Fashion, Diversity, and the Colonial Shadow
As the fashion industry takes steps toward participating in the Black Lives Matter movement and the historical moment of racial reckoning sparked by it, it might be time to talk about a little thing I like to call the colonialist mentality.
If you’ve worked in the industry for any length of time — especially if you’ve traveled to a non-Western production country — you’ve probably witnessed it in action at some point. But if you’re of non-Western descent, as I am, you may have picked up on it with a different kind of radar: one that detects a signal with almost supersonic sensitivity and knows the contours of a thing before the mind has had time to process the data and make an identification.
What I’m referring to may not even rise to the level of the word of the moment — the microaggression. (I’m not especially fond of that term, with its robotic overtones.) Although the roots of the two may overlap, quite often if you work on the corporate side for a retail brand, you encounter the colonialist mentality only indirectly, when it surfaces in relation to your in-region partners or suppliers. But while not directed at you, you feel it with a psychological involvement that can only be described as tribal, in a defensive way.
In my years spent working in proximity to global production regions, and colleagues and workers who hail from these regions, I’ve spotted instances of the mentality ranging from blatant to subtle. But at its core is a kernel of sameness: a shadow of condescension; an implicit awareness of rank within a hierarchy; of high to low; of ruler to ruled. Like an echo of the British Raj.
To be clear, what I’ve mostly seen in my experiences working with people from around the globe are some of the loveliest friendships and relationships built across East, South, and West. A bridging of cultural divides and an expansion of consciousness that comes with widened exposure.
After all, cultural differences are real. And working with global partners can throw into relief some of these differences. They’re the kind that can lead to crude generalizations if used to stamp an entire population or continent with some innate, congenital character trait, or if applied too broadly. But they can also be enlightening — extending our understanding and our ability to empathize, beyond the familiar. Bridging such differences can require adjustments of expectations; misinterpretations and reinterpretations; mental corrections; a give and take of dialogue.
And most find their way into a cooperative, cross-cultural groove.
So I don’t want to create the impression that the colonialist mentality is rampant and all-pervasive.
But I have seen things that have raised the hairs on the back of my neck and made me raise a skeptical brow.
The most egregious form of the mentality — the form my radar tends to hone in on most acutely — usually involves an element of servitude both given and expected. I experience it with a mixture of indignation and pain.
I remember my first visit to Vietnam for work, and the discomfort I felt seeing a young, male waiter who showed such deference to an older (European) man sitting at his breakfast table in the hotel dining area that it pained me. It was precisely a kind of subservience that, to a Western eye, could lend credence to the cultural stereotype of Asians as passive and submissive.
But if the young waiter’s behavior gave me discomfort, my greater unease lay in seeing that hotel guest as he fulfilled his own cultural stereotype with a bit too much ease. Let’s call him a British boomer. Let’s say he slipped into the role of served party with a touch too much aplomb; with the posture and bearing of a person whose birthright it is to be served. Asking for his bill or making some trivial request.
Colonialist, I thought to myself, with an invisible eye roll.
The waiter’s deference was so reflexive that it did seem like an ingrained cultural trait. Yet who can say what order of cause and effect underlies such patterns of behavior, when you consider the long, brutal history of French colonial rule in Indochina?
And then there’s the American variant. We’ll call it the post-War, neocolonial variety. The Douglas MacArthur variety. (Or I can think of a more current example.) Some would say the more proper term is imperialist. This is the type for whom commercial power (backed by military might) endows you with an arrogance and automatic belief in your own cultural superiority, even when the empirical evidence to support that belief is conspicuously lacking.
Years ago, on a work trip to China, I was with a group of co-workers staying at a hotel where the hairdryers in the rooms were less than powerful. At dinner, our department head complained about their cr*ppy quality.
I confess — I had noticed it, too. I’d been equally annoyed. When you’re rushing in the morning to get ready so you can catch breakfast in the lobby before the bus comes to pick you up for a long day ahead, you want a hairdryer with an airflow like a turbine engine. A gentle breeze won’t do. It’s easy to feel peevish. So I could hardly blame her for going to the front desk to ask for something more powerful.
But as I listened to her recount to us how she went about it, there came a turn.
“I went down to the lobby,” she said, “and I said to the girl (behind the desk), I need a more powerful hair dryer. I have thick, AMERICAN hair.”
I felt the heat of offense — not directed at me, but received, nonetheless, just as if it had been.
After all, I, too, am American, born and raised (with damned thick hair, if I may say so). But I heard in those words an implicit line of demarcation: the suggestion that some physical traits are American, and some are not. And I could imagine in that hotel desk clerk my physical self, in less powerful form, having to bear the affront of that imperious tone; not being at liberty to talk back or express indignation.
Not that I felt at liberty to say anything, myself. Looking at me, you might have marveled at my ability to maintain a poker face (an Asian stereotype!); showing little in the way of expression.
Which raises a point, by the way, that is also worth mentioning…
DEI advocates will tell you you should call this kind of thing out. I will tell you that in that moment, in that setting, when the speaker is multiple levels above you in reporting structure, it’s an impossibility. Large corporations are not unlike the military in that regard.
In part what I think feeds the colonialist mentality in fashion is the reality that, unless you work for a brand that manufactures only in Europe or a Western country, we almost all work within a globalized system that many argue is an extension of colonial capitalism, or at least its late-stage, hyper-capitalist incarnation.
In the 1980s and 90s, fashion manufacturing began to shift from one offshore location to another as companies sought cheaper and cheaper sources of labor. And most of us have worked within this system — sometimes with pangs of conscience when we see the kind of labor involved at the factories, mills, and dye-houses.
If you represent the brand or buyer, to some extent, because of the buyer’s purchasing power, your wish is the producer’s command. And so a power dynamic ensues. And let’s just say some in the business embrace the role of commander with more zeal than others.
And if, as some would argue, there are legacy effects of wealth disparity between the colonized and colonizing countries, which have contributed to residual disparities involving race, class, and socio-economic status, is it any wonder certain old patterns persist, too, like the common sight of a (white) British or American VP at the top of the regional office org chart, where once the Viceroy or Governor-General stood atop the Civil Service pyramid? This, while a sea of black, brown, or yellow faces occupies the factory floor…
With such scenes as this as a visual backdrop, is it really any wonder unconscious bias might exist as a real thing, this side of the ocean? That, somewhere at the back of a less open mind, hidden associations might play into assumptions about who is meant to be at the top, and who is not? And who ought to be chosen and perhaps even groomed for that top tier of higher-ups?
This seems especially true when, on fashion’s outward-facing side — its glamorous visual images, its central luminaries (think Anna Wintour), its gilded world of design house elites — the names and faces have been predominantly white and European for so long.
And in a world where image is everything, representation (or lack) can further solidify these unspoken cues.
From the colonialist mentality to the microaggression, then, you can find a common thread: it’s diminishment in some form, which over time can erode your confidence and even your certainty — about yourself; your judgment; your perceptions. Each racial or ethnic group deals with its unique strains. But we almost all experience it at some point.
With my American accent, my Western habits, my middle-class trappings, I’m less likely to be spoken to directly with that particular colonialist inflection of tone that so riles my feathers. But it doesn’t inoculate me against more subtle forms of diminishment. A slight devaluation of my opinion. An off remark, suggesting the cognitive wiring in the offender’s brain is making them see Asianness in all that I do.
That same group leader who made the American hair comment once said to me as a form of critique about my lack of boldness, “I think you like to present things wrapped up in neat little packages.”
To be fair, she had a point. I am a creature of detail. Of aesthetic bent. I like a pleasing Excel chart. I’ve been known to do origami. And perhaps there’s something cultural behind all of this.
I am also — let me say it — timid by nature. (I insist this is an individual trait, though, not a cultural. I have a sister who is nothing like this. I have female cousins who are nothing if not assertive.) I’m an incurable introvert. Of writerly bent. I get tongue-tied. My mind harbors thoughts more complex and fleeting than speech is able to harness.
Still, I could not help but think to myself, “You think that because I’m Asian.” (At least one white colleague concluded the same, unprompted, when I mentioned it.)
I could not help but feel that in that comment lay a tendency to draw snap conclusions, based on ideas about Asians being too-this or too-that; not this-enough or not that-enough.
There is a flip side to the colonialist mentality. And just as it was common throughout Western colonial history, it finds a home in fashion, too. It’s the arrogant imperialist’s benevolent cousin — the champion of uplift, but with a paternalistic hand. It’s the desire to help, but without upending the system that perpetuates the inherent power dynamic of ruler to ruled.
Some invoke the term white saviorism. The writer Teju Cole, who coined the term, “White Savior Industrial Complex,” has this to say:
“The white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening.”[i]
He further notes:
“This world exists simply to satisfy the needs — including, importantly, the sentimental needs — of white people and Oprah…The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.”[ii]
It’s a harsh accusation. And temperamentally, even though I may agree with the root observation, I find it difficult to judge quite so harshly. Because living is hard. And earning a living is hard. And ethical questions of this sort are not easy. Not everyone has power or freedom enough to choose a path that helps upend the system. It’s easy to cast stones from a place of security. And if it is being complicit to try to do as much good as you can within the system you’re handed, then plenty of us are guilty. Or maybe I’m just a softy.
Still, it’s worth confronting and calling out some potential pitfalls. And asking ourselves if we have blind spots.
In the growing sustainable fashion movement, an important focus of attention is the plight of underpaid, even enslaved, and inhumanely treated garment workers — a problem that gained awareness after the Rana Plaza tragedy of 2013. A need to right these wrongs has become part and parcel of the movement for social and environmental justice that is currently challenging the fashion industry to do better, just as it is challenging all for-profit enterprises that have pursued financial gain to the detriment of human well-being and the planet for too long to do better.
Together with this, there is a social impact business movement that, on the fashion front, includes causes like helping women in developing countries earn livable wages through support for artisan crafts.
Work of this kind is done with heartfelt passion and the best of intentions. So why is there a corner of my brain that gets wince-y?
Some time ago, I attended a fashion conference with a panel on women’s empowerment, consisting of several women. All were CEOs, entrepreneurs, or founders of a company. None was visibly of color.
As the talk began, I could not help but wonder if I was the only person who noticed the absence of any women of color on the panel. There were plenty of us in the audience. Surely a few besides me took note?
Let me confess — I don’t enjoy playing the role of BIPOC watch dog. My inner justice warrior cries out that we shouldn’t have to be the ones asking to be included. We should never have been so consciously or unconsciously excluded in the first place that we now have to make up for lost time by being added as an afterthought. But here we are…
I’m also not one to insist that there must always be a person or persons of color on any given panel, because that can lead to perceptions of tokenism, which I think helps none of us.
But in this case, I admit to feeling irked. A conversation specifically on the topic of empowering women? All women? And no visible woman of color?
And then it happened. The conversation drifted toward helping female garment workers in the developing world…
One panelist had helped improve the livelihood of women in the village of the non-Western country in which she was based. And I didn’t for a moment doubt the sincerity of her intent. Nor the concrete gains for the women involved. Yet I will admit — instead of the communal, feel-good feeling I should have been feeling, I felt the tug of my inner eye roll.
Perhaps I felt echoes of a phenomenon that went hand-in-hand with Western colonial expansion. For wherever the colonizer set foot, so, too, followed the missionary, with mixed motives of saving souls, while alleviating suffering.
Perhaps it’s because my supersonic radar detected echoes of a tone I often heard directed toward my own mother, whose English was fluent, but accented. That gossamer hint of paternalism, however kindly meant.
Perhaps it’s because, within that outer-facing world of fashion, so full of European faces, I’ve noticed a pattern: whether it’s the urban factory worker or the rural local artisan in developing countries, too often I see a reflexive association between the words people of color — especially women of color — and the low-income workers across the developing world who manufacture our clothes instead of modeling, designing, or purchasing them.
To be clear, the problem of underpaid workers is real and in need of redress. And most are indeed women of color. And there is no shame in being a garment worker.
But when taking up the cause of women of color over there goes hand-in-hand with — and at times deflects attention from — a lack of racial diversity among industry elites over here, my radar blinks orange. I sense a we feel good about helping them vibe that leaves unaddressed the question, why aren’t there more of them among us here in the room?
In this instance, I know there was no ill intent. Those women had all overcome their own obstacles as women in a (white) male-dominated business world. Yet the fact that there are still too few people of color within that inner circle of owners, executives, entrepreneurs, and board members; within that world of luminaries (those generally invited to participate in symposia and conferences) makes it hard not to detect an element of the softer, well-meaning colonialist mentality when causes of this kind are celebrated.
If Black Lives Matter is teaching the world anything, it’s that we are all (or most) coming to terms with the recognition that, even where it has never been anything but our intention to treat others equally in the world, we are part of a system that hasn’t and doesn’t.
The broader legacy of Western colonialism is, of course, deeply intertwined with many of the same systemic inequities that both produced and resulted from plantation slavery in the U.S., which then were reinstated through Jim Crow laws in the South and perpetuated through more veiled (and not so veiled) measures which continue to this day.
The harms done to the African American community in the U.S. go far beyond the subject of my personal musings here, and I don’t mean to subsume the particularity of their history under the umbrella of Western colonialism. Personally, I think the Black experience in America warrants unique attention and redress.
But to the extent that there are echoes of colonialist cultural attitudes and legacy power dynamics between the Western and non-Western world that still resonate across the fashion landscape, the industry could do with a reckoning of the whole.
Sadly, the more (ob)noxious colonialist mentality isn’t likely to reckon with much of anything anytime soon, since unquestioning entitlement seems to be its motivating drive.
But for the rest of us — including the softer, well-meaning colonialist — perhaps this historical moment presents an opening.
Perhaps it has never occurred to some to question the legacies of colonialism that have left long-standing hierarchies — economic, political, cultural, and psychological — in place. Hierarchies that keep certain people at the top and others below, even when those at the top act with benevolent intent.
If even a few learn to recognize patterns; if they learn to give benefit of the doubt to — rather than dismiss as over-sensitive — those of us whose radars pick up cues that elude the average (white American or European) ear, then progress will have been made.
Here are a few ways to approach it, for a start…
Take the economic question. Take the political/cultural question. And take the psychological.
If your concern is economic uplift, you might push yourself to ask: if I am helping to lift up my sister (or brother, or other), but only enough that they learn to expect a portion of the pie designated as up for grabs by the system I’m part of, is my real goal equality? Is it justice? Is the system in its current form set up to promote this goal?
Large corporations in particular that claim to care about equity and fair wages might ask whether a system driven by relentless product cost-cutting in the name of growth, and increased margins quarter over quarter; with CEO salaries all out of proportion to what seems decent; and profits going only to shareholders; is truly compatible with the idea of uplift for all.
For those with less control, who try to do what they can within a system they’ve been handed, if there were political, economic, and legislative changes that might alter the system to create a more even playing field — possibly at some expense to your own interests — would you also support these?
If your concern is racial diversity, equity, and social inclusion, ask yourself: are you genuinely trying to help make others your equal? Are you interested in helping them become the insiders, power-holders, and decision-makers in the industry? Better still, are you interested in making power less concentrated at the top altogether?
Most of all, if your concern is psychological empowerment, ask yourself what may be the hardest question of all: does your benevolence keep the people you seek to help in a position of psychological subservience, because they feel indebted to you as their benefactor?
To invoke the tree in the forest analogy: if I give back, but no one is there to see it, and I don’t personally receive any credit, do I remain as enthusiastic about my cause?
These are difficult questions. And it may rattle our peace of mind and even bruise our egos to be asked. But I think we need to — with, I would argue, latitude for stumbles and imperfect answers on the part of those who want to listen and learn.
It’s time to ask some of these questions, even if they can be squirm-inducing.
Those of us on the other side of the historical colonial divide have done our share of squirming when we were not in a position to call out offensive attitudes or assumptions — some of which may have resulted in actual damage to our prospects, our pursuits, our psyches, and our sense of possibility.
It’s time to onshore some of that burden.