Recently, Sana Safinaz came under storm for their lawn photoshoot in Maasai, Kenya. The lawn campaign, shot at the Maasai Mara National Park of Kenya, was lambasted by many on the grounds that it was ‘culturally appropriative’ of the Maasai people, and that it showcased the Maasai people as ‘props’ for glamorous, decked-in-lawn Pakistani models.
While these objections are not without substance, the criticisms levied onto their campaign require a far more complex articulation.
It is, in fact, not cultural appropriation that is at play here, but simply an exercise in racism and colourism that is representative of the widespread phenomenon of anti-black racism in Pakistan, and, by extension, South Asian communities both at home and abroad.
Calling the campaign cultural appropriation only indicates a lack of both vocabulary and understanding in our faculty to engage in racial discourse.
This is not the first time Sana Safinaz has been criticised for its poor choice of campaigns. In 2012, the brand was criticised for ‘poverty chic’ campaign that established similar visuals, laden with problematic class and power dynamics, between glammed-up models and train coolies.
This past precedent, coupled with their recent creative disaster, gives us ample grounds to conclude that the brand has not been able to strike the right balance between exerting creative licence and maintaining sociocultural sensitivity.
Fashion labels, much like everything else, operate in a particular sociocultural context, and Sana Safinaz should consider itself no exception. As with all cultural contexts, there are always faults and failures to be found.
A primary fault of our Pakistani context is that we have a serious problem with dark skin. Sadly, this also means that we have an obsession with light skin – or, to simply put, whiteness.
I will not beat around the bush when I say that this context feeds directly into the reality that our communities are anti-black.
This declaration is not meant to aggravate individuals, but rather attack a collective mindset that we – accept it or not – are all privy to: dark is undesirable, and light is superior.
And, this dangerous dichotomy is exactly what the Sana Safinaz campaign emphasises through its photographs.
The visuals clearly purport racial power dynamics that establish a hierarchy between Pakistani culture (to the extent which lawn is indicative of our culture) and Maasai culture. This sore-thumb contrast emerges from and feeds into racial power dynamics, and I will explain how.
In the campaign photos, it is clear that two cultures are distinctly depicted. One can easily identify the Pakistani models adorning quintessential lawn prints as separate from the Maasai men who, dressed in their own attire, form the backdrop of the photos.
No attempt is being made at appropriating any cultural motifs or symbols into another. The Maasai culture is not being marketed as Pakistani or South Asian. No aspect of the Maasai culture is being co-opted by Pakistani culture.
What is instead happening, however, is that there is a hierarchy being transmitted through the photos; a hierarchy between cultures, yes, but also one between black bodies and brown bodies.
While brown bodies are shown front and centre, black bodies are relegated to the background. The visuals uphold brown bodies as primary, and black bodies as supplementary.
Black bodies shielding brown bodies from the sun, holding an umbrella over them, and brown bodies leaning onto black bodies for support.
The fact that the Maasai are an indigenous tribe, and are clearly being juxtaposed against urban Pakistani fashion, to the point where no one who views these photographs can miss the blatant contrast, makes the situation all the more worse.
But, the question here is not how or why the Sana Safinaz people let themselves create such a repulsive campaign.
The question of the time is also not wondering whether the people are simply ignorant or blatantly careless, or whether this was unintentional or just a mistake made in innocence.
The question we need to be asking, both them and ourselves, is a question of greater causality: what social conditions allowed this group of people, who are neither novices nor incompetents, to imagine and accomplish such a creative exercise in anti-black racism in the first place?
No Pakistani can or should deny the fact that there is prejudice in our communities against dark skin, and I would be very surprised if anyone from the Sana Safinaz team claimed otherwise.
We harbour prejudice against other races (racism) especially those that are dark skinned ie. black people, and we also hold prejudice against the darker skinned amongst ourselves (colourism).
Racism and colourism go hand in hand. While they are not interchangeable concepts, both find roots in prejudice against darker skin.
The phenomenon of colourism is different from — but nonetheless connected to — racism. Instead of race, it uses skin colour, and the respective social meanings attached to various skin colours, as grounds for discrimination. Both find evidence in our communities.
Many Pakistani clothing brands, for whom the audience is strictly local — meaning they have no international stores nor any shipping framework— often use white models in their photoshoots.
Even from a marketing strategy point of view, it never made any sense to me that brands kept importing models, that looked nothing like their consumer market, to model clothes that no one who looked like them would purchase.
I soon came to realise that was exactly, and quite unfortunately, the point. Pakistan’s consciousness still reeks of European standards of culture and beauty, where whiteness is the standard we are all subconsciously aspiring to.
Moreover, fair-skinned people continue to dominate our film/drama industry, especially when it comes to women. Not to forget, our skin lightening industry itself is a multibillion rupee industry. All of us grew up with the knowledge of the existence of Fair & Lovely, and, growing up, at least I for one did not question its function.
I know, as I’m sure we all do, both men and women who have at some point in their lives used skin whitening products, and those who stay out of the sun to save themselves a tan.
I have seen young kids being bullied for their darker skin, and I have seen children exhibit discrimination towards those with darker skin.
It is only natural then that these discriminatory sentiments have the highest intensity against black people.
And, operating within this particular context, that has no two opinions on prejudice against darker-skinned people, Sana Safinaz failed to do anything but feed into the existing framework of our particular South Asian brand of racism and colourism.
On top of everything, the way Sana Safinaz handled the criticism was not only unprofessional, but downright shameful. They were even accused of deleting comments of criticism from their social media pages, before they realised they could not make the situation go away.
On March 10th, Sana Safinaz finally issued a statement — I refuse to call it an apology — after a period of silence which conveyed that they still found no fault in what they produced.
They removed the pictures from their accounts, and announced that they were “proud of the work” they did with the Maasai, “especially the women”, and “stand by it”.
Further, their addendum-like apology for “any offense (they) have caused despite this never being (their) intention” clearly shows that they failed to recognise and acknowledge that none of this is about about ‘building schools for Maasai girls’ or ‘empowering Maasai widows’, but about creating and perpetuating visuals with in-built power dynamics that in fact exploit the Maasai people.
This is a classic example of a disingenuous public apology that refuses to take any active measures, but instead trivialises the issue by stating that, to them, the criticism is invalid.
There is no point of apologising for offence caused if you don’t believe that your content is offensive in the first place. There is no dual position; you either take pride in your racism, or you accept the flawed nature of your work. There is no middle ground.
As LUMS professor Dr Nida Kirmani aptly described it on her social media, their response "replaces one colonial fantasy, of going to Africa and discovering this exotic place and exotic people, with this other colonial fantasy, of a white saviour complex."
It is entirely possible that the time the Sana Safinaz team spent in Kenya was an exercise in, what they themselves called, ‘ethical tourism’.
Perhaps in ‘breaking bread’ with the Maasai, Sana Safinaz team members made some wonderful memories, and were even able to help foster economic growth in some form or another, but it is imperative that they understand that none of that means that their conscious tourism translated into a conscious cross-cultural engagement.
In no way does being responsible tourists automatically equate to being culturally sensitive designers. There is a stark difference between having dinner with someone and dancing with them, and subjecting them to harmful art that reemphasises the racist sentiments South Asians harbour towards black people.
Despite what Sana Safinaz continues to uphold, the unfortunate truth is that their campaign failed to honour the Maasai people and their culture, and helping widows or financing schools does not and cannot compensate for it.
We need to demand better from our creative front-runners, but also from ourselves. We need to recognise our anti-blackness and start imagining better ways of talking about it.
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