Tokenism In The Fashion Industry: How I Went From Pet To Threat Overnight
Full transparency: I had a hard time piecing together the words to explain my experiences with racism in the fashion industry. Not because I couldn't articulate them, but because I didn't want to fully admit that for a split moment in time, I had been willing to forfeit my dreams of working in a field that I loved so much, because of the treatment I had received from former employers. After learning about the many creatives just like me coming forward with stories of their own, I started to notice a deeper common thread and it's much more damaging than surface level suggests — not only are Black people tokenized in the fashion industry, we're conditioned to be complacent out of fear of being held back in our careers.
As a Black woman who attended predominately white institutions in the Midwest my entire life, I'd always been familiar with the idea of tokenism — that you're filling a minority quota, or only being used as a symbol of diversity, rather than for the expansive point of view or unique thoughts you have to offer. As a result it took me longer than I'd like to admit to stand firmly in my Blackness.
Many people's entries into the fashion industry is far from linear, but I knew my geographical circumstances required me to be strategic. From my first job at the small-town prom dress boutique, to the countless retail jobs I held after, I knew at an early age that I needed to position myself as best I could by acquiring any experience in fashion that I could, if I wanted to work in the heart of the industry. Along the way, there were the more than the occasional microagressions I learned to tune them out early on. At one of my first jobs in fashion, I would sit quietly around the lunch table as my white and non-Black POC co-workers called both stereotypical Black behavior and streetwear brands "ratchet" or "ghetto." But it wasn't until about two years ago that I learned that no matter how much designer clothing I wore or how hard I worked, my standing among my white counterparts was absolutely conditional. The catch being: I can be in the room, but only if I don't voice my opinions or concerns.
Kecia M. Thomas, an Associate Dean at the University of Georgia, coined the term "pet to threat" — putting into words (and a 2012 study to back it up), the accounts of racism that Black women experience in the world of academia. She talked about this concept in depth on Zora, Medium's online publication for women of color, explaining that "women who were mid-career were constantly feeling as though they were coming up against barriers even though they had already established high levels of performance. We were being treated like threats when we were just trying to develop our careers." I came across the story in the months following my own experience and immediately identified it as a way to describe what had happened during my time at a well-known company in the industry with only one Black person in a position of power.
I was poached from my previous job to join the team in a copywriting role and was initially excited about the work and my manager. I felt respected. But I soon realized that too often I was being asked to go above and beyond my job description, not only writing the majority of the product copy living on site, but training new hires, scheduling out their day-to-day responsibilities, and creating team budget proposal decks from scratch, all while my boss spent the day planning her impending nuptials. Yet despite the time I put into my job, I wasn't able to cover my living expenses. I asked for my manager's blessing to pursue a second job in retail on the weekends and some evenings. She approved as long as I didn't tell HR and my work didn't suffer as result. And it didn't. In fact, I was recognized for my innovation from members of other teams and they started to look to me for answers regarding the copy on site. This is when I noticed a shift in my relationship with my boss.
She began to micromanage me — critiquing and taking credit for my work. I had to dedicate time to catching her up to speed on projects within the team that she previously overlooked. I could feel that she was displeased that I was no longer playing the part of trusty sidekick, but it wasn't until I had a meeting with her boss, that I learned she had gone to HR about my second job that I realized she considered me a threat. Instead of talking to me, she opened a case against me stating that I was aggressive and was conspiring to get her fired. I quit a month later.
Sadly, this is only a sliver of the racism that I received at the hands of this company; a former senior-level employee once made a comment about me "waiting for the bus" as I was leaving for the day; while several managers made jokes about not being able to tell two Black freelancers apart. This situation is not unique, but it reflects the reality of moving through the largely white spaces within the fashion industry.
Tokenism is an issue across all corners of the fashion industry, and it shows in the amount of brands facing backlash in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. Hiring Black people to create the illusion of diversity, without doing the work to be anti-racist exposes those employees to harmful environments and does little to solve the structural racism within the industry. Companies need to put real practices in place to support minorities in the workplace. Otherwise they must ask themselves, what is it that they're trying to achieve?
I'd like to say that anti-racist policies would have protected me from a very toxic work environment, but I'm not certain that it would have. However I am positive that the key to these companies providing a safe work environment is truly listening to your Black employees and understanding that if you don't, we will take our talents where they are appreciated.