Dolce & Gabbana recently had to cancel its Shanghai fashion show and offer a grovelling apology for releasing a series of promo films that were deemed racist, as they showed a Chinese model struggling to eat a series of Italian foods with chopsticks. Stefano Gabbana, the fashion house's co-founder, had also appeared to call the Chinese "ignorant" and "dirty", in a message that was then shared on Instagram, which has further dented the brand’s reputation. Then, this week, another Italian fashion power house was hit with a racism scandal.
Prada has come under fire, as civil-rights lawyer Chinyere Ezie posted an image of one of the brand’s shopfronts in New York, featuring charms that make up part of the accessory range. They take the form of what Prada said were "imaginary creatures”. Along with the photos, Ezie wrote: "Spotted today in Soho. Thanks @Prada for making sure blackface remains live and well. #stopracism #NoExcuses #shameonyou.”
The resemblance to racist caricatures of “blackface”, racist toys of the 19th century and iconography of “golliwogs” – part of racist stereotyping, which led to real-life crimes, such as lynchings, beatings and discrimination – is obvious to anyone when you look at the charms. Calls for Prada to be boycotted have been trending on social media, with a huge public backlash against the brand. One Twitter user wrote: “I am a 53 yr old white man in the south. You can Prada oeuvre all you want. I know blackface when I see it and this is it.”
Prada responded with a statement on Twitter, saying: “Prada Group abhors racist imagery. The Pradamalia are fantasy charms composed of elements of the Prada oeuvre. They are imaginary creatures not intended to have any reference to the real world and certainly not blackface…. Prada Group never had the intention of offending anyone and we abhor all forms of racism and racist imagery. In this interest we will withdraw the characters in question from display and circulation.”
This is the face of casual racism in the modern day. I don’t know which is worse: whether the charms were created with real malice or just pure ignorance. Perhaps the images of golliwogs and blackface were so ingrained in the psyche of those who designed Prada’s “imaginary creatures” and the board members who signed off on them that they felt it invoked some kind of warm and fuzzy nostalgia within them.
Enough is enough. This is the soft, mercurial face of racism, which must be called out and stopped every time
To the people tutting and muttering that this is a case of political correctness gone mad, it’s hard to explain the damage and harm these images and charms create. Blackface and caricatures of golliwogs were a form of minimising, demeaning and mocking. In the 21st century, to still be confronted with these images is exhausting and appalling. As a black woman, I am often assaulted with images and narratives of myself in art, culture, advertising and movies as an over-sexualised, angry, simple, ignorant, unprofessional and fetishised beast. This has to stop; the record must be changed. Walking past this Prada shop window every day, with its “blackface” charms, is so damaging. It’s a form of toxicity that seeps into the psyche and soul, reinforcing these stereotypes. Ignorance is not a defence. It’s yet further proof that, when there is real diversity in the boardroom and at decision-making levels, things will change. If anyone from a diverse, “other” background had seen the plans for these charms land on their desk, it would have been flagged up in a heartbeat.
I’m really pleased to live in the age of social media, where large groups of people can publicly and quickly galvanise and come together to shine a light on racism and abuses of power. Enough is enough. This is the soft, mercurial face of racism, which must be called out and stopped every time.