The Art of Tokenism in African Fashion
Opinion Piece By: Nini Kunu
A perfunctory action or gesture is one that is carried out with a minimum of effort or reflection, which quite aptly reflects the space African fashion has been given permission to occupy in the much larger sphere of fashion as a whole.
The practice of making only a symbolic effort , especially by recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups in order to give the appearance of equality within a workforce.
An African model or designer is never honestly given an opportunity or a platform in fashion without strings attached. Fashion reeks of tokenism, but you probably haven’t noticed because it is often branded as “diversity” and conveniently so, but it is everywhere. It is in the ONE black model that is always present at all major shoots *coughs* Duckie! *coughs* and acknowledged but is never to outshine, it is in the ONE or two African designers recognized for their talent, *coughs* Kenneth Ize *coughs*, it is the television show with the ONE black friend in the middle America. It is literally everywhere.
In recent years, the business of, and industry that governs fashion has experienced a shift, only slightly smaller than key stakeholders want it to appear to the common eye. Thanks to social media, consumers have begun to take notice of the privilege that fair-skinned models enjoy. Social media has also given darker skinned models a platform to share their journey and struggles within the industry, and this has improved and worsened tokenism. It has improved it because now consumers require more accountability but it has also worsened because brands have become better at tokenism. They have gone from the ONE black model to maybe two, and then obviously, there’s the whole colorism issue, the light skinned vs. dark-skinned debacle, but we are not going to get into that.
From the outside looking in, it seems like bigger fashion brands are making more of an effort to be diverse, I mean both Nigerian model, Mayowa Nicholas and Canadian model, Winnie Harlow, walked the Victoria’s Secret Show last year. But, from where I am sitting, it seems like, these well-known fashion houses and prominent voices in fashion have not become more accountable or aware of their privilege and the many ways they continue to perpetuate it, they have just become better at fully executing surface level diversity aka tokenism.
I mean, both Nigerian designer, Kenneth Ize and South African designer, Thebe Magugu are currently nominated for the incredibly prestigious LVMH prize, which is an amazing honour but it can’t help but feel more like a blatant act of tokenism. I do not in any way discredit his talent or his ingenious mind, but I feel that it is more a way to shut down the ever-evolving conversation around the lack of diversity in fashion.
I feel about Kenneth Ize, the same way I feel about director, Jordan Peele’s most recent project, Us. I went into the cinema with my friends, desperate to love it, and for a minute, I thought I did, but now I recognize that I only liked it because I felt like I needed to.
As art created and spearheaded by a black man, and a representation of opportunity finally meeting talent for a minority, there is an unspoken pressure for the project to do well, and as a black person, I almost feel like I can’t be critical because we can’t afford to prove the naysayers right. In the same token, pun intended, it also feels like this pressure is ridiculous because it is not the pressure any artist feels to live up to the expectations of their audience, it is a pressure to do well by the African continent because you are literally the only one of us in the room, being giving the platform. It is a pressure that further perpetrates the notion of Africa as a monolith.