During an It’s Nice That talk from early 2015, Tim Noakes, editor-in-chief of Dazed, shared a slide that intended to illustrate why publications have increasingly embraced discussions about race. The slide read:
“[We] actively engage with our readers and champion causes that are key to them – LGBT rights, women’s rights, multiculturalism, surveillance society and freedom of expression.”
In editorial terms, that means content around those topics resulted in heavy traffic, shares and various other forms of social currency. It’s no secret that social currency translates to real-world dollars, which means publications like Dazed are now making money from previously under-considered markets. In short, the old adage that darker faces don’t sell is plain wrong.
In fact the pendulum has shifted so much in terms of race issues making money that The Fader detailed the phenomenon in “How Social Justice Became Cool,” which spoke about how pop stars who’d previously avoided racial statements started speaking up partly in an effort to boost their career.
We’re still in an age where being the first [insert minority here] to be in a campaign or cover a magazine is heralded as a triumph instead of an indictment of past inequality. Nevertheless, things are moving forward. Slowly, of course, but they are moving.
Despite the increase in “diversity talk,” fashion and fashion media’s belated discovery that people really do care about these issues often means that outlets and labels alike don’t have the proper knowledge to thoroughly cover such complex topics.
This in turn creates a situation in which discussions about race are almost pre-destined to fall flat, or even worse, come off as insincere. One of the reasons such well-intentioned efforts run the risk of feeling misguided is because the parties initiating the conversations are often so hyper-aware of the reactive nature of issues surrounding race and equality they become overly-focused on saying “the right thing,” and thus fail to examine why saying “the wrong thing” may actually feel more natural to them.
Case in point: SHOWstudio’s interview with Public School. At the 29-minute mark of an almost hour-long conversation, writer and editor Lou Stoppard asks Public School’s two designers whether being a black and Asian duo meant they brought something unique to the fashion table. In his response, Dao Yi-Chow noted that an earlier question at the nine-minute mark about Public School’s peers wasn’t actually about rival designers, but rather about rival designers with corresponding racial backgrounds. This type of coded questioning is something that minorities are (unfortunately) extremely used to.
For someone like Stoppard, who certainly meant no ill will, the quest to display the appropriate level of sensitivity manifested itself in an attempt to show the designers she really understood their plight, and that she was listening. To be fair, Stoppard may truly have some level of understanding about what it means to be a minority in the industry. And even if that isn’t the case, her attempt to spotlight Chow and Osborne’s experiences at the very least indicates she is aware there is a problem, and perhaps even wants to be part of the solution.
However, when “I get you, man!” statements such as “fashion is so white,” are coupled with coded implications – like Stoppard engaging Public School only in the context of fellow minority designers – they seem more like qualifying declarations meant to reduce the sting of unintentional insensitivity than genuine awareness. Coded implications are irksome because you end up dancing around the conversation instead of actually having it. Also, because the other person is asking an “innocent” question, any negative reaction from you would be taken as an overreaction.
The odd effect of such statements is that they tend to shift the burden of accountability onto the person receiving the potential offense. This happens because one person is asking an “innocent” question, which means that no offense is allowed to be taken. So while we know Stoppard was well meaning, the truth is that the idea your heritage would have an effect on your creative process is absurd, especially when you’ve spent your life in New York and LA.
Another issue is that aside from Dazed and The Independent, very few publications actually call out the offensive coverage, no matter how coded. It’s key that publications who feature prestigious figures in the industry are held accountable, such as Tim Blanks of Business of Fashion, who talked about “the primal forms of African art,” Vanessa Friedman in the New York Times, who asked “should fashion be politically correct?” and Lisa Armstrong in The Telegraph, who dismissed cultural appropriation in the Valentino SS16 show. If respected writers can make problematic statements with little recourse or even gentle correcting, it’s a sign that things aren’t moving forward as much as people want to think.
And where progress is concerned, there is still a tendency for historically exclusionary disciplines, such as fashion, to use one person’s success as a sign that things are changing. True equality, however, is only achieved when it becomes redundant to point out the ones breaking through.
Unfortunately, that day is a long way off, so people pacify themselves by pointing to the exception while ignoring the rule that systemically excludes people. For example, London consists of 44% ethnic minorities but, despite this, you can still encounter lists such as It’s Nice That’s “Ones to Watch” list, which didn’t have a single person of color on it.
Despite the overriding desire of publications to be “absolutely bathed in a bubble bath of self-congratulation” on their coverage of diversity, they should instead realize that recognizing the humanity of others (something only discovered because it turned out to get clicks) is the only real method of human acknowledgement.
So what can be done about the way publications talk about diversity? Conversations on this topic often stall to a general lack of knowledge – we don’t think it’s a stretch to say that most other interviewers would’ve been able to broach the topic of race with Public School better than it was handled. So research wouldn’t hurt. We research every other aspect of life when it comes to fashion, so why not race?
Realizing that there is a bias and actively working to redress that is also very important. In fact, this should be the starting block for anyone who still thinks meritocracy is how the world functions. Marlon James released a video on The Guardian stating that being a non-racist isn’t the same as being anti-racist, since being a non-racist is a passive act that doesn’t actually help matters in any way. So it’s time for publications to actually seek out knowledgeable alternative voices instead of being passive about it.
There’s a large amount of groupthink when it comes to fashion, but when true diversity happens there’s a range of viewpoints and the people with opposing viewpoints feel that speaking up won’t leave them shunned. David Simon pointed out during an interview with Buzzfeed’s “Another Round” that he always ensures there’s at least two of a certain kind of person so they feel able to speak up and this is something that fashion publications haven’t truly grasped yet.
Fashion has improved in its coverage, but it’s still lacking. After all, being better than before isn’t the same as actually being good. Until coverage acknowledges overall systemic issues, the resulting conversation will always be stilted. The conversation needs to evolve from “fashion is so white!” to “Why is fashion so white and what are we doing to combat that?”
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.
- Author: Jason Dike
- Lead Image: Dior