The impact of George Floyd’s murder has been huge – bigger than anything I have seen in my lifetime. As a man of colour I feel the need to share my thoughts and feelings about this unique and incredible moment in time and I’m thankful to have this platform. But, to be honest, I wasn’t sure if I should say anything, mainly because I didn’t know what to say. One of my biggest recent personal realisations is the anxiety I feel in this current situation and that perhaps I’ve had to suppress feelings about my identity. The tragedy of George Floyd has made me face so many issues, from my upbringing and school days through to adulthood and my work in the fashion industry.
I have a black father and white mother and growing up in Peterborough I encountered racism, but my very strong parents taught me to brush it off and would always be there to protect me. My parents are a multiracial couple who had met in the north of England in the 1960s and had been tormented for years by society judging their relationship. The biggest problem with this was that the racism they and I faced was fully expected. Racism should never be expected.
At school my fellow pupils, friends and even teachers laughed at derogatory comments made about me. I remember my ex-karate teacher saying I looked like a bag of shit with a coloured belt wrapped round my waist. This caused hysterics in the class and left a scar on me that would last forever. The education system still fails to combat racism to this day.
Growing up, I was the boy that could run fast because I was black, play football because I was black, could dance because I was black and could fight and cause trouble because I was black (I really can’t dance). I even had a teacher called Mrs Black who said she liked me because we had something in common. She was white with red hair, so I knew where she was going. It amused her, though.
My experiences before I moved to London were about trying to fit in and hope that people didn’t notice that I was a different colour and cause an unwanted distraction. It wasn’t fear, it was lack of interest in the subject. I just didn’t feel like I wanted to waste my energy on explaining anything to do with my colour. It even provoked some black men to dislike me. I would be called a Bounty or a coconut (black on the outside and white inside) – a racist comment in itself.
London was great. It felt so big that I felt safer in this huge city where anyone can be anything. I became a model, but what should have been such an exciting experience turned out to be one of the most unhappy times in my life. School pupils calling you the n-word felt so much easier than actually being told that “Black guys don’t sell” or that “We love the way you look but we already have two coloured boys in Milan this season” or, even, “Have you been on holiday? You look darker than in your pics.” I was told, “His nose isn’t that Caribbean shape so it could work” and “If you black boys don’t have a body you don’t have anything.”
When these comments were made to me, there were always other people around, but no one said a word. Let’s just say it’s interesting to see the people posting black squares on Instagram now. I would almost feel the need to apologise for everything that was “wrong” with me. I was just desperate to make some money.
After that first adventure in the fashion industry I was fortunate to find myself on the other side, working for magazines as a fashion editor. This was, and still is, a learning curve for me every day. I remember one incident after I had just worked on one of my first ever shoots. I was very excited. I had moved to a lovely area called St John’s Wood. I was working with my dear friend Simon Foxton who taught me so much. Walking to the Tube station I encountered a truck of scaffolders who decided to shout at me and throw a banana skin at me that hit my shoulder. The laughter from those men was haunting.
This was another defining moment for me. I remember the first thing I thought was, “Wow, that’s proper 1980s!” I told friends about it and they were disgusted, but again it felt almost expected. Again, racism should not be expected.
Then there was the time when I had to hold a friend back after a car pulled over and a bunch of white girls and boys in the car were asking me why I was wearing an England football shirt. “You are not from here,” I was told.
“Black people don’t sell.” Four words that I will never forget. The fashion industry is a unique world full of some of the most intelligent people, but I’ve also encountered utter stupidity and ignorance. It also never fails to surprise me how an industry so advanced and always looking forward can be so reliant on old opinions and attitudes. Despite this, I have worked with numerous beautiful, successful and iconic black cover stars. A waste of money for some, but priceless for others.
I don’t think the fashion industry now is the complete hotbed of racism that it once was, but, my God, there is a long way to go. I have continued to experience racism in the fashion world on numerous occasions. It wasn’t long ago that I was leaving an event in Italy and I was refused a goodie bag as I watched white colleagues receive theirs. Now, I don’t need or want a goodie bag but it’s part of a bigger picture.
When I first joined GQ Style as Fashion Director, it felt like a real achievement and I received many congratulations from people pleased that I was joining a brilliant magazine, but they were also congratulating me for being a black man joining GQ. Before I arrived there, I had a perception of GQ as a company that would never employ someone like me: black, not posh and someone that didn’t sit in any of their existing boxes. I had been told it was a bunch of dusty, uptight white men just getting through the day.
Whether this was once true or not, I was fortunate to have joined the magazine at a time when there was an insistence on change and a willingness to provide a more modern attitude to men and women of all backgrounds among my colleagues. This is still a work in progress but the evidence of change is very much there.
Yet the fashion industry continues to support members of its community whose beliefs and practices are everything that we should be fighting against. So I ask the industry to tread carefully because what is happening now is not a trend: this is life and a chance to make real change. Some people won’t be able to change and if that is the case then we need to have the strength to call them out. Their time is up and they have to move on. Maybe George Floyd’s death will help achieve something that so many great men and women before were unable to: unity.