As the United States wrestled with its history of racism following the brutal murder of George Floyd, the office policies set in place to welcome and retain Black employees naturally came under scrutiny. The world watched as corporations—from Starbucks to Instagram—laid out elaborate plans to improve Black representation and inclusion within their four walls. When Lululemon shared its anti-racism pledge on Instagram in June 2020, it signaled the potential start of a new era. “We will use our platform to stand for social justice, equity, and inclusion,” the retailer wrote on Instagram.
Three years later, an investigation by The Business of Fashion reveals an uncomfortable truth: Lululemon has done no such thing. Titled, “At Lululemon, Being Black is ‘Off-Brand,’” the report documents the racist experiences of several employees across the corporate hierarchy in the US and Canada. From sales associates being referred to as “you people” by regional managers or being told by white customers that they don’t match the aesthetic of the apparel brand, the employees encountered rampant micro-aggressions. More covert displays of discrimination included stories of managers who felt lied to about the availability of job openings; passed over for promotions after speaking out against unfair treatment; punished for refusing to “code-switch”; or terminated after filing racial discrimination claims. The finale played out when a new department called Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Action (IDEA) was created and tasked with addressing these internal complaints. However, Lululemon hired an experienced attorney to not only spearhead the initiative but also protect the company against these very claims—two conflicting directives that ultimately resulted in maintaining the status quo.
The report may seem shocking or painfully familiar, depending on who you are. Some may even call it an isolated incident, but racism at work is nothing new. The growing body of exposés (LoveShackFancy, Everlane, and Reformation have all been accused of similar offenses) documents just how entrenched racism is within the DNA of corporate offices, evidencing the plight of Black people in corporate America. Ask your Black friend, partner, or colleague, and chances are, they’ve all experienced microaggressions or blatant racist moments. The story is more or less the same; it is simply told through different characters.
In essence, these news articles are an invitation for fashion brands to take accountability and to consider the devastating impact their actions—or lack thereof—have on an entire group of people. They also present an opportunity to question the current system, and if not dismantle it completely, at least make it kinder and fairer to those it has historically excluded. With every new article comes the hope that the industry will take responsibility and atone for the harm caused. That corporate executives will not just apologize (or worse, refute the claims), but pour time and resources into reflecting, learning, and fostering an environment where Black people feel safe, valued, nurtured, and rewarded. The long-term retention of Black employees is just as critical as recruiting them. After all, what good is a seat at the table if the chair isn’t comfortable?
“Prior to 2020 and the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, maybe 30% of clients emphasized diversity as a fundamental aspect of their hiring strategies,” Gillian Williams, founder of Monday Academy, a recruitment agency that focuses on DEI efforts tells ESSENCE.com. Monday Academy has worked with Louis Vuitton, Tiffany & Co., and countless other clients. Following George Floyd’s death Williams noticed that 90% of their clients were requesting diverse talent. “The increased demand stemmed from companies feeling the heat for their previous lack of diversity among employees,” Williams adds. “In response, we observed a surge in performative activism, where companies sought to mitigate the backlash they were facing.”
The 2020 resolutions offered that glimmer of hope, but brand efforts seem to have petered out since. According to a New York Times report, a significant number of fashion companies had all but abandoned their promises as early as 2021. Some attributed their inaction to legal reasons, the pressures of an uncertain economy, or the prioritization of all marginalized groups rather than just Black people. The verdict was in: fashion had stubbornly refused to change.
Racism at work will persist because those accused of inflicting it tend to flat-out deny it. The mere accusation—not the offensive action—becomes the focus and victims are instantly labeled as threats to be eventually discarded. As long as managers choose their insecurity over the difficult conversations that are essential to understanding their Black employees, there will be discrimination. Discrimination will persist as long as organizations defund internal diversity programs or thwart their progress. The lack of structures set in place to support and incentivize the development of Black employees will continue to halt change.
“Effective DEI work is organizational change work,” wrote author and DE&I consultant Lily Zheng on LinkedIn. “Effective DEI work is smart, targeted interventions to solve challenges at the root, move resources to those who are underserved, and activate the workforce to understand and contribute to these efforts.” Zheng also noted that organizations that do effective DEI work know its effective because they “A/B test their initiatives” and “have strong internal relationships that create a bridge between “frontline employees” and “organizational leadership.”
Williams can attest to these sentiments. “True commitment to DEI requires cultivating an internal culture that places a premium on inclusion and equity,” she shared. She expands and shares that this means implementing robust systems that empower diverse talent to thrive within an organization. “Failure to align your internal culture with your diversity hiring efforts will likely result in low retention rates and a revolving door of employees,” Williams also notes.
Achieving any modicum of progress will require humility, transparency, and a willingness to acknowledge one’s mistakes. Fashion will inevitably hit setbacks on the road to true inclusion if it settles for lip service over quiet endeavors. “Exposés will continue when companies choose to only do performative work,” Dr. Akilah Cadet, founder of DEI consulting firm Change Cadet, tells ESSENCE.com. “The systems of fashion are centered around white supremacy and having this ideal look, size, skin color, hair texture that is inherently not inclusive. The fashion industry hasn’t figured out the continuous goal of learning and unlearning,” Cadet adds.
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