Scrolling through Twitter this morning, I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. Prada, the high end fashion brand, apparently thought it was okay to sell a trinket that certainly appears to have been heavily influenced by blackface.
A New York lawyer named Chinyere Ezie first posted about the trinkets on her Facebook page (later tweeted by others). Ezie, an African American woman, says that after an emotional visit to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, which included an exhibit on blackface, she was walking past the Prada store in Soho and saw trinkets that looked suspiciously like imagery in the exhibit she had just come from.
When she asked a store employee about it, she was apparently told that an African American employee had previously complained about the trinkets and imagery, but no longer worked there.
The trinkets are meant to resemble monkeys and are called the "Pradamalia Otto-Toto Keychain Trick" and sell for over $500. In addition to one that is brown with large, red lips, there is an accompanying one with green lips.
Some news organizations have reported that Prada has pulled the keychains from their stores and website, however a search for "monkey" on the Prada website still pulls up results for them as of this writing.
Just a reminder, folks: It's almost 2019.
Prada actually built a storyline around the keychains and the rest of its Pradamalia line, which features whimsical creatures that were said to have been created as part of experiments in the futuristic "Prada Labs" and that are "one part biological, one part technological, all parts Prada" according to the company's website.
In a statement to Business Insider, Prada said it would be pulling the monkey keychain from stores.
"Prada Group abhors racist imagery," the company said. "The Pradamalia are fantasy charms composed of elements of the Prada oeuvre. They are imaginary creatures not intended to have any reference to the real world and certainly not blackface. We abhor all forms of racism and racist imagery. We will withdraw all of the characters in question from display and circulation."
(Prada emailed me the same statement when I contacted them directly.)
Let's take a look at what Prada did wrong with this situation and three lessons that can be learned.
1. You have to get varied feedback.
I don't know Prada's method of getting feedback for its designs or what it sells, but the Italian design house's misstep with this particular product speaks to the importance of having a diverse workforce so you can get feedback from a variety of people.
Whether or not the keychain was inspired by blackface, you have to think that at least one African American person working in the company saw it and raised an alarm about it.
2. You have to listen to the feedback.
Oh, wait. According to Ezie, an African American employee did raise the alarm about the keychain and its too-close-for-comfort proximity to classic blackface imagery of oversized red lips, but she no longer worked there after pointing it out.
As Prada is no doubt learning now, when someone from a specific group tells you something might be offensive to everyone in that group, they mean it and you should absolutely listen to what they have to say. What you might be oblivious to, other people might see as completely obvious.
3. History matters, regardless of your industry.
Too often, history is dismissed as just being an "interest" to certain people, but it's not just an interest. History is the accumulation of all previous events that have ever happened. Regardless of your industry, there is something in there that pertains to you.
Don't think that just because you design trinkets or do something else that is meant to be festive and frivolous that history doesn't matter to your industry. If you ignore it, things like this can happen. This is why it's important to not only have a diverse workforce when it comes to things like age and ethnicity, but also diverse in interests and education.
As this keychain made its way from the sketchpad to the store shelf, it presumably was put in front of dozens of sets of eyeballs and yet still somehow made it through all that. And Prada is not the only company that has shown this kind of astonishing obtuseness. Each and every year we see stories similar to this. If only more people had an interest in history.