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Racism in the Fashion Industry: Was Ajak Deng Canceled from Balmain for Being Black?

Ajak Deng opens Naeem Khan Fall 2014 / Image: IMAXtree

Ajak Deng opens Naeem Khan Fall 2014 / Image: IMAXtree

Yesterday evening, IMG model Ajak Deng sent out a serious of aggrieved Tweets which seemed to claim that she had been cancelled from Balmain's Fall 2014 runway show over her race. 

Screenshot via Fashin.Livejournal.com

Screenshot via Fashin.Livejournal.com

Deng's comments were quickly picked up on social media, in the tFS forums and in the Fashin Livejournal community. 

"Very proud of you Ajak, if you're reading this," said tFSer Firefly216, before other forum members jumped in to show their support. Deng later deleted her Twitter account (some speculate that she did so at the request of her agency), but not before screenshots of her remarks were posted all over the Internet.

The fashion industry has been the target of widespread criticism over its whitewashed runway shows. Former modeling agent Bethann Hardison brought international attention to the issue last September, with a raising awareness campaign called Balance Diversity, which was co-sponsored by supermodels Naomi Campbell and Iman.

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Deng's comments seem to support all available evidence about fashion's racist casting practices, however, there are still a lot of unknowns in this instance, and those are worth mentioning: 1) We don't know for sure that Deng had been booked for Balmain, 2) We don't know that she was canceled, 3) We don't know what exactly transpired between Deng and Balmain designer Olivier Rousteing/his staff. 

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Making this all seem more complicated is the simple fact that the Balmain show was pretty diverse in terms of casting. This is not just a case of Rousteing, who is half-black himself, filling his runway with one or two token black girls: by my count, eight black models walked the Balmain runway yesterday — including Jourdan Dunn, who opened it. 

That being said, racism takes many subtle forms (this concept is known as 'microagression' in academia and on Tumblr) that are often hard to identify as an outsider, especially if you haven't personally experienced racism (which I haven't). And Deng's darker skin makes her a greater target for the fashion's latent racism than, for example, Jourdan Dunn, who has lighter skin and is better established in the industry. (Of course, Dunn has also been the target of racism over the course of her career.) 

The Tumblr blogger DynamicAfrica put it this way: 

"Whether you want to believe Ajak or not, one thing anyone cannot deny is the fashion’s industry’s racism and their often slick way of dealing with the casting of black models. One or three tokens, black models that look a particular way, or better yet, making all the models black because it’s so ‘fashion forward’ (pun intended). Citing the fact that Balmain opened up with Jourdan Dunn is also step in that direction. It completely negates Deng’s experience. Perhaps I’m naive but, aside from the fact that the fashion industry is racist, I highly doubt a top model like Deng would ‘risk’ her career by going out against a huge label like Balmain. Whether I’m wrong about this doesn’t matter to me. As a black woman who’s is also dark skinned and African, I’d rather give her the benefit of the doubt in this situation – especially knowing that even when not much is said and done, through our very existence as black people we are incredibly well fine tuned to understand when we are victims of racism, even when we can’t exactly ‘prove’ it. When racism is so embedded in a system, when it’s part of a culture, those who have the upper-hand are often blind to, or do not question, their participation in these structures. For starters, just google ‘Balmain’ and let me know when you see a dark-skinned model with a bald head and features that resemble Ajak Deng’s walking their runway."

We have reached out to Deng's agent at IMG and Balmain for comment and will update if we hear back. 

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