Underlying notes of racism are all over the place in high fashion, but few recent stories have been quite as blatantly awful and outright disgusting as the alleged behavior of saleswomen in an Alexander McQueen store toward an African employee.
22-year-old Othman Ibela, of the African nation of Gabon, filed suit after alleged racist treatment. The former security guard at one of the brand’s retail stores in the Meatpacking District of New York City, Ibela claims his fellow staff treated him so poorly because of his race that he experienced both homicidal and suicidal thoughts, eventually resulting in his hospitalization.
According to the New York Post, shop clerk Kimberly Mahnke was one of the worst:
Mahnke, “repeatedly made jokes about me running nude in Africa with a spear in my hand,” in a recent Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filing. The March papers are the precursor to a suit he plans to file in Manhattan federal court.
Mahnke also allegedly told him President Obama and his wife and two children would be kicked out of the White House and “sent back to Africa” after the 2012 elections.
This has a sad irony to it, as Michelle Obama herself has worn McQueen designs in the past. Oh, and because it is 2013 and we all know better.
Additionally, shop manager Catherine Flynn would allegedly ask Ibela “why Muslims were always killing people,” because (A) nobody from any other religion has ever been violent and (B) obviously, Ibela had all the answers. She would also make fun of his accent, remarking that it sounded like Swahili, a dialect spoken in many East African countries. Gabon is in Central Africa. To put this in perspective, it is not dissimilar to informing a German person that he sounds Irish.
“When Beyoncé came in, everyone wanted to help,” Ibela says, but when black customers would typically come in the store, the staff would turn its back on them.
Because of these saleswomen’s alleged torment during Ibela’s two years with the company between 2011 and 2013, he experienced panic attacks, depression and finally, hospitalization.
“They attacked me again and again,” Ibela said. “I wanted to kill them and kill myself. Then everybody would be a loser.” Why didn’t he leave that particular store? Well, he tried to, but when he requested reassignment, his hours were cut and pay was docked. In January, he quit.
Being an immigrant is not an easy journey; it’s not as though people come to America and, lo and behold, everyone is super friendly and accepting. For every Arnold Schwarzenegger and Freddy Adu, there are tens of thousands who are taunted for grammatical errors in their English because they work two jobs and don’t exactly have the resources for private language lessons, or who get regularly dismissed as being an idiot because they aren’t culturally familiar with every custom thrown their way.
There’s this ridiculous misconception that New York City, in particular, is somehow exempt from the rampant, preconceived racist notions against men and women of color. It is not. Wealthy, successful, deeply-admired people can be (and certainly are) racist, too. Until we acknowledge that this is a huge issue everywhere and not at all exclusive to the South or the Midwest, as is often incorrectly assumed, this type of behavior will continue — and flourish.
Photo: SoniaT 360 / Flickr