To our friends, family, community, and team -
First, a quick note: this letter was posted here on instagram last week and it is being reposted for our blog today (June 19th, 2020) with minor edits.
I waited to write a statement last week after the brutal public murder of George Floyd for a couple of reasons – one being that it is more important to hear from our Black friends and community members when they are struggling than it is to insert my own voice. I also felt it is most important to do work behind the scenes, which for me has included attending protests, contributing financially, having conversations with white family and community members, and supporting Black friends and family. While tonlé is made up of a team full of diverse perspectives and values, as the white founder of this brand I feel a responsibility for educating our community and speaking up.
First and foremost, to our Black friends, family members, and community members—I see you, I mourn with you, and I am fighting alongside you. I will continue to do so both in my personal life as well as through tonlé. I am sorry that I personally, and society as a whole, have not done enough to overturn the powerful systems that have been designed from day one, to benefit me and others who share my skin tone. I am guilty of being too comfortable with these systems. It’s not right, it’s not fair, and it never has been. There are absolutely no excuses or apologies that can make up for 400 years of violence and oppression.
As a white woman with privilege, I believe it's important to speak to people who carry a similar or greater level of privilege when speaking on these topics. So with these next words, I invite you to examine the privilege that you carry.
Specifically to my white community members and friends: the barrage of posts with half-apologies and expressions of surprise about racism I saw from brands, influencers, and personal friends on social media last week was, frankly, appalling. Aside from the utter tone-deafness and taking up space while saying nothing – is that many people seemed to be waking up to systemic racism for the first time. White folks, please take a moment to understand how your reaction might feel to a Black friend who has been living this day in and day out. Why were the hundreds of deaths of unarmed black folks by the police not enough to wake you up before George Floyd? And what about the multilayered levels of systemic violence that others have described in great detail before May 25th?
I have no choice but to see our silence up until this point, and I acknowledge this in myself as well, as willful ignorance. White silence has allowed racist systems to go on unchecked—silence enforced by “good white people” who are able to “stay out of politics” because it doesn’t affect them. Step one to making amends: We must stop that right now. As many have said so well it’s a privilege to learn about racism but not experience it firsthand.
Our Black friends are telling us they don’t want our half-baked apologies—they want action and change. We are being asked to commit to doing our antiracist work not just when the world is watching, but continuously throughout our lives. Many are angry, they should be, and so should we. All of this should make you angry—really angry. It’s time to channel that white lady “I want to speak to the manager” energy towards real injustice. Channel it towards the police. Channel it towards your local government officials. Channel it towards brands and fashion corporations that have perpetuated racist stereotypes. Channel it towards your white friends and family who continue to stay silent about violence and oppression of Black human beings.
There are many ways that we as individuals can take action, and we’ll continue to highlight them in our stories, so I want to talk specifically now about tonlé including what we have done, the ways in which I personally haven’t done enough, and what we as a team are going to be working on moving forward.
When I moved to Cambodia in 2008 I certainly benefited from white privilege and, at first, I am ashamed to say that I was all too comfortable with the white savior narrative that was often placed on me. While I made the same salary as my Cambodian colleagues and lived in similar situations for 7 years, it became obvious to me that, unlike them, I always had an escape route (via white privilege) from the troubling consequences of the legacy of colonialism, the American war in the region during the ‘70s, and the new colonial wave that came in the ‘90s in the form of the aid industry and the garment industry. These various waves of colonialism continue to be perpetuated through racist trade policies and have wreaked havoc on the Cambodian people – and I have both benefited from and perpetuated these problems.
Once I realized this dynamic, I began working to start undoing the harm that I and others like me have caused for decades. Over the last 10 years, I have worked with my Cambodian team and community collaboratively, but because of the dominant white savior narrative in the sustainable/fair trade fashion community, often that is the narrative that continues to be put upon my team and myself by customers, some content creators, and journalists. I take responsibility for not taking a strong enough stand to counteract this narrative, and I plan to have more open conversations here on Instagram, with our wholesale buyers, and on our website in order to address it.
To that end, I choose to use the word “team” or “colleagues” when referring to the people who work at tonlé because that is who they are to me. They are employees in the sense that I take personal financial responsibility to make sure they are paid, but they are my team because they are as much creators & founders in this business as I am. Working with the tonlé team to create this beautiful piece of work – to bring together this community – and to have these conversations – is absolutely the privilege of my life. I have immense gratitude for members of the tonlé team who have supported me and yes, confronted me and had the hard conversations with me. For the ways that I have failed to give that back, to listen, uplift, give credit, and pass the mic, – I am deeply sorry.
Over the last few years especially - We have been doing a lot of internal work to reshape our messaging and especially, move away from saviorism, colonial language, and changing our internal leadership structure to reflect our values. In the last 2 months we have also engaged with several BIPOC community members to help reframe our message and values, and while we are still working on this, I plan to share more about this process soon.
While I am proud of the work we have been doing together behind the scenes to reframe and re-shape our work (and set an example to show how things can be done differently) the events of the last week have highlighted the urgency around this process, and made me see that we should have begun this work much sooner.
I am committed to being specific and open about the ways we plan on improving our internal and public-facing practices. I want to make it very clear that, even though we are a fashion company, ending systemic racism and colonialism is threaded into every part of our work.
While there is still much more to say, I will leave you with some hope for the future. Recently, I watched Whitney McGuire’s video where she shared her vision for the fashion industry and it was so much more beautiful and life giving than anything I could have come up with. I’d like to share a few parts of her vision as a guide for where I want tonlé and the greater fashion industry to go. I invite you to watch the full vision statement as all of Whitney’s points are deeply resonant, but here are just a few of the points that we will be working on at tonlé:
- Reparations in many forms.
- Supporting autonomous Black and brown led brands and making space for them at existing tables in the sustainable/fair trade fashion industry.
- White people getting used to being uncomfortable and becoming more helpful.
- Radical industry change that ends business models based on extraction and cultural appropriation.
- The disbursement of egregious wealth to communities that need it.
- A wholly protected, liberated future.
There is more work to be done and more to come. Thank you for reading and showing up. Together, if we all commit to doing the work, I believe that we can make the fashion industry and this world a more just, welcoming, healing, and empowering place for our Black brothers and sisters.
Words by Rachel Faller.
I wanted to take a moment and say thank you to Manpreet Kalra who helped guide this statement and the internal work we are doing, and to Faye Lessler who provided additional editing support. Most importantly, thank you to my team. You continuously challenge and inspire and motivate me, and there are not enough words to express my gratitude to be able to work alongside you to create change in this industry.