Last year, news of Prada’s blackface scandal reverberated across the globe.
After walking past a Prada store on my way to work, I took to social media to voice my disbelief that the fashion label was selling figurines that bore an unmistakable resemblance to blackface as holiday stocking stuffers. I encountered nearly identical images just days before at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, in a gallery documenting racist imagery used to denigrate Black people in years past. Prada’s figurines also resembled objects on display at the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia according to its director, who would have added them to the museum’s collection but for their $550 dollar pricetag.
Prada’s shocking figurines underscored fashion’s lack of regard for Black consumers — a sweeping form of ambivalence that was on display again weeks later when, undaunted by Prada’s blackface scandal, Gucci and others released haute racism apparel of their own.
Prada’s casual use of racist imagery also struck me as proof of a non-integrated workplace, where Black voices were not present in decision-making or empowered to speak up. My bleak image of diversity at Prada became the punchline of a Daily Show sketch, and was later confirmed by the company’s chairman to be true: as of March 2019, the number of Black employees working at Prada headquarters was reportedly zero.
While the term “call-out culture” is often used in a derogatory manner, I now view call-outs in a different light. When my call-out of Prada unexpectedly went viral, I learned firsthand that call-out culture bestows tremendous power on those accustomed to powerlessness. By virtue of a catchy hashtag (here #BoycottPrada), my lone voice of protest became many. My call for accountability by Prada also ricocheted across the globe, buoyed by the collective indignation of strangers.
The effects of my call-out were not confined to the internet: within 48 hours of my post, Prada suspended the sale of its blackface trinkets worldwide, scrambled to remove its Sambo figurines from stores, issued a formal apology, and promised to donate sale proceeds to organizations like the one I work for that advocate for racial justice. Within a matter of months, Prada installed Ava Duvernay and Theaster Gates as co-chairs of a newly-created Diversity Council charged with deepening the company’s social justice commitments. I also held a two-hour meeting with the Chairman of Prada on the subject of racism and repair.
This February, just after the one-year anniversary of my call-out, Prada and I reached a historic agreement that brings my call for accountability full circle. Prada is creating a first-ever scholarship and internship program for underrepresented minorities seeking careers in fashion. Prada is providing racial equity training to its employees, including top executives, on a reoccurring basis. Prada is recruiting and retaining diverse talent for positions across the company. Prada has also agreed to strengthen its anti-discrimination policies and appoint a permanent diversity officer whose job will be to ensure that its business activities are conducted in a racially equitable manner. These concessions are not hollow promises: the New York City Commission on Human Rights helped negotiate the agreement with Prada and will be monitoring and enforcing their commitments for the next two years.
The success of #BoycottPrada thus answers a question that has been the subject of much academic debate — whether call-out culture is a form of activism that actually brings about meaningful change. President Barack Obama recently answered the question in the negative to the delight of comedians and conservatives alike, suggesting that social media call-outs were the pursuit of the bored and aimless that were “probably not going to get that far.” Yet, the simple lesson here is that rather than being a past-time of the mean-spirited and hyper-woke, call-out culture can be a bona fide form of activism that radically redistributes power.
Among its virtues, call-out culture radically reimagines whose voices count by empowering people used to seeing themselves marginalized and devalued to assert their right to dignified treatment in the public square. Call-out culture is also generative: when a hashtag transforms a David into a Goliath, and when a single tweet becomes a roaring wave, it signals the creation of a new social contract and expresses emerging norms and values we hold as a society.
While some (including Obama) may view call-out culture as demanding ideological purity, in reality, call-out culture accelerates our learning curve by incentivizing growth when we make mistakes. It urges individuals to interrogate their values and actions, and to learn from the Twitter woes of others. Call-out culture can also push companies to adopt commitments that extend far beyond the traditional pursuit of profit. Prada and Gucci’s recent embrace of a racial equity agenda is evidence that corporate social responsibility initiatives, once multi-year campaigns waged by activists and shareholders, are now just a hashtag away from coming to fruition. The edict of call-out culture is simple: evolve, or cease to be relevant and revered.
To be clear, social media call-outs are not a substitute for traditional forms of organizing and activism. The experience of being called out can also lack gentleness; it can resemble a flogging, it can feel like a slap. At its worst, it can veer into something ugly and standardless, including vigilantism that bears uncanny resemblance to the cyberbullying popularized by Trump. These pitfalls, while serious, are avoided by “ethical” call-outs that center, rather than sideline, progressive ideals.
What are the characteristics of an ethical call-out? For starters, they articulate a problem, rather than engage in mean-spirited take downs or ad hominem attacks. Ethical call-outs are also mindful of the power dynamics at play when the target of a call-out is an individual not a corporation, since the threat of cyber bullying will be at its peak.
Ethical call-outs are also concerned with the truth, so that our Twitter storms are not leashed on undeserving targets. A desire for accountability, not moral superiority, should also serve as our fuel, since humans are flawed enough that we may all be worthwhile targets of a call-out some day.
Finally, an ideal call-out will challenge others to acknowledge and transform the harm they caused, and give them an opportunity to do so (recognizing, however, that for the R. Kellys and Harvey Weinsteins of the world, no such grace may be due). That way, instead of playing the role of judge, jury, and executioner and demanding permanent exile or social death for those who break our social contracts, we are demanding (and receiving) repair.