Let’s face it: 2020 has been a year of letdowns, and the fashion industry is no exception — especially when it comes to matters of race. As a Black editor, I’m sick and tired of the general refusal to follow through on promises and simply do what is right. Following George Floyd’s murder, countless brands rushed to social media to share sentiments of solidarity. My inbox was flooded with emails titled, “Our commitment,” “We stand with the Black community,” and, my personal favorite, “We pledge to do better.” As someone who’s worked in fashion for eight years and experienced discrimination both firsthand and from afar, these so-called “promises” fell on deaf ears. They were performative, lacked emotion, and, frankly, felt like they were after one thing: my coin. As I dealt with the trauma and grief of losing yet another innocent Black man, supporting newly woke brands was something I didn’t have the energy or mental capacity to deal with.
Brands that claim to support Black lives and increase diversity are completely bypassing Black influencers, and I’m calling their bluff.
And now, six months after these public declarations, I still scroll through brands’ Instagram feeds and see the exact same thing: white models and influencers, sometimes with one or two Black faces appearing once every 50 or so posts (oftentimes after the notorious black square). Brands that claim to support Black lives and increase diversity are completely bypassing Black influencers, and I’m calling their bluff. That’s not to say there hasn’t been a teensy bit of progress: I was happy to see brands embrace journalist and former Teen Vogue editor-in-chief Elaine Welteroth, as well as writer and activist Cleo Wade. Welteroth even recently inked a deal with CBS’s The Talk as one of the daytime show’s new hosts, and has previously appeared as a judge on Project Runway. Wade, for her part, has collaborated with brands like La Ligne and Ugg. (Though, it should be noted, both Welteroth and Wade are light-skinned Black women, and having more Black influencers also means addressing colorism.)
According to Nielsen, Black consumers spent $1.2 trillion in 2018, so not casting a wide net in influencer talent is, in fact, not a sound business decision. So why aren’t brands tapping other Black influencers? Take, for instance, Janelle Marie Lloyd, Natalia Love, and Amina Marie. These women are authentic trendsetters in their own right, and aren’t afraid to share their political views either. In this new era where brands are vowing to “do better” and “share Black stories,” shouldn’t they be showcasing Black creators? These messages of solidarity and goals of diversity fall short when brands only choose to work with a shortlist of Black talent.
I want to see brands seek assistance from organizations like 2BG (2 Black Girls), launched by former magazine editors Chrissy Rutherford and Danielle Prescod. The consulting agency works directly with companies and influencers to guide and educate them on how to become better allies. Not only does their work help brands with crisis management — it helps them achieve lasting solutions for diversity and inclusion. (It’s a marathon, not a sprint, people!)
Brands that are utilizing a select few Black influencers are playing into the majority of the audience (read: white), banking on the fact that they are recognizable enough to get the diversity sticker they are actually after. These brands are completely dismissing the plethora of other Black creatives, and, at this point, it’s just downright insulting. It feels lazy and unseen, but, more than that, it feels like the media is too quick to latch onto approved names.
People of color — and Black people in particular — don’t often feel like there is room at the table for more than one of us.
People of color — and Black people in particular — don’t often feel like there is room at the table for more than one of us. History has taught us that systems weren’t created with us in mind, and sticking to an approved list of influencers only furthers that painful narrative. It tells audiences that the only way to be a successful Black influencer is to look like these specific women or have the same credentials. And if you don’t, you don’t belong.
This is of course false, not to mention a double standard when compared to white counterparts who are granted endless opportunities, regardless of appearance and credentials. The past year has tasked companies with convincing audiences that they are serious about a diverse customer base, and you cannot do that by tokenizing influencers.
Whether consciously or not, the images we are bombarded with daily depict normalcy, beauty, and acceptability. For too long, fashion and beauty companies have led with narrow, white stories and sprinkled in color every now and then when they felt like it. Accurate and wide 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 a net positive.
Brands have a social responsibility to do better. I look forward to seeing a solution to the influencer problem, and a plethora of others, sooner than later. To quote trans model Munroe Bergdorf, “You cannot just simply cash in because you’ve realized there’s a hole in the market and that there is money to be made from people of color who have darker skin tones.” Brands need to move beyond featuring well-known faces and instead spotlight fresh, new ones. Failure to do so will exacerbate the representation issue by feeding insular audiences the same content that they are already familiar and, therefore, comfortable with.
Black influencers are another way we can demand more from brands. Representation can shift preconceived ideas. When we ask that brands continue to seek out diversity, we grant access and insight to people that might not otherwise have had an opportunity to showcase their talents. And it would be a shame to miss out on all of that Black girl magic.