Meet Dior Bediako, founder of Pepper Your Talk and the Junior Network and Akilah Cohen Boadi, content creator and freelance beauty and fashion writer. Together, Dior and Akilah are offering a vision for the future, a vision for long-lasting pivotal change and a vision of unity for all who want to pursue anti-racism within the fashion industry.
The duo have worked tirelessly to create an accessible and transparent anti-racism toolkit designed to unite, educate and spark change. The Anti-Racism In Fashion 2020 Paper acknowledges uncomfortable truths and offers tangible advice and actions for Black creatives and fashion professionals to navigate the industry, from breaking down the definitions of equality, diversity and inclusion to listing simple questions to ask a potential employer regarding their anti-racism efforts when applying for a new role. The study provides guidance for fashion businesses to advance racial equality and presents a wide array of resources for those within the white-majority to educate themselves on Black British experiences and racism in modern workplaces.
Pursuing anti-racism is a worthwhile and timely pursuit in which we all have a role to play. These two inspirational women have presented us with the foundations for positive and impactful change, now it’s up to us to take action.
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HOW DID THE IDEA FOR THE ANTI-RACISM TOOL KIT COME ABOUT?
After the tragic murder of George Floyd, I had a check-in chat with the black and mixed-race members of The Junior Network girls. The conversation moved from Black Lives Matter to experiences of racism within the fashion workplace. The girls were hurting but many didn’t know how to remedy their pain - that was tough to witness. Akilah, Jordan and I had a long talk and it was then that Akilah had the idea to create a document that would equip the black professionals whilst educating everyone else. One document that everyone could hold, own, read, learn from and arm themselves with.
HOW HAS YOUR PERSONAL EXPERIENCE WITHIN THE FASHION INDUSTRY INFLUENCED WHO YOU ARE TODAY?
I started my first ever fashion job a little over a month after graduating from university so the transition from student to professional was so quick. The experience made me grow up very quickly, which naturally comes with growing pains. I learned how to be a professional from the industry by modelling the women in the office. Their movements, their words, their composure, their expertise, passion, work ethic - everything! Those first two years shaped me and gave me the confirmation I needed to continue to the path I was on.
WHAT DO YOU HOPE TO ACHIEVE FROM THE PROJECT?
At the very least I hope it is read in its entirety by everyone who downloads it. I hope as many fashion professionals as possible read it from start to finish. I hope it sparks thought then conversations and then action. I hope the analyses offer insights that fall onto fertile minds - minds that aren’t made up but rather open to learning more and making a difference. I hope it counts towards the greater change of stamping out racism for good.
WHAT STATISTICS AND DISCOVERIES HAVE BEEN MOST INSIGHTFUL?
We conducted a survey with the hopes of gathering fresh insights from current fashion professionals. The statistic that stood out most is that 38% of people surveyed agreed to knowing how to report racism in the workplace. Yet, 40% strongly disagree that their company has outlined a clear reporting process. In my opinion, these statistics demonstrate that black professionals have HAD to arm ourselves with the knowledge of reporting on their own accord, either through family members or friends. This also makes me believe that companies don't deem it important enough to ensure they’ve outlined the reporting process to all employees. Many companies have stated that they ‘stand against’ racism but how? What internal action has been put behind that statement?
WHAT ARE YOUR HOPES FOR THE FUTURE OF FASHION?
I hope everyone with influence and power uses their positions to support the next generation. I also hope the next generation is thinking beyond titles, salaries and more about the positive change they want to create during their tenure.
AKILAH COHEN BOADI
HOW HAS YOUR PERSONAL EXPERIENCE WITHIN THE FASHION INDUSTRY INFLUENCED WHO YOU ARE TODAY?
It was as a consumer of fashion magazines that I was first influenced by the industry. I was brought up by fashion magazines; I’d buy a selection of titles every month and through their pages, I cultivated my love of fashion and developed my expectations of adulthood. Yet I came to the fashion industry almost accidentally, with a few career diversions along the way. In retrospect, working in fashion should have been the obvious choice, but I never once considered it because the industry didn’t feel accessible to me. While I saw the occasional black model in my magazines, I almost never saw black editors, feature writers, fashion designers or photographers. The impact was that I subconsciously internalised the message that black people don’t work in fashion. Ultimately, that feeling has stunted my development and I often wonder what might I have achieved by now if I had believed that the industry wanted people like me.
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO TACKLE RACISM WITHIN FASHION IN THE FORM OF THIS DOCUMENT?
Dior and I both really wanted to contribute to the pursuit of true equality for black people. We wrote the document for and about fashion professionals because it plays to our strengths and ties in with our own experiences.
I suspect that all forms of activism are motivated by the same feelings; hopelessness, frustration and a need to feel like you’re doing something. I think there are many people who witness injustice but don’t feel that they are in a position to do anything about it. We produced this document to deliver a set of tools as well as insights. It says, “This is what it is like to be black in fashion; this is how the system works against black people in fashion; and this is how you can do something about it.”
WHAT CHALLENGES HAVE YOU FACED WHILE NAVIGATING THE PROJECT?
As a team, we found it a challenge to find data about black fashion professionals in the UK. There’s a real absence of research and attention given to our experiences and contribution. Personally, self-doubt for sure. Conversations about race are still so taboo in our society. So tackling racism in the workplace felt extremely bold and I was hyper-conscious that it needed to be handled artfully. I truly believe that we need open and frank dialogue to eradicate racism, so I refused to sugarcoat or euphemise the reality of racism in fashion and our society as a whole. At the same time, I didn’t want to alienate anyone because we cannot eradicate racism if those benefiting from the existing system are not also involved in the work to create change. It was a difficult balance to strike.
Even so, many people completed the survey, participated in the focus group and shared their personal stories with us. Writing about such an important subject and being the custodian of highly personal experiences came with a huge sense of responsibility. I put a lot of pressure on myself to get it right.
WHAT IMPACT DO YOU HOPE FOR THE ANTI-RACISM DOCUMENT TO HAVE?
Fundamentally, I hope it is relatable. I hope that it is informative, and I hope that it is accessible. I hope that we are able to equip people at any stage in their careers to be an agent of anti-racism.
WHAT HAS BEEN MOST INSIGHTFUL FROM WORKING ON THE PROJECT?
Learning about other people’s experiences was very insightful. I have learnt to live with racism and don’t often discuss my experiences with other black people, so it was eye opening to hear the breadth of racism other people were experiencing. Some were far more extreme than my own, which often made me feel that the current landscape for black fashion professionals and for black people in the UK in general, is quite bleak.
Also, learning about the Equality Act 2010 and discovering that the current legislation is far from prescriptive. Researching and writing about it, I realised that I’d made an infinite number of assumptions about the ways in which employment legislation operates. I think that every single person of working age, especially people who stand to experience discrimination, should be informed about how the law truly works or doesn’t work to protect them.
DO YOU HAVE AN OPTIMISTIC OUTLOOK FOR THE FUTURE OF FASHION?
The world is changing. As a species, we are being challenged to do better by the planet and by each other. Rules and institutions that previously seemed immovable are being remoulded, and I think fashion is in the pressure-cooker along with everything else. Our industry is overflowing with creative and dynamic thinkers. Take recent fashion shows during a global pandemic for instance, so many brands were able to create beautiful and engaging shows within the new parameters of social distancing and virtual group experiences. If we can apply the same zeal and dedication to making our industry cleaner, kinder, more diverse, more inclusive, then yes, I have a hugely optimistic outlook for the future of fashion.