Every February, retail stores cover their shelves and displays with merchandise in the colors of red, yellow, and green. Outstanding stories of African American people throughout history are highlighted on bookstores, streaming services, and fashion editorials. February is Black History Month.
It is complicated to speak about the efforts fashion companies are taking on Black History Month. First, we would have to start by identifying what these efforts are towards in the first place. Are companies trying to address and change the historic systemic inequalities based on race we have been experiencing? Are they trying to do better after too much social media backlash but they don’t know where to begin? Are they trying to follow a trend to make more money or stay in business with the fear of getting “canceled”?
Throughout the month of February, we see companies taking each and every one of these paths, sometimes interwoven and directed towards a goal they didn’t realize they have.
Fashion companies face their own challenges trying to figure out why Black History Month is important for them. But today, in Political Fashion, we’ll speak about why Black History Month is important for a healthy and fair way of relating to each other, and relating with our clothes. We’ll address how to leverage this information in order to live this month of February from a place of advocacy, but also from a place of empathy and respect towards the people around us, and towards the person that you are.
The origin of Black History Month goes back to February 1926, when Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History introduced the second week of February as the “Negro History Week”. Both Abraham Lincoln’s and Frederick Douglass’s birthdays fall on this week. Given the resistance for Black celebration and the eagerness and demand for further studies, celebrations and developments, it made sense to include more than one important date to Black History Month.
Time passed, and the seven day History Week became a month. People were eager to learn more about Black History, and having an entire month allows museums and galleries to curate exhibitions, and organizations host events. In general there is more space to tell these stories that, historically, have been disregarded.
2020 was a pivotal moment. The Black Lives Matter movement gained particular relevance and volume in the midst of the death of George Floyd. A video circulated where viewers can see American former police officer Derek Chauvin keeping his knee on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and fifteen seconds.
A global movement speaking on system racism, and racial inequality surged like frothed soda, and the conversations regarding race were not just more frequent and louder. People began to address the systemic inequalities based on race that happen in the streets, workplace, movie industry, fashion industry, politics, finances, housing, travel, health. The list goes on and on.
Ever since, Black History Month has carried a particular level of relevance that many companies are addressing. Maybe from a place of fear to be judged, or maybe from a genuine desire to address these inequalities. These years, we see fashion companies collaborating with Black designers to create capsule collections. We see Disney Plus compiling together the movies and shows that tell Black stories. We see Black books, movies, and art being promoted on blogs, magazines, and information portals.
This visibility of Black talent makes some people upset. Why? Let’s go through a few common thoughts shared by users on social media.
“You are going to relegate my History to a month? Why?”
First and foremost, this frustration is valid. There are so many untold stories of Black people and Black history that we need to hear and learn. We need to commit ourselves to learning these stories all year long and encourage schools, and teachers to include Black History in their curriculum, because education is the foundation for many of our values and beliefs.
At the same time, it is true that we need a specific time of the year to reevaluate the progress that we made from last year to this one. What else is there to learn and do and what action items will I take to get there?
As a manager, maybe this is about diversifying the workforce, and retaining Black employees. (Last year, a report suggested 49% of Black workers consider leaving their job.)
As a parent, this can be about making sure you are raising kids without racial prejudices, that you are able to understand the racial differences in our world, and not absorb these baseless prejudices that are far too common.
As a worker, this is an opportunity to evaluate your own biases and make sure you are treating the people around you with respect and fairness.
We can look at Black History Month from the many different roles we play in life. Citizen, partner, worker, husband, son, classmate, teacher. Black History should be part of our lives all year long. But Black History Month is a good timely point for self-awareness, reevaluation, and an opportunity for active allyship and further engagement in advocacy.
“February is Black History Month. Where is White History Month?
When we are talking about Black history, we have to talk about a historic series of injustices.
We have to talk about oppression, discrimination, lack of freedom, lack of opportunities.
Now, several studies how shown how history, the way it is mostly taught in schools, comes with textbooks that diminish Black people, and their contributions to the US.
So, we have Black History Month to acknowledge that there is a version of history that is not being told all year long in schools, and books, and movies.
Fashion gives industries the opportunity to make their allyship efforts very visual.
Visual Allyship happens when companies are taking superficial actions, in order to be perceived a certain way. Some examples would be the celebrities that bring the press to their events donating money towards a certain cause, or posting photos on social media on the time they volunteered with X organization.
Visual Allyship is not fundamentally bad or inadequate. There is nothing wrong with being a celebrity and donating money for a cause, or posting about a volunteer experience for the sake of doing it. The problem starts when we begin to think these actions are enough to address the causes we want to address, and solve the problems we want to solve.
Visual allyship is a very common way of commemorating Black History Month. Hypervisual displays that acknowledge the life and legacy of Carter G. Woodson and Nelson Mandela, decorated with #BLM hashtags are in fashion stores, bookstores, and malls. It is interesting to see how this marketing strategy works for certain consumers. Perhaps they come from a place of guilt, or maybe from a sense of curiosity, and now they are eager to read Black authors, and learn about Black stories. Maybe these hypervisual displays are
Starting with Empathy
Amid a continuous need and interest for conversations on race, many people avoid having these difficult and important conversations. One of the most common phrases to diminish these conversations is to say that “I don’t see color”. This form of thinking is very problematic, and it is far from providing a sense of union, equity and togetherness. When people, mainly those who are not people of color, are saying that “they don’t see color”, it is because they have the privilege to do so. They have not seen firsthand the wage differences between a Black and white man. They have not seen the disproportional rates at which Black people are getting rejected for housing, healthcare, employment, or professional or personal opportunities to develop their careers.
People who are able to walk with both legs without physical pain go upstairs and downstairs. They cross the streets, open doors, and move from one place to the other. They can say that they “don’t see” problems of mobility in the city, as they are able to move smoothly from their house to their office.
However, this experience will be different for someone in a wheelchair who moves on a crowded and uneven sidewalk to cross the street and get in a building that has a heavy wooden door without mobility sensors and a small elevator all the way in the back for a building with dozens of users. The experience of someone in a wheelchair is different from the person walking by foot.
The experience of a white person is different from the experience of a Black person. Saying that we don’t see color, or that we are all the same, is not solving the differences between us. It is claiming that the experiences of those underserved are not relevant. We need to stop saying that “we don’t see color”. We need to open our eyes to the racial disparities happening and open the door to change, allyship and support for those who need it the most.
Purposefully acknowledge Black talent
Let’s leverage the visibility of Black talent that Black History Month gives us. With so many lists of books by Black authors, and movies with Black talent, and Black owned businesses and clothing, it is our chance to show that support.
For some people, this is a marketing strategy, or a “woke” movement. But it is truly about awareness, visibility and celebration of each and every person who lives in this world.