“Racist Fashion”: An Ombudsman to Face Silencing by Helena Soares and Mi Medrado

Image by Mitti Mendonça (@mao.negra)

Today is May 13. In Brazil in 1888 on this day, the Portuguese empire signed the Lei Áurea (Golden Law). What should have meant the abolishment of African enslavement and prejudice of any kind, became scientific racism as a cultural ideology enterprise. Interracial marriage, European goods circulation such as clothes, and to burn enslavement historical records would erase the stain of “slave trading past”. However, the threads of Brazilian social fabric are still dealing with human rights and social justice setbacks.

Black fashion workers are still facing racial inequalities! Thinking how to engage in racial awareness and listening to the demands, we share today a newspaper article published in Portuguese, on June 19, 2020. You may see the original here.

Instagram profile subjected of lawsuit (Reproduction / Instagram)

Moda Racista”: an Ombudsman to face silencing

Helena Soares and Mi Medrado (*)

In face of the increased visibility of oppression resistance movements and the violent and racist act that took place in Minneapolis, United States, a virtual profile named Moda Racista (“racist fashion”, in direct translation) was created on Instagram. In less than three weeks, there were more than 43 thousand followers and 700 direct messages reporting racist practices that we still face in our daily relationships. The mood was of denunciation and revolt.

Thereby, the profile became a kind of surrogate for an ombudsman, a space for exposing situations of racism, lgbtphobia and fatphobia practiced by fashion brands (most of them active in the luxury market) and by professionals whose function is to guarantee the flow of the models and protect images. These numerous reports exposed the urgency of the discussion of racism in the fashion world. Suppliers and workers sent their testimonies relating high degrees of suffering, made invisible by silencing practices. Each time a name or brand came up, the nasty and cruel veil of racism revealed itself a bit more, through which human rights and dignity are neglected. The coldness and the exercise of subjugating workers, who are mostly young and mistreated in asymmetric relations of power, became more and more visible. 

There were some cases that surpassed the virtual domain. The countless reports of racism involving the Reinaldo Lourenço brand had the greatest impact. The stylist sought judicial measures to defend himself and avoid exposing his clothes and accessories, whose making reinforce racist practices, as we learned from the reports. By a civil petition, he demanded the censorship of @modaracista’s profile and that the judicial proceedings took place in secrecy. However, the female judge responsible for the case understood that there was no plausible reason for secrecy, since the fight against racism is in the public interest. Even so, it was requested that the Instagram profile was identified and their administrators exposed. The administrators’ response, until the closing of this text, was to disable the profile as a way to not give in to the judicial decision.

It is not new that the fashion production system maintains inequalities and that its workers are treated with disregard. It is necessary to recognize that these workers have gender, color and receive forms of treatment that distinguish inequality. In that way, we also recognize the need for an analytical and critical reading of the unequal practices that cut and tack the fashion industry in the Brazilian context. Thus we can start a work of transformation of this perverse logic that conforms the worker’s space in the fashion system.

“Accepting that the fashion industry has a racist past and continues to perpetuate racism today is a step towards preventing racist future. This involves recognizing the realities of the fashion industry — that it is premised on the ability to exclude groups and individuals. This exclusion benefits those that do the excluding and has nothing to do with the actualities of the excluded.” (Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion, Tansy Hoskins, PlutoBooks, London, 2014)

It becomes evident, therefore, the urgent need for anti-racist actions that expand the listening of silenced pains and that create mitigating experiences for the fracture produced by slavery in the social fabric. Brazilian fashion needs to be decolonized, removing from itself their colonial practices, and to face historical issues that surround the false spectrum of the myth of racial democracy — that, by the way, benefits from the operating structure of commercial relations in this industry. 

It is imperative to face and respond to the types of racism that the Instagram page has exposed, as well as to reflect and curb the inequalities that were brought to light. The confrontation must be done by the problematization of the structure in which those events take place and through actions that do not legitimize any more silencing. The promotion of a decolonial perspective with the purpose of weakening historical nodes that structure racism can shed light on other realities and reinforce spaces of speech, expressions and image for those who have only been silenced.

We understand that the fashion system is the embodiment of capitalism, whose modus operandi depends exclusively on the exploitation of human capital, because its exercise subjugates individuals, styles, brands, whose production and reproduction works in the tacit logic of symbolic power. Therefore, our analysis aims to question the socio-cultural practices that propagate and naturalize racism and other prejudices in this industry. The purpose of this complaint is to raise awareness in order to create a strong coalition with the different agents that integrate the market, the researchers inside or outside universities and the civil society.

The reports we heard through the @modaracista account instigate us not only to reflect on historical processes and contemporary perspectives, but also to inquire about the economic and political dimensions that build the positions in which clothes and workers are located in the current system. To put an end to the practices of silencing, we must stop acting like fashion and its system are minors or apolitical objects and start recognizing it as the “favorite daughter of capitalism”. We cannot let this case be just another one in the list of missteps in Brazilian fashion. Hence, what remains for us is a question: how can each of us, different agents in the fashion system, act in this case and take responsibility proportionally?

(*) Helena Soares is a Psychoanalyst, PhD Candidate in Social and Institutional Psychology at Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), Brazil, and creator of the “Brechó de Troca”.

Mi Medrado is a Brazilian Anthropologist based in Los Angeles, PhD student at the University of California Los Angeles. Medrado is among the initiators of the Fashion and Decoloniality: Global South Crossroads Collective. Founder of @modainconversation. She is researcher associate to the Colonization and Design in Brazil, a two years research project, at the Federal University of Ceará, and part of Research Collective for Decolonizing Fashion editorial team.

Translated by Laura Wairner

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