When corporate Diversity is not enough and race work is needed

by Milagros Phillips

Feb. 8, 2019

The wool balaclava jumper, a blackface sweater, really Gucci, really? The sweater is black with long sleeves. The neck goes past the nose with red lips cut out. It is worn by a white, blonde model. There is also a mask that goes over the head and eyes, which can be purchased separately. No one said anything about this design being offensive?

A design passes through many hands before it appears in a magazine or a store rack. It’s hard to believe that not one person spoke out about the production of this garment at Gucci. In a lineup that included pattern makers, cutters, dressmakers, photographers, stylists, models, the marketing team, the advertising company, the distributor — or any of the support staff, not one person saw this as a bad idea? Are there any people of color working at Gucci, or is it simply not safe to speak up?

The fashion industry has a long-standing history of racism and colorism. The microaggressions, polarization, and racist attitudes in the fashion industry prompted Lindsay Peoples Wagner, fashion editor of The Cut, and editor of Teen Vogue to survey people working in the fashion industry, including celebrities, designers, models, stylists, photographers assistants and everyone in between to write this.

“No black photographer had ever shot the cover of Vogue. Only 15 of the 495 CFDA members are black, and only ten black designers have ever won a CFDA or CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund award. One of the most popular and financially successful black designers, Tracy Reese, has never received a single nod. Less than 10 percent of the 146 fashion designers who showed at the major fall 2018 shows for New York Fashion Week were black, and only 1,173 black models out of 7,608 model castings walked (the runway).”

The fashion industry works from months to a year or more in advance, so the balaclava sweater has been out there for a long time. The item seems to have surfaced now because of Virginia Governor, Ralph Northam’s blackface school yearbook photo and Virginia’s Attorney General, admitting wearing blackface at a costume party at age 19. Otherwise, this incident would have gone unnoticed.

Part of Gucci’s apology for the black-face sweater is as follows, “(1.) We consider diversity to be a fundamental value to be (2.) fully upheld, respected and at the forefront of every decision we make. (3.) We are fully committed to increasing diversity in the organization, and (4.) turning this incident into a powerful learning moment for the Gucci team and beyond.”

Let’s break it down –

1. In my experience, when diversity is a fundamental value, you have diversity in the organization. You create a safe space for all people, including people of color to speak up when something is not right. In an environment where racial jokes are allowed, and stereotypes are accepted, people of color don’t feel safe to express opinions and feelings. An organization that produces a product like the balaclava sweater is probably not conducive to having healthy conversations about racial incidents.

2. When diversity is upheld, respected and at the forefront of every decision, someone along the way, (the pattern cutter, dressmakers, photographer, and all mentioned above) would have raised a voice to say this is wrong. An organization that allowed a design like the wool balaclava jumper to be created and offered to its customers is either clueless or careless, neither of these speaks highly of their putting race at the forefront.

3. If an organization is fully committed to increasing diversity, it can explain what they mean by that statement. Is it gender diversity that they are looking to increase? is it looking to increase age diversity? Is it learning styles or workstyle diversity that they are looking to increase, or is its diversity of experiences? Because all of these are part of diversity, and none have to do with the problem at hand. The issue here is about race and internalized racial conditioning. So, hiding behind diversity is not going to get you very far, when the problem is clearly about race.

By increasing diversity, do you mean hire people of color? Well, let’s look at that. Gucci obviously has a problem that goes beyond unconscious bias in its organization. Gucci seems to have at worst a racially charged, racially hostile, or at best a racially unconscious work environment. How are people of color to feel comfortable or included in this environment? No matter how much diversity you add to the organization if the people already in the organization don’t become racially conscious by becoming race literate, you’ll just be adding more people to an existing problem.

4. It’s good that Gucci wants to turn this incident into a powerful learning moment. To do so, Gucci will have to address race and the racial dynamics in the organization by looking at the implicit and explicit biases that lead to the design of the balaclava sweater in the first place. Next, move beyond bias to transformation.

To turn this incident into a powerful learning experience, they’re going to have to address race head on. They are going to have to move their employees beyond racial awareness to conversations and action. In short, they’re going to have to train their employees to become race literate. And they’re going to have to understand that, undoing individual and collective racial conditioning requires a long-term, continuous learning commitment.

While the Gucci example is overt, invisible, racial issues go unaddressed in organizations and institutions across all industries. There are too many organizations and institutions hiding behind the word, “diversity,” to avoid doing the much-needed RACE WORK. Diversity is more general and inclusive of all biases and “isms” and all of the groups protected under EEO Laws. Race work focuses directly on race, racism and racial condition. It deals specifically with institutional, structural, historic and systemic racism and the individual and collective aftermath that leads to colorism, biases, and prejudice. Race work addresses the use of power to institutionalize racial practices. It gives a deeper understanding of race, is grounded in science and research and leads to transformation.

I’ve been developing and leading seminars on race for organizations and institutions for more than twenty-five years. I’ve written 3 books about race, I did a TEDx talk on Race Literacy, and I coach leaders on the subject of race. I’ve heard it all, from putting a hanging noose on a Black man’s desk on his first day of work in an all-white department to consistent turnover due to unaddressed managerial issues of race. I also studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) and worked as a booking agent in the Men’s division of a top modeling agency in New York City. So, I say to Gucci, the fashion industry and corporate America, when it comes to race in the organization, there’s work to be done.

Race work is about uncovering the invisible barriers that cause racial divisions in the organization. Race work is about looking at the ways that our collective, 500-year-old racial legacy impacts hiring, firing, retention, mentoring, salaries, promotions, policies, and procedures in the organization. It is about more than acknowledging differences. It’s about seeing those differences as assets rather than liabilities. It’s about making it safe to have difficult conversations, and seeing how undoing racism in the organization can positively impact the bottom-line. But most of all, it is about seeing all members of the organization as deserving of respect. When done well, race work leads to healing.

Race is not an easy topic. It takes courage and commitment to work on it, So, how does a company like Gucci begin to address the topic of race in their organization?

· Learn about the history of race and how it impacts today’s work environment

· Learn about the history of racism in your particular industry — it’s there

· Do a cost analysis to understand how diversity can positively affect your bottom line

· Look at your internalized racial condition

· Be willing to have difficult conversations

· Look for racial diversity throughout the organization.

· Ask questions of your employees

· Become an active listener

· Look at people as an asset

· Examine organizational policies for how they may be impacting the hiring and retention of people of color.

· Create an environment where people can speak the truth about their experiences without fear of repercussion

· Hire an expert!

Milagros Phillips is an Author, Speaker, Diversity Coach, and the creator of Race Demystified, a 2-day training that transforms the way participants view race.


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