Prada and Racism
Prada has recently launched a series of figures in the shape of creatures called Pradamalia that were to be sold as handbag keychains in a window display in New York City. One of the trinkets, a cartoonish wooden monkey with brown skin and exaggerated red lips which is closely resembled the blackface “Sambo-like imagery”. One day, one New Yorker spotted the figures in a Prada window display and she decided to share the disgusting and accusing Prada of spreading racist blackface imagery in social media.
On Friday, December 14, 2018, Prada announced to pull the accessories and displays from its stores following complaints that they featured “blackface imagery.”
Response from audience
Chinyere Ezie posted a status in disgust: “I don’t make a lot of public posts, but right now I’m shaking with anger. Today after returning to NYC 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. I entered the store with a coworker, only to be assaulted with more and more bewildering examples of their Sambo-like imagery.”
Looking back: Places the imagery side by side with historically racist images
Prada’s designer background
Miuccia Prada is head designer of Prada and the founder of its subsidiary Miu Miu. She studied mime at the Teatro Piccolo, following a political science Ph.D. at the University of Milan. In addition, she was a member of the Italian Communist party, where she picketed in Yves Saint Laurent. Her fabulous quotation was that she thought beauty was ‘bourgeois,’ which seems like a good Communist quote. “Every young kid who was vaguely clever was Leftist,” she shrugs today. “So it’s not that I was so special.”
She was the focus on the all-white, homogeneous runways of the 1990s, but in recent years she has been changed for casting models of color in her advertising products.
In September 2018, her art foundation opened “The Black Image Corporation,” conceived by artist Theaster Gates. In order to celebrate the opening of the Milan exhibition, directors Spike Lee and Dee Rees did a panel discussion with Gates on racism in America.
In October 2018, the company introduced the collection called Pradamalia that are similar to cartoon robots. Taken as a group, the characters are a silly mix. Some resemble primates, and some look like dogs, others resemble sci-fi octopuses. The company has been illustrating pictures of these figurines on Instagram for several weeks, and they have been featured in the flagship store in Milan.
Cultural and Semiotic Analysis
Sambo is a character in the 1899 children’s book The Story of Little Black Sambo, written and illustrated by Scottish author Helen Bannerman. The image has deep black skin and oversized red lips that distort and exaggerate African facial features.
The image of Little Black Sambo coincided with Jim Crow laws and etiquette. Many whites stereotyped Blacks to be denied basic human and civil rights, discriminated against in the labor market, barred from many public schools and libraries, subjected to physical violence, and generally treated as second-class citizens. When Little Black Sambo came to America, a white-initiated riot happened in New Orleans. Then, blacks were beaten, their schools and homes destroyed.
In fact, the core ideology of the Sambo caricature is the happy slave. White slave owners molded African-American males into a child who was happy to serve his master. However, the image of Sambo was lazy, lack of intelligence, and, because of this, they were always dependent upon his masters or caretakers. Although Sambo did not the defense for slavery, it extended far beyond these boundaries. This stereotype was transmitted through lyrics, folk sayings, literature and children’s stories. It was disseminated over and over again, shaping the attitudes toward African-Americans for centuries. In fact, “a stereotype may be so consistently transmitted in each generation from parent to child that it seems almost a biological fact” (Boskin, 1986, p. 12).
Misrepresentation in the media and its impact now.
Now, we can see Sambo caricature could give the images of color boys and men being accompanied by lazy and abusing the social welfare programs. Once color people are allowed to participate in these programs, white supremacist politicians make these stereotypes to create ways to exclude them through different suitability tests and working requirements which would make them more freedom to discriminate.
Now, Prada’s figurines also do the same offensive discrimination ways again. What should we respond to them? Just now read the following response of Prada in their Twitter.
“Prada Group abhors racist imagery. 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,” the company said.
"Prada Group never had the intention of offending anyone and we abhor all forms of racism and racist imagery. In this interest, we will withdraw the characters in question from display and circulation."
Let us think more deeper - Marketing Analysis?
Here is a question, is Prada company intentionally creating content (figurines) that will cause viral online?
I have doubt about that Prada releasing these racially insensitive figurines are simply unaware. Over the past ten years of Twitter's existence, something is crystal clear. Black Twitter has emerged as a force to drive attention to the issues ignored by mainstream media.
By means of hashtag campaigns (now is #StopBlackface, #BoycottPrada), now I have a question, is Prada company intentionally hoping to draw the movements like Black Twitter to bring more attention to their brands?
The cycle is obviously repetitive: A brand displays offensive material, the online community responds with outrage, and then the media covers it. Finally, the brand pulls down the offensive material, issues an apology and everyone goes back to normal. Racism may become a marketing tool for brands.
What should we do now?
We should refuse to engage in any games, refuse to give any chance to treat black history as a fashion statement.