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White-Washing and Cultural Pick-Pocketing: Token Diversity and Why it’s a Problem

Why is token diversity so problematic? Does it hold a mirror up to the whitewashed walls of high fashion? Or does it actually reveal the failing mechanics behind an industry dominated for too long by white noise, marred by our inability to confront the issues of underrepresentation?

In November 2019, Elle Germany faced backlash after its ‘Back to Black’ issue featured a white model on the cover. Complete with the tagline “Models of colour were never in demand as they are now”, the magazine had made a clear misjudgement. By implying that models of colour are somehow a trend, Naomi Campbell called it “highly insulting” in her address to the magazine’s editor, Sabine Nedelchev.

The fashion industry is certainly no stranger to these stories. In fact, the sheer scope of this obliviousness is undoubtedly as diverse as the industry’s lack of racial diversity itself.

In 2019, Gucci’s ‘Balaclava’ jumper was met with outrage for its resemblance to blackface, whilst Dolce and Gabbana’s 2018 advert depicting a Chinese model struggling to eat pizza with chopsticks was equally condemned for its racist undertone. Within a matter of days, webpages that previously linked to Dolce & Gabbana items on big-name e-commerce sites (such as Net-A-Porter in China) were no longer available and searches for the brand returned no results. The backlash on social media called for a boycott of the brand from many, resulting in significant losses for the company.

Behind closed doors:

This consistent level of misjudgement reveals an unsavoury lack of racial awareness. But it also shows us, on a very real level, the clear lack of diversity behind the scenes of the fashion industry. Why have these products and campaigns been given the go-ahead? Who has signed them off without a thought of their implications? Put simply, the fact that these numerous ‘errors of judgement’ are so frequently being made, smacks of an absence larger still.

Token diversity on this scale addresses underrepresentation solely on an aesthetic basis. It pertains to tackle the surface-level inequality we see when we look at a catwalk or magazine full of white faces. By featuring models from various backgrounds, labels can gloss over the wider inequalities at play within the mechanisms of the industry by presenting a supposedly ‘diverse’ front. Crucially, this is without affecting any material change in the working dynamics behind closed doors.

This leaves us with a few questions. What kind of disparity are we looking at between the internal and external fronts of the industry? Who sits on the board of decision-makers? Who writes the columns, designs the pieces and manufactures these garments? Ultimately: can these companies live up to the polished exterior that their runways suggest?

Material change:

The changing faces of our runways certainly suggest a step in the right direction. Nonetheless, these improvements are slow and limited in their scope of representation. According to Fashion Spot, the 2020 Spring/Summer season was the most racially diverse catwalk on record.

For example, at New York Fashion Week, it was reported that 47% of all models were of colour. Looking at these statistics, brands seem to be becoming increasingly aware of fashion’s importance as a representative platform. For everybody. But this is just one level of operation for the industry. We are merely scratching the surface.

It is true that increasing representation on the catwalk is no mean feat. But is this a platform that works inclusively for everyone? Or are we offering an aesthetic quick-fix; a surface-level solution to a problem deeply ingrained within the fabric of the industry?

The language of fashion:

In a recent article for the Guardian, Priya Elan discusses what he terms as ‘fashion’s tortured attitude towards racial diversity.’ He argues:

‘For an industry built on intricate artistic visions and multi-layered, meaningful visuals, there is a weak and shifting, stop-start attitude towards race. Inclusivity is currently a fashion buzzword.’ Priya Elan, The Guardian, 2019

The notion of ‘inclusivity’ as a key ‘buzzword’ in fashion rings true. Never have we been more aware of the importance of racial diversity and equality than in our current times of ‘call-out’ and ‘cancel’ culture. We are bombarded by voices advocating for change, equality and understanding. But what does this actually mean in real terms? How do we address the clear imbalance in representation? Or indeed the or lack of, without falling prey to the dangers of token diversity?

It seems that these kinds of issues exist on a scope far beyond the aestheticization of coloured models and runway features. It is the language of the industry that also needs to be tackled. The way in which we approach writing about concepts, models and designers as much as the clothes themselves. How do we deal with traditional garments and clothing from different cultures? Can we adequately represent a culture through its clothing?

In short: where do we draw the line between creative inspiration and cultural approbation? An appreciation for, but most importantly, an understanding of, different cultures is central to this. Put simply, this can only come from a diverse range of sources and voices. If we do not have these voices, then how can we reach any form of diversity without falling prey to guesswork, assumptions and stereotypes?

Seen and not heard:

Speaking at a Wall Street journal conference in 2019, Naomi Campbell argued for the development of diversity at grassroots level. She emphasised its importance for creating material, lasting change. She said:

“It needs to go deeper […] We want to see within the actual companies, in the offices, are you going to give diverse staff a seat at the table to advise and be part of the projects that you do? […] We need to put diversity behind the desk.” Naomi Campbell, 2019

The analogy of ‘a seat at the table’ has long been used to advocate for positive change within industries stifled by a glass ceiling approach to hiring and selecting staff. But here it refers to a very real lack of diversity within the glossy-floored offices of the industry itself. Whoever sits at the desk gets a voice. To both listen and to be heard.

Campbell’s call for putting ‘diversity behind the desk’ sends a clear message. If these global companies are showing an awareness for the importance of diversity in their campaigns, then the internal mechanics of the business needs to match it. An external veneer of polished symbolism echoes hollowly with no substance in material reality.

If these international conglomerates, who quite happily capitalise on the advantages of global markets, don’t take an equally intersectional approach to their employees then we are left with a limited model. A model restricted by a monolithic single-minded perspective. One which will inevitably continue to display the absurd lack of awareness that we see explode on social media time and time again.

A gesture or solution?

Token diversity is a problem as far-reaching as it is complex. There is no overnight solution to overcoming deep-rooted racial prejudices and stigma. Particularly in an industry founded on aesthetics by its very nature. The idea of ‘token’ gestures themselves are based on appearances. A symbolic notion with little foundation in any form of material reality.

Yet, the rise of token diversity has in turn raised further questions for what it means to be adequately represented. It is no longer enough to be seen without being heard. The voices are rising to the surface. It is now time we listened.

One final thing…

On 25th May 2020, just days after writing this article, the news broke of the murder of George Floyd. Racism and the systemic oppression of people of colour is a plague which we cannot continue to tolerate. The following websites offer information, links to petitions and resources to educate, inform and promote the change that is so desperately needed– now more than ever.

“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. Racism and homophobia are real conditions of all our lives in this place and time. I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives here. See whose face it wears. Then the personal as the political can begin to illuminate all our choices.” ― Audre Lorde, The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.

Black Lives Matter:

Stand Up To Racism: Their Liverpool division can be contacted via their Facebook page here.

A Twitter thread launched by UK digital lifestyle magazine Black Ballad offers a further list of UK based charities and organisations whose work aims to eradicate racial injustice. The link can be found here.


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