When Chinyere Ezie first wrote a post on Facebook about the racist display in Prada’s windows and inside its Soho store, she hoped that something would happen, but didn’t expect much. After all, these controversies seemed to catch fire and blow over in the matter of a few days. The pattern, as she saw it, tended to go something like this: A blatantly racist product will be called out on social media, inciting boycotts and online protests; the company responsible will subsequently deny ill-intent and issue a milquetoast apology that blames the incident on cultural misunderstanding. “How can we know all cultures?” Miuccia Prada told WWD, in an interview following the Pradamalia fiasco. “People want respect because now there is talk of cultural appropriation, but this is the foundation of fashion, as it has always been the basis of art, of everything.”
But Ezie was tired of the same old song and dance; maybe this time could be different. “Frankly, it struck me as insincere,” she told me over the phone at the Center for Constitutional Rights, where she works as a civil rights lawyer. “I didn’t want Prada’s moment of reckoning and reflection after the blackface scandal to end at platitudes.”
So she pressed on. She met with Prada’s chairman about how to improve the company, and then filed an official complaint with the NYC Commission of Human Rights, stating that Prada, as an entity that provides products and services to the public, discriminated against her as a public citizen and potential consumer by offering products that explicitly called upon racist iconography meant to make African Americans feel unwelcome and threatened.
A year and a month after that Facebook post, Prada and the NYCCHR reached an unprecedented agreement, in which the Italy-based Prada agreed to a litany of trainings, scholarships, and promises to diversify its workforce, in order to continue to doing business in NYC. Instead of issuing a fine or payment, Prada agreed to proactively change the way they do business. (According to the NYCCHR, these measures will cost Prada far more than what a fine would have been.) “It's easier to levy a penalty and be done with it. We’re not trying to punish, but to bring about the kind of change that will hopefully transform Prada,” explained Demoya Gordon, NYCCHR’s supervising attorney, and the lead negotiator on the settlement.
This agreement is the second major example of restorative justice under commissioner Carmelyn P. Malalis, whose November 2019 agreement with hair salon Sally Hershberger resolved an anti-black discrimination case, and relied on conversations with black communities to figure out what repair and restoration looked like.
Some have questioned whether the law infringes on free speech, or that it gives local government too much jurisdiction over international companies based abroad. Some questioned whether an agreement of this scope would hold up under pressure in courts. But the NYCCHR is committed to restorative justice as a legal strategy — not only because it seems to prevent future wrongs from being committed, but because it also provides a legitimate sense of relief for all parties involved. Said Malalis, “The measures required in this settlement may today be considered unconventional for law enforcement, but my hope is that government, here in New York City and across the country, continue to think outside the box to address and remedy historical and current harms perpetrated through anti-black racism.”
Ezie saw her Facebook post transform into real change. While she didn’t ask for nor receive a monetary settlement, she did feel a resounding sense of closure: “I felt like I left the conversation with Prada having come full circle, achieved repair, and been restored.” Ezie and I spoke about how more of us can harness the power of online activism.
Did the NYC Commission on Human Rights reach out to you for feedback about the terms of the agreement?
They did, and that's ultimately what made me sign the agreement. I was very concerned about past instances of racism that had ended with just pithy statements and platitudes without a meaningful commitment to invest in structural or innovational change. I reviewed the settlement agreement in draft form, and I was able to provide comment. It was ultimately shaped by the input I provided into an agreement I felt was worth signing.
What input was that?
That training encompasses the heads of the company. It was very clear to me that the artistic choices were made out of Italy. I had read from interviews with Ms Prada after the scandal first erupted where it was very clear that she had not done any reflecting on the impact of the blackface line on people like myself who encountered it, and felt like as if we were walking straight back in the past of 1950s Jim Crow-era racism.
I had a very interesting meeting with the chairman of Prada where, to Prada's credit, they came to the table for a discussion about racism and repair in the wake of the blackface scandal. At the time, the chairman admitted that, in his own words — although I think he's had a change of heart about being this candid [editor’s note: responding to the NYTimes, a Prada spokespeople denied that their chairman, Carlo Mazzi, ever made the statement] — he wasn't aware of any Black employees at headquarters. But he also stated that it wasn’t because of racism, because there's no racism in Italy. Like, in the entire country of Italy, in case you were not aware. [The lack of Black employees] was because people don’t like to travel to Italy. In case you had ever wanted to plan a romantic getaway…or a girl's trip to Italy! You had it all wrong. No one wants to go to Italy apparently. It was just very apparent to me that if training didn’t go all the way to the top of the company, it would have no impact on the culture of the organisation. That's a term [of the agreement] that I proudly take credit for.
Why did you file an official complaint with the NYC Commission on Human Rights? What was your goal?
There was an initial refusal to acknowledge the ways that the product line bore an unmistaken reference to blackface. For them to initially deny any resemblance, to take the position that these are just creatures that have no modern references, including monkeys? It was just all so insincere. Then there were Miuccia Prada's subsequent statements that seemed very defensive, and unconcerned about the impact on the public.
I just wanted there to be a real accountability moment for the company that would result in repair with the public. That was my only objective in seeking the complaint. I believe that statutorily, complainants standing in my shoes would have been entitled to monetary damages. That could have been something I sought. But I never proffered monetary demands on the company. What I wanted were real commitments by the company to change the way they do business and to make racial equity part of the DNA and fabric of the company going forward.
One of the reasons your story is so unique is that your online call out actually led to concrete policy changes. That’s rare. Do you have any advice for those who spot injustices, but want their online activism to have real-world consequences?
I do believe that online activism and call outs can be a form of social justice advocacy. It’s certainly how I got a seat at the table with Prada. It’s something I believe can be radically democratic because it doesn't require a lot of access besides a mobile phone and an internet connection, which is something that can be accessed by many sorts of people. Call outs can be a force for good. But it's important that we’re taking care to articulate the problem with our call outs, rather than making ad-hominem attacks; you’ll notice I never criticized Miuccia Prada or said 'your bags are ugly.’ I explained what the problem was, and tried to create a space for there to be a conversation about next steps, and a way forward. A call out is most effective when we give people the room to respond and commit to a path forward for change, rather than the aspect of calling and cancelling, and no conversation can develop about what repair looks like. That was a really important piece for me.
Certainly, working with the City Commission on Human Rights definitely helped go the extra mile. Now, there’s a concrete agreement. Here, I would encourage people to be creative, to think about all the ways they can access a little bit of a platform in moments where they otherwise feel powerless. I was able to go to my local commission even though I wasn’t a Dapper Dan, or had 5 million Twitter followers. With them, I was ultimately able to have the ear of the company and work as a change agent in these ways.
There’s no blueprint. The key is making the decision to speak up, whether it’s on an online forum or to your local human rights agency. It’s choosing not to settle for silence when you feel you’re observing a social wrong.
Commissioner and chair of the NYCCHR Carmelyn Malalis has been focused on restorative justice. As a civil rights lawyer, what do you think about this approach, rather than punitive ones, to matters of human rights?
I really welcome it. It’s pretty hard to deny that our criminal justice system is broken. It’s based on many of the same principles that perhaps cancel culture are based: If you make a mistake, you should be thrown out. It was really gratifying to see an agency really share my interest and create a model for accountability where no one was abandoned as part of the process. That Prada was a willing partner is gratifying.
For me, and many people who experience racism and micro-aggressions, it’s all come to really dampen your view of human progress. I feel like I’ve been able to emerge from this with a restored sense of hope.
Some punishments fit the crime, while others spiral out of proportion. We get it, there are actions that deserve to be cancelled, but for some people, the slightest slip-up can be life-ruining. With Cancel Culture, Refinery29 will examine the implications of "cancelling" public figures whose fuckups — major or minor — were put on trial in the court of public opinion. We'll also pose the question: Is it finally time for cancel culture to be cancelled, too?