Upheaval at Fashion Institute Over Accusations of Racism

At the Fashion Institute of Technology, a show featuring “monkey ears” is among a handful of episodes that have raised racial tension.
Demetrius Freeman for The New York Times
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It is considered one of the world’s most prestigious fashion schools, priding itself on producing cutting-edge designs and a roster of alumni that includes Calvin Klein, Michael Kors and Carolina Herrera.
But before the coronavirus outbreak shut down classes, the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan had been in upheaval since a student designer used oversized lips and “monkey ears” in a fashion show last month, setting off widespread outrage.
Other episodes have also bubbled to the surface, revealing what many students and some faculty members describe as a climate of racial insensitivity.
Some African-American students said they were told that their “bushy Afro” would ruin a fashion show because their hair wasn’t “professional or sleek enough.”
A longtime black administrative assistant filed a lawsuit claiming she had been bullied and denied a raise after she accused colleagues of making racist remarks. The assistant said she overheard one white colleague say: “African-Americans are three-fifths of a human being.”
A black part-time professor said her application for a permanent post was rejected after she filed an internal discrimination complaint against the school, accusing it of holding her to higher standards than white faculty members.
Following the fallout over the lips and ears at the Feb. 7 fashion show, the school held an emotional forum in which several black students criticized the school and its president, Dr. Joyce Brown, who herself is African-American, over what they said were deeper, systemic problems.
“The F.I.T. is not as diverse as what people say,” one student said.
As Dr. Brown sat listening, another student shouted: “We didn’t come to this school to be with racism. We didn’t come to this school to fix racism.”
Dr. Brown told the audience that the school had hired an outside law firm to investigate the circumstances around the fashion show. So far, the school — which is moving to teaching classes online later this month during the coronavirus crisis — has suspended two administrators.
She said the student designer, who is Chinese, was let down by F.I.T. faculty and administration. The student designer has said his professor directed him to buy the accessories.
“Given his limited knowledge of American history, he really didn’t seem to understand the historical and cultural connotations, and that is where we failed him,” she said. “We did not guide him in such a way that he would fulfill his vision and at the same time not use offensive accessories.”
Still, she acknowledged that the fashion show controversy was not an isolated episode. “During times like this, other issues have a way of surfacing — allegations, accusations that sound similar, pending lawsuits and incidents,” she said.
Dr. Brown, in a statement provided to The Times, said what happened at the show was “appalling and indefensible,” adding that she was developing a “multipronged action plan and procedures to ensure that nothing like this can ever happen again.”
The tensions at the school, which is part of the State University of New York system, reflect broader concerns about race and racism in the fashion industry arising from a string of controversies, including H&M’s using a black child to model its “coolest monkey in the jungle” sweatshirt and Burberry’s using a noose as a drawstring on branded sweatshirts.
“The willful ignorance is rampant,’’ said Kimberly Jenkins, a frequent commentator on race and the fashion industry who has lectured at the Parsons School of Design and the Pratt Institute.
Bennett Raglin/Getty Images For Fashion Institute Of Technology
Many F.I.T. students said the school’s response to the blowback over the fashion show was disingenuous: It responded only after news media reports and more than a week after the event, which Dr. Brown attended, and, according to witnesses, where she was seen enthusiastically congratulating the organizers.
“In its 75-year history, the Fashion Institute of Technology has not learned that having black models wear accessories like ‘monkey ears’ and oversized bright-red synthetic lips are racist,” said Paul Clement, an economics professor and chairman of the social sciences department.
The extent of the school’s diversity was also cited by students and faculty as a source of concern.
Though the school’s population of 8,846 students is more diverse than the overall SUNY system, students and faculty say its teaching force is not reflective of the school’s presence in one of the world’s most diverse cities.
Among the school’s 944 faculty, about 63 percent are white, while 10 percent are black, 7 percent are Asian and 5 percent are Hispanic.
“If the faculty in the ‘feeder institutions’ to the fashion industry are not diverse and continue to teach their students that racial and cultural insensitivity are acceptable, then the result will be a vicious cycle of racism in the fashion industry,” said Professor Clement, who is black.
Dawnn Karen, who is African-American and a psychology professor, said that she filed a complaint in 2018 claiming that professors who supervised her work required her to have more academic preparation than white colleagues.
She also said the school blocked her attempts to create a course focusing on fashion and cultural bias.
Ms. Karen said her application for the equivalent of tenure as a part-time faculty member was rejected by her department, and she told her students that she would not be returning to teach in the fall.
But the final decision about the department’s recommendation still has to be made by the dean of the liberal arts college, the president and the board of trustees.
“There has not been any determination and right now she’s in the middle of this process,’’ according to someone familiar with the situation who could not speak publicly about a personnel matter. “Her employment status has not changed.’’
Ms. Karen said she believes the department’s decision “was in retaliation following the affirmative action complaint I filed.’’ She has received generally positive reviews from students, according to records provided to The Times. Tenure decisions are based on peer evaluations and student reviews, among other factors.
“If the tenure is based on those reviews, why was she not considered for it?” said Estelle Simon Al Araji, one of her students. “We need an explanation.’’ Some of Ms. Karen’s students have started an online petition to try to save her job.
In a separate episode that has upset some at the school, Kristian Grant and several other African-American students were rehearsing last year for Runway 27, an annual event showcasing works by undergraduates, when Ms. Grant said she was told by a director overseeing the show that their natural hair would not be allowed on the runway because it was not in keeping with the show’s European look.
“‘We cannot have these big bushy Afros ruining the sleek beautiful look of our show,’” he told models backstage, Ms. Grant said. “It was very, very upsetting to deal with. It’s not what you’d expect from an F.I.T. campus and an organization that uses diversity as their modus operandi, to how they choose their models and people who work for their show,” she said.
Dr. Brown told The Times: “I have committed to looking into every issue and concern that was raised at the students’ town hall meeting.”
The federal lawsuit against the school was filed by Marjorie Phillips, an administrative assistant who has worked at the university for 23 years and who claimed that her boss, the dean of graduate studies, failed to respond to an internal complaint about comments she said were racist.
In one instance, Ms. Phillips said she overheard another assistant describe African-Americans as being “three-fifths of a human being,” according to the lawsuit. 
When Ms. Phillips complained to the dean, Mary Davis, Ms. Davis appeared to defend the assistant, saying “she was correct in that historically, African-Americans were considered three-fifths of a human being,” according to the lawsuit.
A spokesman for F.I.T., said the school does not comment about litigation. Ms. Davis denied making the comment about African-Americans.
“At this point, Ms. Phillips has only made allegations and I am confident that her claims against me will prove to be incorrect,” she said in an email.
In her lawsuit, Ms. Phillips also described an encounter with Jonathan Kyle Farmer, the chairman of the M.F.A. fashion department. She said she was putting on her coat when Mr. Farmer came out of an office and remarked: “You look like you are going to the hood.’’ He later apologized, according to the suit.
The designer who used the oversize lips and ears accessories for his models, Junkai Huang, said Mr. Farmer had suggested them. A number of designers interviewed by the Times said they had expressed their concerns to Mr. Farmer that they were inappropriate.
Mr. Farmer in a statement on Instagram said that the show’s styling was not intended to be racist. “But I now fully understand why this has happened,” he said.
Ms. Davis and Mr. Farmer were suspended following the controversy over the fashion show.
The college said it initially routed Ms. Phillips’s complaint to its Title IX office for an internal investigation, which concluded that the complaint was not substantiated.
Ms. Phillips then filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission which, after official review, dismissed the charge, saying it was “unable to conclude that the information obtained establishes violations” of relevant laws.
After that, Ms. Phillips filed her lawsuit.
“Ms. Phillips has observed a pattern of racist comments and attitudes from F.I.T. staff in the School of Graduate Studies,” Midwin Charles, her lawyer, said in a statement to the Times. She “has reported them at every turn.”

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/16/nyregion/fashion-institute-technology-racism-lawsuit.html


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