Intentionally or Ignorantly, the creative industry perpetuates a supremacist standard of beauty.
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Issues of diversity in the creative industry are not a uniquely black problem, or color problem, or size problem, they are a problem, period. The industry continues to operate a system of exclusion, and this is manifested against different groups of people at different degrees. This piece will focus mainly on the issue of racism and colorism, and the supremacist standard of beauty that the creative industry intentionally and ignorantly perpetuates.
Who is considered beautiful by the creative industry? The question is easy to answer. Every time you flip through a magazine, watch the models walk down the runway at Fashion Week, or scroll through the digital marketing content of a vast majority of companies, White women are overwhelmingly represented, and Black women are overwhelmingly underrepresented.
According to the Fashion Spot’s Diversity Report, the Fall 2017 season was the first time in New York Fashion Week history, [where] every runway tracked included at least one model of color.” It is important to note that when the Report says "models of color," it means every non-white model. Hearing these stats are troubling not only because of how recently this occurred but also because the industry has made the exclusion of non-white people such an ordinary experience that inclusion starts to seem groundbreaking.
The same goes for the new wave of influencer marketing and the blogging industry. A vast majority of companies exclude Black influencers from visibility in their campaigns and outlets on a daily basis. In addition to this exclusionary practice, there is extreme racial and color insensitivity in the creative industry as a whole, from appropriation (like Revolve using rap lyrics to promote a press trip with zero black influencers), to derogatory acts (like designer Ulyana Sergeenko using the N word).
So, who is responsible? Whenever a brand or person is called out for discrimination, they almost always immediately release an apology followed by some explanation that the brand/person did not “intend” to be racist or insensitive. They claim responsiblity for the consequences, but not the underlyign act.
Consider the Broken Plate Analogy:
Grab a plate and throw it on the ground.
Did it break?
Now say sorry to it.
Did it go back to the way it was before?
Do you understand?
I’ll go a step further and say that, from the perspective of the damage done to the plate, there is absolutely no difference between whether the person intended to break it or mistakenly dropped it. The person would have to take steps to fix the damage done, because an apology is just not sufficient to make a difference.
This creative industry’s decision to continuously hide behind the defense of “intent” is an entitled view, considering the well-documented history of racial discrimination in the industry and the lack of diversity among a majority of it's decision-makers. Systemic racism is not a concept in some college textbook; it is a living and breathing system. Any brand or company that claims ignorance as to the effects of racism caused by their actions, cannot then simply go back to business as usual believing their ignorance exonerates them. The point is that exclusion is so intertwined with their business practices that exclusion has become their business.
Today I examine Jessica Nabongo’s recent discriminatory experience with the Four Seasons hotel, and how it speaks to the broader issues of exclusion and the standard of beauty required for representation in the creative industry.
Jessica is a first-generation American, born and raised in Detroit, Michigan to Ugandan parents. Among her many talents, she is also a distinguished travel writer and influencer, with an extensive travel history of 107 countries and territories. She has also been featured and published in many notable outlets. Through her blog, The Catch Me If You Can, Jessica intends to undo the false narratives placed on African women and the African continent. She said, “There is a prevailing idea that Africans do not travel for vacation. When people see Africans, it is as if they only see people looking to immigrate to foreign countries [and] those traveling to home countries.”
Jessica recently requested a complimentary stay from the Four Seasons, and it was not uncommon for her to do so as a blogger and particularly as a successful travel writer. In fact, Jessica had previously sent some of her clientele to the Four Seasons and other luxury hotel chains through her boutique travel firm, Jet Black.
Her recent Medium.com article provides a full account of incident. Jessica's request was rejected for three reasons: 1) After review of Jessica’s profile, they found that her demographic was not in line with the brand, 2) Her photography was beautiful, but did not reach a luxury brand clientele, and 3) Her overall reach was not sufficient for a comp stay.
Jessica has admitted that if the hotel representative had merely rejected her request because of the number of followers she had (reason 3), she would have understood their reasoning. It was reason 1 and 2 that raised some alarming questions.
While the reasons that the Four Season’s representative gave to Jessica, and that frankly, many brands give to Black influencers in some version, are facially neutral, they shed light on the subtleties of systemic racism and colorism in the industry. That almost innocent form of discrimination is by far the worst kind. Brands hide behind words like aesthetic, demographic, audience and clientele, and these words have taken on exclusionary meanings. Most brands would never directly say that only white, tall, and slim women are beautiful, however, if they consistently only choose women who look like that to represent their brand, then it speaks to their desire to see value in the physical characteristics of only people who fit that description.
We have a system where a relatively small group of people in the industry, limited in diversity themselves, decide what the media portrays as beautiful. The individuality of people is narrowed and judged by only a few physical characteristics. The industry devalues Black skin and continues to deny any fairness in a majority of spaces. As long-time social justice advocate, Bethann Hardison plainly put it in a recent R29 Unstyled Podcast, "I didn't take on a black girl [to my modeling agency] because she was black, I took her on because she was good." What would the creative industry look like if it used that standard?
Continuing her decades of work in raising consciousness and educating the fashion industry on the effects of racism, in 2013, Bethann wrote an open letter to the CFDA and the fashion governing bodies in London, Paris, and Milan. She wrote:
"Eyes are on an industry that season after season watches design houses consistently use one or no models of color. No matter the intention, the result is racism. Not accepting another based on the color of their skin is clearly beyond ‘aesthetic' when it is consistent with the designer's brand. Whether it's the decision of the designer, stylist or casting director, that decision to use primarily all white models, reveals a trait that is unbecoming to modern society. It can no longer be accepted, nor confused by the use of the Asian model."
Bethann’s letter called out the injustices in the industry, but more importantly, it noted the power of the industry's decision makers to make a difference on the issue. In 1959, the late China Machado became the first non-white (Chinese-Portuguese) model to be featured in Harper’s Bazaar. She was a great model, but the magazine refused to publish her pictures taken by Richard Avedon because she was not white. According to the New York Times, Avedon “threatened not to re-sign [his contract with the magazine] unless his photos of Ms. Machado appeared in the magazine, and such was his power that the editors finally agreed.”
Editors, photographers, casting agents, brand managers, social media managers, marketing reps, and every single decision-maker in the industry has the power and the responsibility to stop exclusion. People can change narratives and remove social constructs. We’ve seen many brands claim that their audience only responds positively to a particular look. My response to that is: if you insist you are not racist, but you go through specific lengths to ensure that your publications meet a racist’s standards, you are aiding and abetting that discrimination, making you just as guilty.
There is no denying progress in the industry, but when you consider the fact I noted at the beginning of this piece, that for the first time in NYFW history, every designer that the Fashion Spot tracked in Fall 2017 had at least only one non-white model, there ought to be an outcry. Apologies and promises are not sufficient because the damage has already been done, and we will continue to have our eyes on those yet to make a change and those who claim they are making changes.