I sat on a cracked concrete floor watching in disbelief with a group of girls in their young teens.
The smell of Africa was in the air: a mix of humidity and propane and excitement and BO.
Each time a horrific image came on the screen the girls would shriek and look closer to see if there was anyone they knew in the crowd, on the ground…covered in blood.
These were scenes of these girls’ hometown (or slum). Police were dragging people out of their homes, beating them to find those responsible for taking over public buses, shooting everyone of a specific tribe, then burning the entire bus. This raiding of homes was the polices’ attempt to solve an age-old racial clash between tribes.
Not sure when I realized how censored the US news is, but ya’ll these images of half burnt bodies were not censored! They are still in my head. The videos of police dragging people out of their shacks and beating them will always be with me. I can still see the look on those girls faces as they tried to spot their dads, brothers, friends.
It was heartbreaking!
This was the summer of 2007. These were the birth pains of what would become some of the bloodiest riots in Kenya over a national election in 2007-2008. Riots that were fueled by YEARS of tribal racism.
This became a crash course for me in racism. As these riots continued and the police violence increased, I sat almost paralyzed listening in disbelief and horror as my friends in Kenya debated the issue. Debated what needed to change. Debated why this was happening. Everyone had an opinion. Everyone was angry.
Several months later I graduated college – and to my surprise the first thing I thought walking out on the stage was, “Dang there are a lot of white people in here.” I knew the history, I knew that facts, but this was my first realization that racism is alive and well in my own safe world.
I find myself in a similar place now. This time reading comments on social media, the emails. I am listening to the opinions…ALL the opinions of what needs to change, the urges to speak, the condemnation when saying the wrong things. Everyone has an opinion. Everyone is angry.
All I could see was a country deeply afraid of things most of us have only ever seen glimmers of on our tv screens in far off places: a puppet president, a pandemic, and now blatant racism. It was clear to me we were finally angry enough to speak up.
I’m sure you have seen Trevor Noah’s thoughts talking about how there is no right way to protest and the rioting of Target is maybe what needed to happen for the world to notice - for people to realize there was in fact a problem here.
The looting of Target is what made people post black squares on social media, and brands post statements about how they are going to do better, but these just seemed like the second edition to their COVID-19 letters - something to deal with the current ‘situation.’ And I wondered if that was the change he was talking about. Then sitting for a second and not letting myself run to say something just to prove I was on the right side, for the first time I had to consider my part in the problem and then I realized THAT was the change he was talking about.
I keep hearing a lot about silence – I see curly letters on Instagram that if you are silent, you have chosen your side. And I am sure someone is going to have a problem with me saying this, but friends, I am not sure we are in the realm of sides anymore! I have met 0 people who condone this completely unjust murder (especially for some reason after Target was looted). And while we ALL have a different opinion, we realize something went wrong. The silence we need to address is that of two months ago, two years ago – why weren’t we speaking up as forcefully then?
As the number of brands pile on with statements, it was hard for me to join in, not because I don't believe Black Lives Matter, or we too have not made mistakes here, or I am not fighting against these injustices, but because the hypocrisy was blaring (these are the same brands who have perpetuated poverty and racism and pollution for years, it was difficult for me to believe these words were more than a reaction). It takes time to create systemic change, so I will just offer these few things…
1) We have to start with ourselves! I am embarrassed to admit, but for the first time I was faced with the truth that racism does not always look like what I thought it did. It isn’t necessarily blatant hate; for me it looks more like being comfortable living in a society that is designed to benefit me. We have to start by asking the hard questions and sit with some uncomfortable truths. We have to start with ourselves.
“Just as neutrality won’t put you in good stead with the cause of righteousness, neither will claims that you’re ‘not racist.’ The notion is a myth; certainly 400-plus years of deeply ingrained social programming did not simply skip over you, regardless of your good intentions. Racism lives within all of us. Your active allyship work begins with letting this realization sink in, and then taking steps towards becoming anti-racist.” (Go read Roxanne Fequiere’s article).
2) Change is a slow and long road. We have a gaping wound here! This is not going to be a slap a band aid, make a few posts, read a book, be really angry for a couple of hours sort of a fix. And while I am in NO WAY minimizing these things, I think we also have to look for ways to change the system.
In the past, I have seen how disasters in the fashion industry have sped up the progress of social justice work, but we have to be careful that we are not simply giving these same injustices another name. After the Rana Factory collapse in 2013, where 1,123 factory worker's lives were lost, there was dramatic change in the fashion industry. New brands, consumers started asking more questions, even H&M launched their own sustainable brand. But today 7 years later, there are still the same problems happening...H&M's sustainable line is still sewn in the same factories (with slightly stricter regulations) they just use organic cotton or recycled polyester. Better! But the systemic problem is not solved. Sustainable companies that are getting so much scrutiny right now, profited off this new generation of concerned consumers, but they will even say themselves their garments are about 80% ethical. We have to be careful we are not just doing things to ease our conscience, because when the problem shifts and changes names we won't notice and will stop carrying.
If I have learned anything working for social justice issues around the globe for over ten years – this is not a quick or easy road! It is important to recognize that and for me that meant not rushing in just to ‘fix’ this. While you are looking for brands to support that are behind the Black Lives Matter Movement, look for actions and not words. Actions 2 weeks from now, 2 months from now, 2 years from now. It is pretty easy to make a donation and a statement and honestly it is pretty easy to just add a few black models to a campaign. The work of changing an entire system is not so easy. It takes time and small, slow, strategic actions. Understand that not everyone’s actions are going to look like yours – different kinds of actions will actually be an important part of systemic change.
3) Our Work. Economic equality and justice are linked to racism. As a brand we will use the tools we have always used for economic development here in the US by partnering with groups that are working for racial equality here. If you have suggestions let me know.
The business of fashion is mostly a white supremacist business. This includes and starts with the education system. I have seen how education is one of the most powerful resources for change and think this is an area were I can contribute. While I have mentored some women of color, I rarely seek these relationships out.
Finally, as a white person with mainly employees of color around the world, I have always tried really hard to check myself that I am never adapting a white savior mentality. This has been a challenge though! It is really hard to stay equal with the women I employ globally when there are so many cultural differences and many of them look to me to 'fix' their life simply because I'm white and live in the US. This is one reason I think the fair trade model is so important, because it puts an emphasis on empowerment rather than charity, but it is still a fine line I walk everyday. If you have suggestions or resources about this, I would love to learn more.