Prada has announced that it is pulling a line of figurines that a shopper compared to historically racist imagery of African Americans. Chinyere Ezie, a staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, said on social media Thursday that she and a co-worker walked by the fashion brand’s Soho store and saw a display of figurines that reminded her of racist caricatures of black people.
“After a very emotional visit to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, including an exhibit on blackface, I walked past Prada’s Soho storefront only to be confronted with the very same racist and denigrating #blackface imagery,” Ezie shared on Facebook.
With roots in the 1830s, blackface refers to the practice of white minstrel show performers putting on dark makeup to mock and stereotype African Americans. Sambo, meanwhile, is a character in the 1899 children’s book The Story of Little Black Sambo, written and illustrated by Scottish author Helen Bannerman. The protagonist has deep black skin and oversized red lips that distort and exaggerate African facial features, much like in minstrel performance. The figurines Ezie photographed at Prada also have cartoonishly large lips and sable black complexions.
Although she is a civil rights attorney — Ezie formerly worked for the Southern Poverty Law Center — she told Vox that one needn’t be an expert on social justice to recognize racially-charged symbolism. After taking photos of the Prada figurines, she shared them with family members, and their reaction motivated her to take action.
“They didn’t graduate with a juris doctorate,” she said. “They’re just people with common sense and a moral compass. They were outraged. That’s when I knew I had to go public.”
In a statement, Prada denied any racist motivations or that the company intended to offend anyone.
“Prada Group abhors racist imagery,” the statement said. “The Pradamalia are fantasy charms composed of elements of the Prada oeuvre. They are imaginary creatures not intended to have any reference to the real world and certainly not blackface.”
Due to the controversy, however, Prada said it would withdraw the characters from display and circulation. The company has previously released “Pradamalia” that have appeared on clothing, wallets, or as charms, but none currently available to buy online appear to have the skin color and bright lips associated with the anti-black imagery of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
“Even in the alternate universe where this was just a mistake, just the product of someone’s imagination, the fact that it got greenlit at all is proof that Prada doesn’t have any black employees in decision-making positions or positions of power,” Ezie told Vox. “There’s no way a black staffer would have looked at these images and said ‘thumbs up.’”
In Ezie’s Facebook’s post, which has gone viral with more than 8,000 shares and a thousand comments as of publication, she wrote: “In a moment of surprising candor I was told that a black employee had previously complained about blackface at Prada, but he didn’t work there anymore.”
Ezie said that it upset her to hear that a black employee of the Prada Soho store had already complained about the images — to no avail. She also finds it troubling that the staffer reportedly no longer works there: “When are you going to allow black folks to be decision-makers, to be something other than window dressing at your company, so you don’t have Sambo window dressing?” Nine executives sit on Prada’s board of directors; none of them are black, and only one is a person of color.
Ezie said that no one from Prada has apologized or reached out to her about her experience. But the lawyer isn’t the only one who viewed the figurines through a racial lens. David Pilgrim, the founder and director of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan, said the Prada figurines bear a striking resemblance to the objects on display at his institution. The museum has been open since 1994 and has more than 12,000 items related to racist caricatures — the largest collection of its kind, according to Pilgrim.
“As soon as I saw the photographs, my eyes were immediately drawn to the lips,” he said. “Caricatures of Africans or African Americans, almost all of them have red oversized lips. Then, you see the very dark skin. There’s nothing inherently racist about dark skin, but it’s one of the staples of the caricaturing of African Americans. I could see how others would be reminded of the caricatured portrayals of African Americans.”
He stressed that racist depictions of African Americans go beyond Sambo, since the “savage,” “mammy,” “pickaninny,” and other caricatures also featured dark skin and red lips. He also pointed out that even if the Prada figures were supposed to represent animals, that didn’t preclude them from being racist or perceived as such. Animals, especially simian ones, were historically racialized in popular culture to dehumanize black people.
H&M apologized in January after having a small black child model a sweatshirt on its website that said “coolest monkey in the jungle.” Consumers complained that choosing a black boy to model the shirt played into these outdated racial stereotypes. In October, NBC News parted ways with host Megyn Kelly after she suggested on her talk show on the network that she didn’t understand why blackface was offensive.
And each holiday season in the Netherlands and Belgium, it is customary for the largely white population there to don blackface during celebrations that pay tribute to St. Nicholas and his helper, Zwarte Piet, or “Black Pete.” Pete not only has deep black skin but thick red lips as well. This year, demonstrators protesting the parade faced off with neo-Nazis who want the holiday tradition to remain as is, blackface and all.
Does it surprise Pilgrim that controversies related to racial caricatures are making headlines in 2018?
“No, it doesn’t,” he said. “When people see the name the Jim Crow Museum, they think it refers to objects from the distant past, but we have an entire section on contemporary pieces — from clocks to toys and clothing that have old-fashioned racial caricatures.”
He said that while these objects certainly aren’t manufactured as much as they were in the 1950s, they continue to be produced today. In the past few years, he said he’s seen an uptick in such merchandise, a development he attributes to the nation’s divisive political climate.
The Jim Crow Museum exhibits these objects to help facilitate discussions about race and representation, Pilgrim said. “We don’t tell people that an object is racist or not racist,” he explained. “We would ask them, what is it you see? They really are teaching tools.”
He said he would love to have the Prada figurines at the Jim Crow Museum but probably could not afford them; Pradamalia retails for up to $550 each.
“If you put these objects in the museum,” he said, “they would look like they belong there.”
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