Let’s face it: 2020 was a year of disappointment and the fashion industry is no exception – especially when it comes to race. As a black editor, I’m sick of the fact that I generally refuse to keep promises and just do what’s right. After the murder of George Floyd, countless brands burst onto social media to share feelings of solidarity. My inbox was flooded with emails titled “Our Commitment,” “We Stand with the Black Community,” and my personal favorite, “We Commit to Do Better”. As someone who has worked in fashion for eight years and has experienced firsthand and remote discrimination, these so-called “promises” fell on deaf ears. They were performative, had no emotions, and honestly felt like one thing: my coin. When I dealt with the trauma and grief of losing another innocent black man, it was something I didn’t have the energy or mental ability to support newly awakened brands with.
Brands that claim to support black lives and increase diversity are bypassing black influencers completely, and I call their bluff.
And now, six months after those public statements, I am still scrolling through the brands’ Instagram feeds and seeing exactly the same thing: white models and influencers, sometimes with a black face or two that appear about every 50 posts (often after the infamous black) square). Brands that claim to support black lives and increase diversity are bypassing black influencers completely, and I call their bluff. That’s not to say that there hasn’t been tiny progress: I was happy to see brands embrace journalists and alumni Teen Vogue Editor-in-chief Elaine Welteroth and writer and activist Cleo Wade. Welteroth recently even signed a deal with CBS The conversation as one of the new presenters of the daily show and was previously a judge Project catwalk. For her part, Wade has worked with brands such as La Ligne and Ugg. (It should be noted, however, that both Welteroth and Wade are light skinned black women, and having more black influencers also means dealing with colorism.)
Black consumers spent $ 1.2 trillion in 2018, according to Nielsen. Hence, not building a broad network of talented influencers is indeed a bad business decision. Why don’t brands bet on other black influencers? Take, for example, Janelle Marie Lloyd, Natalia Love and Amina Marie. These women are authentic trendsetters themselves and are not afraid to share their political views. In this new era where brands swear to “get better” and “share black stories”, shouldn’t brands be showcasing black creators? These messages of solidarity and diversity goals are missed when brands only work with a shortlist of black talent.
I want brands to seek support from organizations like 2BG (2 Black Girls), started by former magazine editors Chrissy Rutherford and Danielle Prescod. The consulting agency works directly with companies and influencers to guide and train them on how to become better allies. Not only does their work help brands manage crises, it also helps them find lasting solutions for diversity and inclusion. (It’s a marathon, not a sprint, folks!)
Brands that employ a few select black influencers play in the majority of the audience (read: white), relying on them to be recognizable enough to get the diversity sticker they are actually looking for. These brands completely reject the plethora of other black creatives, and at this point it’s downright insulting. It feels lazy and invisible, but beyond that, it seems like the media is too fast to cling to approved names.
People of color – and black people in particular – don’t often feel that there is more than one of us at the table.
People of color – and black people in particular – don’t often feel that there is more than one of us at the table. History has taught us that systems were not made for us, and sticking to an approved list of influencers only encourages this painful narrative. It tells the audience that the only way to be a successful black influencer is to look like these specific women or have the same references. And if you don’t, you are not one of them.
This is wrong, of course, not to mention a double standard compared to white coworkers who are given endless options, regardless of looks and credentials. The past year has tasked companies with convincing audiences that they are serious about having a diverse customer base, and you can’t do that by tokenizing influencers.
Whether consciously or not, the images we are bombarded with daily show normality, beauty and acceptance. For too long, fashion and beauty companies have led with narrow, white stories and sprinkled them in color every now and then if they felt like it. Accurate and broad representation can change the way people see themselves and how they perceive a brand. Signing under the radar Black influencers and creatives can only be net positive.
Brands have a social responsibility to do better. I look forward to finding a solution to the influencer problem and a host of others sooner than later. To quote the transmodel Munroe Bergdorf: “You can’t just make money because you have recognized that there is a hole in the market and that you can make money with people of color with darker skin tones.” Brands need to go beyond familiar faces and instead put fresh, new ones in the spotlight. Otherwise, the problem of representation will be exacerbated by providing island audiences with the same content that they are already familiar with and are therefore comfortable with.
Black influencers are another way we can ask more of brands. Representation can change preconceived ideas. When we ask that brands continue to seek diversity, we are giving access and insight to people who otherwise might not have had the opportunity to showcase their talents. And it would be a shame to miss out on all that black girl magic.