Black is the new white at Rio's Fashion Week

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Marco Werman: Brazil is one of the world's most racially diverse countries, but you wouldn't know it if you looked at fashion models employed by the country's fashion industry. For years, diversity campaigners have complained about the almost total lack of non-white models in the industry. Well, this week a small victory for those campaigners. The organizers of Rio's Fashion Week, which starts today, reportedly agreed to increase diversity on the catwalk. The BBC's Julia Carneiro is in Rio. What exactly was this agreement, Julia?

Julia Carneiro: Well, the company that organizes Fashion Rio, which is the main fashion event here in the city, will recommend that all brands taking part in the event have at least 10% of models of African descent in their shows. And public defenders that participated in this negotiation will monitor this to see if they really fulfill what they promised.

Werman: A 10% quota, that's in a country with a 50% black population. We're not even factoring in indigenous people and other non-whites. That doesn't sound like much.

Carneiro: Well, it isn't very much, but it is better than nothing. I've been to this event before, and you always have this majority of white models, and I guess this is really well-illustrated by an emblematic fact that happened here last week in the Fashion Week in São Paulo. There was a very famous fashion designer… had a show dedicated to Africa, but almost all the models were white. There were only two mulattos, models of mixed race.

Werman: How did the diversity campaign react to this 10%?

Carneiro: Well, the NGO called Educafro, who has been pushing for this to happen... they said that it's not enough, they want to keep campaigning for more, but this event starts today, this agreement was reached yesterday. So it was really decided on short notice, and for the industry to be able to meet the agreement, they said it was okay but they will push for more in the next editions. They said, they really need to see more of Brazil's diversity in the catwalks, especially since it's.... well, that's where so many role models come from, where so many young people look up to those beautiful women wearing beautiful clothes and want to be with them. So it's really important for the country's identity.

Werman: Right, I mean, Gisele Bündchen. I think our listeners will know her, one of the best known Brazilian models, but she's white, even her name is German, she doesn't really evoke Brazil. Just how important is the fashion industry, as far as defining self image in Brazil.

Carneiro: It's hugely important. We have this very diverse population. Gisele Bündchen is from the south, where we had lots of German and Italian migration. But, of course, we had a huge African migration to Brazil in the times of slavery, and this is not seen in the fashion industry, and it's not seen in the country's elites as well. And there has been lots of pressures from campaigners in the past decades for this to change, and now we're starting to see some policies in that direction.

Werman: So by agreeing to this 10% quota, Brazil's fashion industry basically is employing affirmative action to change things. Has affirmative action been tried before in Brazil, is there any influence from the US?

Carneiro: Marco, yes. There are lots of examples of affirmative action now in Brazil. This started with universities adopting affirmative action and establishing quotas. President Dilma Rousseff opened a conference for racial equality that's taking place right now in Brasilia, our capital, and she said she is asking legislators to approve a law that seeks to establish a reserve also in the public service, of a 20% reserve for people of African descent working for the federal government. So this would be a next step of affirmative action as we've been seeing develop in the country.

Werman: So it's not strictly a fashion issue, there seems to be this overall national growing awareness of racial discrimination as a political issue in Brazil.

Carneiro: Well, campaigners have been fighting for this for a very long time, and I think we've reached the moment that it's just... it's very hard to ignore that you have very few black people among the elites, and universities, in leading positions, and now after such a long time of campaigning, public policies are trying to push for that to change gradually as well.

Werman: The BBC's Julia Carneiro, in Rio de Janeiro. Thank you very much.

Carneiro: Yeah, no problem. Talk to you soon.