I could have sat at my desk and just focused on the work piling up. I could have just posted a picture on Instagram. But something compelled me to go into the streets last week and join the movement. For a while now, I have been touched by Black Lives Matter. For three years, its members have taken to the streets and – quietly, defiantly - staged protest after protest after protest and, despite a still-roiling epidemic, they have not tired. They continue to raise questions that we as a country need to ask ourselves and they have reminded a community that the deaths of their own will not be forgotten, nor will they be in vain.
As a designer, they’ve made me question what my role is in all of this, what can I do? I decided that I could no longer just sit on the sidelines. Last Thursday afternoon, I left my office in the Garment District, called a group of friends – black, white, Asian, mixed – and we all headed down to Union Square together to join hundreds of others in a peaceful protest of the fatal shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. At that moment in my office there was nothing anyone could have done to stop me. I felt I needed to be out there with Black Lives Matter, show face and feel it.
I’m 33 years old and it was my first time taking part in a protest.
I didn’t know what to expect but I was immediately taken back by the camaraderie. Everybody, a big melting pot of people reflective of the city they call home, seemed proud to be there. We were all standing together, side by side, a bunch of strangers chanting the same thing: Black. Lives. Matter. One artist, Dread Scott, made a flag that read, “A Black Man Was Lynched By Police Yesterday,” and we took turns waving it. That feeling of unity gave me goose bumps. I hadn’t felt that in a while.
As a black man in an overwhelmingly white industry, race is never far from my mind. But the Black Lives Matter movement has underscored the still astounding disparities African Americans face – at their homes, at their places of business, at the voting booth. While the civil rights movement has made incredible strides, the statistics continue to be staggering: One in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime; black criminal offenders are more likely to get longer sentences than their white counterparts; young African Americans are two fifths of all youth inmates.
I could keep going. If you read the news and the countless op-eds long enough, you’ll have your pick of numbers to choose from and new sobering statistics that you won’t want to believe will inevitably pop up. You’ll want to throw your hands in the air and resign yourself to the easy crutch that there’s little for us to do from our perch in the comfortable seat of fashion except make clothes.
But I write this open letter to encourage the fashion industry to not just continue the dialogue of race in America, but to do something about it. Fashion exists in a world of make believe. Our job is to offer an escape from everyday life and a fantasy of glamour and beautiful clothes. It’s easy to forget the real world with its very real problems. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Fashion is always at its best when it looks outside of itself for inspiration and holds up a mirror to society. Sometimes we do that on the runway and sometimes when we come together as an industry and take up important causes, like so many of our peers have and continue to do with breast cancer and HIV/AIDS.
Stand with Black Lives Matter. Go out and educate yourself and learn how you can help and join the conversation as an active participant and not just as a passive, if well-meaning, observer. Encourage diversity on your runways and campaigns. Empower your social media fans to raise their voices. Use your designs for the public good. Attend a protest and see change in action. Raise awareness - it’s not as empty a gesture as it may seem - and others will follow your lead.
And that’s just the beginning. But start somewhere and step up. Let's not turn our backs on the young black men and women of tomorrow. Let us learn from our fear and the stereotypes that have bound many for so long and stop perpetuating hate and casual discrimination. It is far easier to hate than to love, but what Black Lives Matter taught me is that you can only be silent for so long before you feel parts of yourself die.
What I saw last Thursday was a city united and mobilized in peace for a common purpose. What I witnessed was that love outclasses hate, ALWAYS.