Confronting Prejudice In African Fashion- Now Is The Time
The global community has been rocked by protests triggered by the killing of George Floyd. From sports organisations to financial institutions, the past weeks have seen companies uttering the collective mantra: “Black Lives Matter.” There is now a collective realisation that African-Americans and people of African descent have for long faced prejudice that has been detrimental to their growth and development.
Yet in Nigeria and across many parts of Africa (with the exception of countries like South Africa), we do not contend with racial issues within our societies because the majority of our society share the same race. While we may not understand systemic racism, as we do not confront it on a daily basis, we can identify with other forms of bias, which are equally damaging to progress. These come in discrimination based on, to name some examples, sex, age, wealth, international exposure and education, and of course, nepotism- proximity to those in power.
The fashion industry in our communities, in particular, is not immune to these forms of bias and prejudice. In a recent Instagram post, one of us, Papa Oyeyemi, who has over 10 years of experience in the sector shared these thoughts.
“I may not have experienced so much racism because I was born and raised in a part of the world where this isn’t really commonplace. My encounters, however, stem from my travels to those regions where the white race predominates in many ways, including through housing, shows, airport & cab services or simply taking a walk down the street or sitting at a bar.
“Sometimes, I happen to miss these racial cues, only for them to be brought to my attention by friends. Not to mention other forms of discrimination I have felt and experienced: favouritism and other forms of injustice that directly or indirectly slow down your achievements by shutting doors on you due to your social circumstances, beauty, or readiness to oblige to one form of abuse or another. It’s so sad that talent is no longer a bait on successes, rather, who you know or how well you can kiss a**. I have been abused in ways I wish I could tell through this note but this is not about me. It’s about us, everything about us matters.
As the world confronts issues around race, the time has come for a reckoning in the Nigerian and African fashion industry. We need to begin to look inward to find and uproot bias and prejudice in our systems. We need to ensure that opportunity and access are given freely rather than allow a system where the “undesirables” are not given a voice.
A source who wished to speak anonymously said, “I worked for some time in media covering fashion and lifestyle brands and was privy to the decision making process regarding who got coverage in our outlets and those that didn’t. Decisions were made first by how much money you brought to the table in terms of money paid for coverage, then by how well they knew those running the organization and lastly, for the decisions being made by non-management level editors and producers, on how much clout or popularity those behind whatever it was that was to be covered had. So across the board, decisions to publicise or put our backing behind initiatives were never about the merit or value of the offering, event, or product to our society.”
Some in our society may be of the opinion that prejudicial behaviour or acts of bias that hinder growth are irrelevant -whether they be those we see closer to home in our own ecosystems or the larger issues around race the global community is currently confronting. Those who argue in this light believe that one should focus on creating and driving his or her success and furthermore that validation should come from oneself rather than from external sources. We agree that self-validation is a must, and each individual is responsible for positioning themselves for success. However, at the societal level, we believe it is important to speak out against prejudice and bias in order to see them eliminated. First, from an ethical standpoint, bias should have no place in our society and industry. Second and from an economic and financial gains perspective, society benefits when the best talents are allowed to rise to the forefront. When those with the best skill sets and products lead, we all benefit from the best ideas being executed. Only an equal playing ground free of bias makes this possible.
If as members of a global community we are willing to recognise that prejudice based on skin colour is unacceptable, then in our African communities we must also recognize that prejudice and discrimination of all other kinds are unacceptable and must be done away with. Therefore, we must be willing to chant:
Poor Lives Matter!
Women’s Lives Matter!
Young Lives Matter!
Unconnected Lives Matter!
Educated-Locally Lives Matter!
The work to reduce prejudice in our society must be done by us. However, the international community can help us as we resolve issues of bias. Therefore, while this “open letter” is intended for the African fashion community, our recommendations that follow are not only for the African fashion community but also the international community- particularly given the current focus on finding and amplifying Black talent.
To avoid or mitigate the impact of bias when looking to identify talent from Africa’s growing fashion sector, we recommend the following:
1. Ensure transparency in the selection process or parameters by which decisions are made.
2. Promote diverse voices or representatives rather than one or two voices to speak for the entire industry.
3. Provide a mechanism for reporting abuse.
4. Regularly review and replace those selected to identify talent from the region.