More than ever, black models are being vocal about racism within the international fashion industry. From veterans like Naomi Campbell to South Sudanese model, Nykhor Paul, long-established stereotypes and flat out racism in the fashion world is finally being addressed and tackled by the women it affects the most – black models.
This is the case with the New York-based fashion model, Ebonee Davis, who recently decided to speak out about the industry that “decides and dictates what is beautiful and acceptable.”
I received an email from my agent at MC2 Model Management. The contents: a photo of myself — nostrils wide, lips full, hair-defying gravity in all its natural glory — in Calvin Klein’s fall 2016 campaign and a message that simply read, “Really proud of you.” My heart swelled. I thought back to how hard I had tried to assimilate into the fashion industry — straightening my hair, wearing weaves and extensions. I was told that brands only booked black girls if they looked like they’d been “plucked from a remote village in Africa” or like a “white model dipped in chocolate,” and from the start of my career in 2011, I lived by those words. Until last year when I decided to wear my natural hair.
That same day, Twitter informed me that Alton Sterling, a black man, had been shot and killed by the police. I 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; 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 was only then I realized the importance of the Calvin Klein image staring back at me. As artists in the fashion industry, we are the embodiment of free speech. We set the tone for society through the stories we tell — fashion, the gatekeeper of cool, decides and dictates what is beautiful and acceptable. And let me tell you, it is no longer acceptable for us to revel in black culture with no regard for the struggles facing the black community.
Systematic racism: The most dangerous contributors? Advertising, beauty, and fashion.
Every year, particularly during Fashion Week, there is an outcry felt throughout the industry. From the disproportionately low number of models of color walking in the shows (blacks make up less than 10 percent of models on the runway; models of color make up 24.75 percent), to the lack of makeup artists trained to work on colored skin; from the mismatching of foundation to the burning and ripping out of hair. We sit in silence for fear of being labeled “a diva” while being inflicted with pain or watching our faces turn gray.
With greater frequency, we’ve experienced an uproar of outcry regarding the deaths of black men at the hands of police officers. The correlation? Inequity. It is the same systemic racism that sees beauty products for “black” hair end up in a section of their own (“the ethnic aisle”), that sees black men more likely to end up dead after a police encounter than any other racial group. Systemic racism began with slavery and has woven itself into the fabric of our culture, manifesting through police brutality, poverty, lack of education, and black incarceration. The most dangerous contributors? Advertising, beauty, and fashion.
We must band together to neutralize the phobias surrounding black culture. Rather than perpetuating trite stereotypes that vilify people of color, we need to produce positive, accurate, and inclusive imagery. My advice to makeup and hair artists: Rebuild your repertoire of techniques. My advice to models, fashion designers, and public relation agencies: Use your platforms to speak out against injustice and show your support rather than standing by in silence. Most importantly, love black people as much as you love black music and black culture. Until you do, society will continue to buy into the false notion that people of color are less than — a concept already deeply embedded in America’s collective psyche which is reinforced again and again through depictions in media. The time for change is now
Moises is a full-time graduate student at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY reporting mainly on food and restaurants but maintains overall emphasis on arts and culture.