- Anna-Karina Yuill
In Conversation with Sarai: Fashion's Racial Injustices
Meet Sarai, a Leeds based creative and Communications Officer at the Racial Justice Network, one of LRFS' chosen charities for 2022. This Fashion Revolution Week, we catch up with them about fashion's racial injustices, cultural appropriation, garment workers' rights, and what you can do to help.
Can you briefly introduce yourself and tell us what was it that inspired you to get involved in discussing the social injustices behind fashion?
My name is Sarai and I’m a Leeds based creative. Currently working as the Communications officer for The Racial Justice Network, a social and racial equality organisation/charity. My own personal experiences and identity has mainly inspired me to become involved in addressing injustices in the fashion industry. I have many intersections including being Black and growing up in a working-class area. There is a somewhat glamorisation of both Black, PoC and working class’ culture in the fashion industry and it’s important to appreciate and acknowledge the original creators of trends we all see today.
One thing you’re passionate about is bringing awareness to cultural appropriation, can you give us a brief explanation of what this is?
It is taking an element of an oppressed culture and disregarding and not giving credit to the original creators. There is a wide range of examples of cultural appropriation every year within the industry. It’s almost like a clock, where a specific culture is heavily focused upon at one time, and then the focus shifts onto the next culture and so on and so on.
What would you say are the main examples of this we can see in fashion at the moment?
Examples of this, all of which have been around for some time, are the popularisation of long acrylic nails, acrylic nail art, waist beads and heavy layering of gold jewellery. Waist beads, whose origins came from certain parts of Africa and hold deep cultural significance, symbolise femininity and spiritual well-being, yet, we are now seeing people who don’t have any relation to the specific culture wearing the beads. Fashion brands are now making profit off this without acknowledging its origin and history.
For centuries Black women have been dehumanised, victims of misogynoir and have their femininity and beauty be disregarded because of the high expectational standards that western society has created. With that being said, different cultures within the Black community have found ways to express themselves outside of the binary. For example, the creativity of acrylic nail art that rose to prominence in the 90s by African American and Caribbean women has heavily influenced a lot of individuals in the present.
So what are some of the impacts that cultural appropriation can have on marginalised communities?
I think one of the main impacts is brands and non-Black/PoC businesses making a profit from marginalised communities and their cultures; they then make the items accessible to only a specific target audience which often isn't minority groups. Making these items inaccessible to them also creates acts of gentrification.
How would you advise someone on spotting the differences between cultural appreciation and appropriation, and what can we do to help prevent it?
Appropriating a culture, compared to cultural appreciation, is showing appreciation to another culture and actually connecting with people within that. Preventing this is as easy as purchasing from a business or brand that is culturally aware. For example, if you’re wanting to purchase some layered gold jewellery, instead of purchasing from a fast fashion brand, support and purchase from a business that is Black or PoC owned. By doing this, you're not only are you showing your appreciation, you’re shopping way more ethically and sustainably.
Fighting against cultural appropriation is just one way in which we as consumers can help. But how can fashion move forward to be more intersectional?
Intersectionality can only occur if people from ALL diverse backgrounds are included in a space, are being listened to, and have equal inclusion. This includes everyone from the designers and creative individuals, to the garment workers who are making items. Garment workers need to be treated fairly, paid properly and not below the minimum wage (which the majority of them are), and have safe working conditions.
The matter of garment workers is increasingly important now more than ever, especially with the rise in fast fashion and its easy accessibility. What are some of the main destructive impacts fast fashion can create?
Fast fashion works 24/7; it quickly finds a new trend then creates it without focusing on the quality of the items and the individuals who have to then create mass amounts of the same garments to then be presented to consumers who are in constant demand to keep up with these trends. This then creates temporary micro trends which usually only last for a few weeks. Because of this, people are more likely to throw away their clothes. This is not sustainable and damages the environment. Understandably, fast fashion is easily accessible to a vast majority due to the pricing points yet we are forgetting the importance of purchasing items of better quality that will last us way longer than a garment of cheaper quality.
So how and why does the Global South suffer the most from this constant cycle of consumption, and how can we campaign against this?
Fast fashion brands usually go to cheaper labour in the Global South due to the intensity of supply and demand. The practices in the factories aren’t carried out thoroughly or safely. Labour codes are often violated and the workers in the Global South earn an alarming amount less than a living wage. With low working wages, individuals are then struggling to provide for themselves and their families. The fashion industry plays a huge role in the poverty cycle and the poor working conditions that the majority of garment workers in the Global South have to go through.
We in the Global North are quick to disengage from this matter but retrospectively, this affects us all and will affect us all in the long run.
With the majority of the employees in the garment factories being women, there is also a health and safety risk that needs to be addressed and campaigned about. Females as young as 13 are having to leave education to work as garment manufacturers in order to provide for their families. We in the Global North need to start to recognise our privileges and hold ourselves accountable before we decide to move forward in campaigning. In many countries in the Global South, the rights of these women who work in factories are often diminished which then puts them at risk of abuse.
In an ideal world, what would your vision for fashion be 10 years from now?
Realistically speaking I would like the fashion industry to recognise that the intensive supply and demand that we’ve seen this past decade is harmful to many groups of people, and the pressure to create pieces without putting actual time and effort into the process will eventually affect us all.
I have hope that more people will be shopping way more sustainably and supporting more independent brands, giving them just as much praise as they do with big fashion brands. Social media plays a huge role in a lot of our lives and there’s more access to information and education than ever before, so in 2032 this won't be a problem, people will become more educated and conscious in their decision making (hopefully).
What would you say to someone who’s just starting to learn about fashion's social injustices about how we can most effectively campaign against this, and are there any causes you would recommend supporting or donating to?
The first steps would be to recognise and be aware of your own current and past behaviours/attitudes towards injustices in the industry and how you would like to effectively move forward. To learn more, Fashion Revolution have very insightful articles and blogs which address similar issues. But I would advise people to really think about which section of injustices in the industry they would like to focus on and with that, you can then narrow your focus point.
A handful of us around the world physically trying to change things will never be easy, we all need to consciously move in the right direction in order for us to improve the planet!
Check out the Racial Justice Network for more from Sarai.
In 2022, the Leeds RAG Fashion Show worked to promote fashion as a force for change in aid of the Racial Justice Network and Stop Hate UK. It's not too late to donate via JustGiving here.
Images courtesy of Sarai Pinney (@s.ar.ai).