You can’t exploit and disappear the labor of Maasai women and think no one will care or take notice. Put more simply: make your own shit.
By Naila Aroni
If it walks like an appropriator and talks like a saviour it is probably a White ‘Feminist’ exploiting Indigenous women for profit.
As an artist, and avid fashion enthusiast, Vogue has been in my vocabulary before I could even spell, let alone comprehend words like haute-couture. Similar to myriads of style-inclined children and teens, I grew up reading its magazines and digesting TV programs and films like America’s Next Top Model, Project Runway and The Devil Wears Prada, to name a few. One cannot deny how much Vogue as a brand has contributed to pop culture as we know it today. The common narrative about fashion is that the ‘West’ has always set the trends and dictated what is ‘in’ or what is ‘out’, while those in the fashion industry in the Global South are portrayed as passive bystanders who are marveled by this glitz and glamour. In the (white) western eye, we do not contribute to fashion, we simply follow. Admittedly, part of me still hopes for the day where I achieve a personal milestone of seeing my work in its magazines. Black, and specifically continental African designers, bloggers, and creators, rarely grace its pages. In the rare occasion that they do, I celebrate my dream vicariously through them. Their win is my win. I feel hopeful. I feel seen.
I most certainly didn’t feel seen when I came across Maasai jewelry featured in the British Vogue December 2019 issue. In fact, I felt quite the contrary. I felt angry, confused, and even perturbed. But mostly angry because the feature included a portrait of a white woman adorned in beaded Maasai earrings and the brand that was profiled was a white-owned company known as Rhimani UK whose company tag is “African Accessories supporting African Animals”. The descriptor accompanying this image explained that the brand’s designs are ‘unique and vibrant’ and every month they donate at least 10% of their profits “to a different African conservation charity”. Despite this lengthy description championing this brand, no homage was paid to the Maasai women who made these earrings. The average reader, with little-to-no knowledge of Kenyan culture, could conclude that these earrings were simply just made by this white woman in Kenya.
My mind was spinning. I was especially confused given the recent changes at British Vogue under the umbrella of promoting ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’. Its editor-in-chief is renowned British-Ghanaian fashion editor Edward Enninful OBE. So how can ‘mistakes’ like this still be rampant despite its structural changes? Why hasn’t a ‘top-down’ approach made any tangible improvements? My answer is that there is a larger ecosystem of appropriation within the fashion industry at work and we know this because this isn’t an isolated incident. A month prior to this discovery, a white journalist writing for The New York Times wrote a feature on Karen, a suburb in Nairobi as an ‘exclusive shopping district’. This fashion district she referred to is so undeniably exclusive, in that it is ONLY reserved for the expatriate community who inhabit these spaces. She featured at least five white-owned jewelers and fashion designers, House of Treasures, Linda Camm designs (founded by Camm, who credits herself for helping a group of Maasai women “improve” their designs), Bush Princess (don’t even get me started I-), L’Equipée, and Maasai Collections (founded by a white woman who describes her wares as “tribal chic”). Again, the profiles given to these brands insinuated that these designs are simply made or inspired by Kenya, but no credit was given to Maasai women who make these extremely complex designs.
Like many angry Kenyans, I took to Twitter to express my dismay and naturally my thread highlighting these injustices was met with some disagreement. Some felt that these White women were making an ‘honest living’. Others rebutted that these women deserved to keep 90% of their profits because they were entrepreneurs who handled difficult business strategies. I always encourage healthy debate on social media, but it is cynical to play devil’s advocate for argument’s sake when there is injustice slapping you in the face.
To the white women who exploit Maasai women to fulfill their bush princess fantasies, I am speaking to you. When you block and delete comments from Kenyans engaging with your websites and Instagram accounts, you know exactly what you’re doing. This is neo-colonialist exploitation because Maasai women are critical agents who use jewelry-making as a socio-economic avenue to survive and escape sexual and gender-based violence. Yet despite this, you sell jewelry at a 90 percent markup from the original price that you bought it for. We must name this as abuse because the language around different forms of white supremacy matters. Deploying phrases like ‘made in Kenya’ or ‘we work with Maasai women’ is paternalistic and overstates your efforts when you simply stock and over-price ready-made jewelry. It is racist that you turn a blind eye to Britain’s colonial history whilst cognizant that tribes were forced to abandon their cultural practices under violent assimilationist policies; that the Maasai tribe is one of the few tribes in Africa that still maintain their cultural practices in day-to-day life and jewelry-making is one of those intergenerational practices.
These white saviors use buzzwords like sisterhood and feminism as a way to facilitate their neoliberal extortion when this is quite literally the opposite of what Feminist Theory teaches us on gendered work. Postcolonial Feminist perspectives encourage us to inject cultural analyses to disrupt “gender blind assumptions in the field of social entrepreneurship”. The social entrepreneur as we know it is a distinctly male entity, depicted as “heroic, ambitious and courageous,” explain Susan Clark Muntean and Banu Ozkazanc-Pan in “Gender, Work & Organisation”. This is strikingly reminiscent of the white women in the NYT article who are portrayed as heroines who work ‘with Kenyan artisans to create pieces that in turn help them earn a livelihood’. By contrast, Maasai women cannot be social entrepreneurs. Their bead-making is reduced to a hobby and doesn’t warrant the same respectability as their white counterparts because it is domestic work. I refuse to deny white women’s role in emphasizing the gendered notions of entrepreneurship.
White designers and publication giants like Vogue and the New York Times that enable them must be held accountable. You can’t ‘love and light’ appropriation away simply because YOU believe YOUR intentions are well-founded. You can’t exploit and disappear the labor of Indigenous women and think no one will care or take notice. In other words: sell your own shit. Damn.
Naila Aroni (she/her) is an Artist and chapati enthusiast born and based in Nairobi, Kenya. As a recent law graduate from the University of Warwick, she is currently on a gap year, exploring ‘funemployment’ to the fullest capacity. For now, she has no one-year plans or five-year plans. Just everyday plans of the using-her-art-to-celebrate-Blackness kind. Find her @Aronizzzle on twitter and @aronistudio on Instagram.
Featured Image by Nicolas Demeersman