentional. 

And that is why it is no black person’s job — certainly not mine — to tell the fashion industry about the work it has left undone.

A historian and storyteller whose research interests include black higher education and college student activism, Dr. Crystal A. DeGregory is the founder of the HBCUstory, an associate professor of history and former award-winning inaugural director of the Atwood Institute for Race, Education, and the Democratic Ideal.

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