I was preparing to post an Instagram photo with the caption “Favorite New Coat” when I realized that almost every single piece I was wearing in the image was from Forever 21. The first thing that came to my head was that I could easily become a walking Forever 21 ad campaign if they needed one. But then I remembered a documentary I had recently watched on Netflix called “The True Cost” and contrasted the suffering of the workers who made my navy boat captain’s jacket to my eagerness to purchase it, and my Cheshire-like smile each time I pulled the sleeves over my arm. I was wearing an item made by one of the 3.5 million workers in the 4,825 factories in Bangladesh alone. I was a part of the problem that I was so appalled by when I wrapped myself up in the brutality so carefully detailed by Andrew Morgan in his documentary. And as I thought deeper about the atrocity I realized I had committed at least 50 times over due to the amount of clothing in my wardrobe that is painfully specific to my taste (due to the usual fast fashion suspects such as Zara, H&M, and Topshop) I realized that at the core of sweatshop work lies the greed and blinding ambition of white people.
Now it is not as if I just realized the weight of whiteness being weaponized throughout centuries of history, but instead, I noticed that the complexity of race within the beginning, middle, and end product of sweatshop labor is often ignored. Although it ought to beam like a red 50% poster in the window of Bloomingdales, race within the sweatshop discussion is often limited to the obvious observation that the people doing the work in these countries are brown people. But what should be intriguing is why whiteness has been able to lace itself so intricately around these brown countries? Brown people’s burden in these sweatshops is an extension of the imperialism that created America, strengthed Europe, and has allowed whiteness to discount the humanity of peoples of color in order to receive the perfect package of false superiority.
In The True Cost, Morgan does not directly state that whiteness is the catalyst that makes the sweatshop wheel turn, but it is because his interviewees’ appearance (white) and commentary do the work for him. When questioned about the ethics of sweatshops, Benjamin Powell, Director of the Free Market Institute, offered a justification of the inhumane conditions of sweatshops by stating that because sweatshops are “part of the very process that raises living standards and leads to higher wages and better working conditions”, it is fine that people are dying of heat stroke, stress, and chemicals from factory jobs. Similarly, former sourcing manager for retail chain Joe Fresh, Kate Ball-Young, very nervously articulated that sweatshops are an acceptable part of the fashion industry due to how “they’re doing a job. There are a lot worse things they can be doing.” If placed in front of a mirror, the words of Ball-Young and Powell may appear as the ideology of pro-slavery arguer George Fitzhugh who deemed that African-American slaves were better off in shackles than free because they were being given the requisites of life when otherwise they would not be able to access them.
When these statements are unboxed and displayed to show the teeniest fibers within their formation it is clear that this is the same ignorance that sewed together Donald Trump’s labeling of third-world countries as “shitholes” before asking himself why they were shitholes. Why did Haiti have 150,00 people infected with HIV in 2016, when 76% of the United Kingdom’s HIV population begins antiretroviral treatment within 90 days of diagnosis? Why are there “a lot worse things” people in manufacturing companies could do if the same is not true for predominantly white countries? The answer to these questions is: white. Capitalism combined with whiteness has created awful conditions in countries so that white people can have the opportunity to write off the people that they have stripped of humanity by forcing them to need white people. The people without systematic power are forced to fall back on those with the systematic power. Because white people have named countries such as Bangladesh as “developing” instead of acknowledging that they are suffering from structural Post Traumatic Stress Disorder due to white savagery, people in these countries are seen as vulnerable and needing to be dependent on jobs for “development” which coincidentally appear in the form of sweatshops/manufacturing factories. Sweatshop labor is evidence that white people have created the perfect instance of systemic corrosion that places them at the center of the slaughtering but also the reconstruction of the slaughtered. Their white saviorism is saving people from issues that they created through white supremacy.
Beyond the creation of these conditions, there is the strategic reinstitution of white supremacy through the casting of white models in fast fashion advertisements. If there was to be a justification for the death of 1,134 people at Rana Plaza perhaps it would be that the people making the clothes looked like the people selling the clothes. However, 1. diversity in modeling is not an ample substitute for lives and 2. the white organizations behind the deaths at Rana Plaza have not even attempted that. Sweatshop workers make clothes for white people, because of denigrating conditions caused by white people, for the glorification of white people. Therefore, in their purest essence, sweatshops are a symbol of suffocating circuitous whiteness.
Will I be throwing away my boat captain’s coat with the perfect silver buttons as accents? No. Will I be paying for a pair of embroidered Gucci Jeans that cost $1,500 dollars instead of a $30 dollar pair from Zara? No. Big-name clothing companies know this about me too, because I am the ideally gullible consumer. But what they do not know is that the intentions behind their manufacturing are not as seamless as they think they are. And knowing this is more delicious of a steal than buying one and getting two free.