Updated: Sep 14, 2022
Challenging the traditional view of clothing, as solving a biological and utilitarian need to cover our bodies (particularly when gendered across patriarchal culture), a person’s class affiliation can be assessed with relative ease by looking at their fashion.
Throughout history, scarce fabrics have remained in the hands of the wealthy. Because of this, dress became a way of signifying culture, economic power, and moral standards.
We can find examples of this across decades, like the Sumptuary Laws in Middle Age Europe; the yellow robe in Chinese culture which stood for the centre of the earth, only to be worn by the Emperor; the Kimono in Japanese culture; and large turbans worn by the Hausa community in Nigeria, used to differentiate them from the rest of society.
Social stratification emerged as a consequence of surplus production, at once, creating economic inequality and the visceral need to achieve vertical mobility.
During the territorial evolution of the British Empire, across America and Asia, it became apparent that British apparel was no match for their newfound experiences of foreign biomes.
To combat Tropical climates, British troops needed to adapt. The 17th century saw small group expeditions grow dramatically, as European traders made appropriate adjustments, foreign cultures took from the Europeans what they saw fit.
For example, the British saw removing hats as respectful, so the Indians instead removed their shoes as a paralleled mark of respect. As the East India Company began its rule, the English no longer needed to show respect for those they conquered.
Consequently, Indians were forced to adapt – change their language, their clothing, and their manners.
Moving into a contemporary period, these learnings remain ingrained in European ideas. From a deep psychological perspective, unconscious processes play a bigger role than conscious ones.
The experiences of individuals and groups across the history described above reveal internal racism as a universal psychological structure, not easily eradicated.
Unconsciously, people are quick to draw similarities between themselves and other groups. As we split people into members of my group (in-group) and those foreign to my group (out-group), our actions begin to favour in-group members over the rest.
Consciously we may try to resist this, but key identifiers – language, clothing, and manners – remain in the collective unconscious.
Unfortunately, this is something I have experienced in the workplace. As a foreigner in my own country, despite being born and raised in the UK (Hackney), my deeply ingrained membership of black culture results in a banging of heads when entering a traditionally white collective group.
My time in the psychotherapeutic industry saw my emails Tone-Policed as it misaligned with White perceived styles of professionalism.
My membership of a culture was used as a bridge to validate stereotypes of ‘black music’ or insensitive references to traumatic experiences that connect to the black conscious, i.e., creating a promotion code (GEORGEFLOYD2021) to sell books about race, on the anniversary of George Floyd’s death.
Finally, my status of Britishness was questioned as it became apparent that my mannerisms misaligned with historical examples of ‘middle-class niceties’.
The battle against racism and discrimination in the workplace is something we should not do alone. In sharing my story, I have already begun to identify several victims of discrimination.
Companies with the outward-facing goal of diversity and inclusion, being deniers of racism as a modern concept, and discrimination as a violent act against an out-group.
Looking at the figures, 1 in 4 BAME employees reported in 2018 that they had witnessed or experienced racist harassment or bullying from managers in the last two years.
In January 2020, only 178 of the 2,625 FTSE 350 directors were from a BAME background. 52% of BAME employees believe that they will have to leave their current organisation to progress in their career, compared to just 38% of White employees.
Multicultural harmony involves the taming of complex group experiences from the collective unconscious. What is seen as professional to a black-British culture may be seen as unprofessional to a white-British culture.
But this harmony can remain intact provided the boundaries of critique, feedback, and self-reflection are done so not in fear of embarrassment, weakness, or loss of power.
Legally, in the workplace individuals have rights, but in some cases, it’s clear that the responsibility of enforcing legal procedures remains in the hands of the culprits.
Written by Tosin Goke, Storyteller