By guest author Annachiara Biondi from Vogue Business
Despite diversity and equality policies, Black students and faculty remain underserved and underrepresented in the field.
“I don’t know a single black tutor in this place,” reads a picture of the writing on a wall at London’s Central Saint Martins, one of the world’s most renowned fashion colleges.
A photo of the written protest was recently published by the Instagram account UALtruth, one of a growing number of anonymous Instagram accounts that have popped up in the last few weeks to document episodes of racism at high schools and universities across the US and UK. The unnamed account, for students and alumni of the University of the Arts London (including Central Saint Martins) lists microaggressions, derogatory slurs and outright racist behaviour perpetrated and endured by students. Exposing_thenewschool, is a private account, viewed by Vogue Business, recording similar experiences of racism and discrimination from students and alumni of The New School, which includes Parsons School of Design.
It’s part of a storm facing a higher education system, and increasingly fashion education in Western countries that remains predominantly white, both in the curriculum and its teaching staff, according to academics, alumni and data.
“It’s very difficult to respond to a set of allegations out in the open, which may be founded or may not be founded,” says Jeremy Till, head of Central Saint Martins and pro vice-chancellor research of UAL. “I don’t believe that social media is the place to carry out these kinds of allegations and fixes to the issues that have been raised.” Till, who says he is sympathetic to students who “feel they have been affected by an incident within their teaching”, says students are able to raise complaints via anonymous emails and formal complaint procedures.
“We are hearing them, we are listening to them and we will be responding through the Parsons committee on equity, inclusion and social justice that is launching and working to do better,” says Rachel Schreiber, executive dean of Parsons. The committee will address steps to diversify staff and university leadership, assess curriculum and pedagogy and better support Black, Indigenous and students of colour.
Despite diversity, equality and inclusion policies, student and staff recruitment in UK and US higher education largely remains white, according to data from Hesa, the UK’s higher education statistics authority, and the National Center for Education Statistics in the US. Across Creative Arts and Design undergraduate courses in the UK, only 4.5 per cent of students were Black in the academic year 2018/19.
“We perform race equality; we have wonderful policies, great legislations, but nothing changes because fundamentally the structures remain unchanged,” says Heidi Safia Mirza, professor of race, faith and culture at Goldsmiths, University of London and author of Dismantling Race in Higher Education.
The situation in the most high-profile global fashion universities and schools is difficult to ascertain as most of the institutions contacted by Vogue Business declined to share demographic data or provided it only for larger categories like BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) or non-white students. Only nine per cent of students enrolled at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology in November 2019 were Black. At UAL, 29 per cent of British students were BAME in the year 2019/20, though the university doesn’t provide a breakdown for colleges or specifically Black students.
One common reason institutions refuse to publish demographic data is that numbers are so low for a given category that they would be unable to guarantee the confidentiality of the individuals involved, says Mabel Sánchez Barrioluengo, presidential fellow at the Alliance Manchester Business School and co-author of a study on social inclusion policies in higher education. But collection, even if internal, is needed to develop solutions, she says. “Knowing what you have internally is the best way to develop policies related to equality, diversity and inclusion.”
For students of colour who reach tertiary education a significant issue is faculty staff are predominantly white and they study a curriculum that is white and Western-centric curtailing attainment and advancement, alumni and educators say.
“[Students of colour] suffer in those institutions because those institutions don’t embody their identity or give them a sense of who they are,” says Mirza. “You can let people in, but if you don’t support them they fail. And when they do, they blame the victim.”
Parsons Black Alumni, an association created by Nyle Fisher and Jetaun Jones in 2018 to provide mental wellbeing and professional support, says there is a “blatant disregard for Black opinions [and] culture”, and students struggle to relate to their white course teachers and fellow non-Black students. This makes it “easy to understand why this community is frustrated”. The association also says that is struggling to get adequate support from the school.
Schreiber, who says she met with the Parsons Black Alumni in autumn, says that she is aware of Black students and alumni concerns and the school is working on addressing them.
Diverse staff and anti-racism training
Only six per cent of full-time faculty in US universities were Black in autumn 2018, compared to 73 per cent of white staff. In the UK, the proportion was two per cent. UAL says 12.6 per cent and seven per cent of its staff in academic and senior roles is BAME.
Same race teachers positively impact student attainment levels and academic progress, especially in the case of Black students, research has proved. “Black students are not pushed to be as excellent as they could be,” says Melody Thomas, who teaches fashion news at IFM.
HR is one of the areas that needs more development, according to Aisha Richards, associate lecturer at UAL and co-chair of the Group for the Equality of Minority Staff. “If your recruitment practices show that you are still recruiting a mono-cultured community that doesn’t represent the country population, then there is something wrong,” she says. Externally auditing equality and diversity departments which sit inside HR, could lead to more effective hiring practices, she suggests.
Richards is also the founder of Shades of Noir, an independent UK organisation that promotes and organises activities on race within art, design and communication in higher education, including anti-racist training for staff and students. The training aims at giving staff and students the instruments to understand what anti-racism is, including understanding their own decision-making processes, coping with complex discussions and managing suggestions. “There is no point in changing a reading list or using fantastic progressive words in a handbook if the staff isn’t ready, able and equipped to deliver a pedagogy that is steeped in social justice,” says Richards.
The UAL Student Union, which received Shades of Noir training as requested by UAL, is now requesting mandatory anti-racism training for all staff. UAL’s Till says the university is committed to do it. Parsons, which said that anti-bias training is in place for all faculty who are part of the hiring committee, said the Post-Graduate Teaching Fellowship programme also supports graduates of colour to progress in academia and diversify staff. The school currently has fellows at Parsons as well as two faculty members from the programme. At FIT, the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion organises a Diversity Ambassador training programme which includes four mandatory sessions. Diversity Ambassadors are then tasked to encourage and support diversity initiatives throughout the campus.
Decolonising the fashion curriculum
Students of colour are also alienated by institutions through their curricula, which in the US, the UK and Europe reflect a monolithic white Western view of history, campaigners say.
“The academy is inherently white; to try to get a foothold on colonialism, imperialism and all those things that for white British people make Britannia is difficult,” says Jason Arday, author of Considering Racialised Contexts in Education and assistant professor in the department of sociology at Durham University. In fashion, he adds, much of what is taught centres on European fashion, tailoring and designs, only rarely and marginally touching on other forms of dress.
The same can be said of the business side of fashion, including supply chain management, labour practices and commerce, according to Ranjit Thind, a London-based academic who researches the decolonisation of the fashion management curriculum. “I went to London College of Fashion, I went to Harvard Business School, not once I was taught anything about alternative methodology, theories or frameworks,” he says. “I think about forced migration, labour management, slavery — they were never mentioned.”
Till says UAL courses are revalidated every four years to revisit the curriculum under the lense of topics including decolonisation, emerging industry themes and new technologies. “I completely recognise the complaints of students of colour and Black students about the curriculum,” he says. “The curriculum has been handed down through time and therefore presents a certain canon of work that clearly isn’t acceptable.” When asked about the inclusion of non-Western pattern-making techniques or labour practices in the fashion curriculum specifically, Till declined to say, adding that he “would hope that all of those issues are brought to the surface”.
UAL is also launching the Decolonising Arts Institute in autumn 2020 to “challenge colonial and imperial legacies and drive social, cultural and institutional change” through interdisciplinary collaborations, research-based projects and seminars.
Fashion schools globally are aware of these issues. “We recognise that any major needs to be looked at through the lens of how the curriculum itself replicates hegemonic or dominant perspectives,” says Parsons’s Schreiber. The school has widened its design curriculum by including African garment construction and pattern-making strategies in its BFA fashion design course. Parsons fashion students are taught about taking responsibility for the system in which their collections are being produced, including labour practices, consumption and after life.
Still, Parsons Black Alumni say the efforts are a step in the right direction, but there are “mammoth corrections” that need to be made, like adding Black designer Jay Jaxon, the first American to head a Parisian couture house, to the curriculum. “The industries that Parsons trains graduates to enter are in general racially unbalanced, discriminatory and problematic, and the Parsons educational curriculum reflects this,” they say. “The school has a long way to go in proving that they can listen and respond appropriately to the numerous accounts of negative experiences that Black people are having when going through their programmes.”
“We know and are aware of the need to decolonise that curriculum,” says Schrieber. “We are conducting that work now.”
New York’s FIT says it offers over 40 courses in its curriculum that address issues of diversity, such as including Voices of Civil Rights in American History, Fashion and Slavery and Sociology of Race and Ethnic Religions.
IFM’s Thomas, together with Alice Litscher, who teaches image design, have adopted a student-oriented approach, encouraging them to bring the topics they want to cover to the table and engaging in open discussions. “It’s important that courses reflect the people who are in the room, because they are going to be part of the industry and have to be part of the conversation about where the industry is going to go,” says Thomas.
The writer is an alumna of UAL.