Illustration by Monica Ahanonu
My name is Tamu McPherson, I am a content creator based in Milan via Kingston, Jamaica by way of Nyack, NY. I have been working on this open letter to our industry for months, as a call-to-action accompanying All the Pretty Birds efforts to highlight Digital Creatives of Color to Know in Italy before my city was locked down in a global pandemic, before citizens all over the world stood in solidarity to confront the long-overlooked breaking point of racial injustice. What I will share with you today has been in my heart throughout all 15 years of my work as a Black content creator.
I started my career in 2006 as a street style photographer. My trajectory has evolved over the years with the evolution of digital publishing, and I subsequently launched the blog All the Pretty Birds, created and edited Grazia.it, and served as Style Director at the Creative Agency Outthere, before becoming a full-time independent creator. At every step of my journey so far, I have been afforded opportunities by individuals who perceived the value of my work and how I could contribute to their organizations. I am grateful for the adventure I have led and the success that I have enjoyed. However grateful I may be for these opportunities, it is imperative and my personal responsibility to call out our industry for leaving so many Black creators behind. I have been working with luxury brands since 2013, and I am to this day, with the exception of a few other influencers who are stylists, models, and celebrities, still one of the few Black creators regularly included in digital campaigns, or invited to international press events and other important industry events.
I so desperately want to get this right. I so desperately want this letter to be perfect because I am advocating for my Sisters around the world who are as passionate about fashion as I am; who consistently offer bold statements, unique and fresh points of view, fabulous flavor, and who are unquestionably talented, but who are time and time again overlooked or not seen by an industry steeped in racism, anti-Blackness, and white privilege. An industry which has had these injustices highlighted for them for many years, but who may find itself at this moment ready to really listen – in a world that might finally be ready to hold them accountable.
Before the recent killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd and the blatant weaponization of white privilege by Amy Cooper against Christian Cooper, luxury brands were working on reopening their businesses in the wake of a globally-destructive pandemic. It has been clear that our industry has needed a complete overhaul. Runway presentations were being reimagined, reputable designers created a petition for new manufacturing and delivery schedules, and sustainability strategies were suddenly pushed to the front as a pressing issue. Many of us Black creatives waited with bated breath to see if brand’s recent inclusivity and diversity initiatives would be expanded, or if they would prove to be the shallow optics or low-hanging budgetary items we have come to reliably expect from our industry. Though we see marginally more Black models and celebrities in global campaigns over the last two years or so, an ever-growing call for fashion companies to place people of color in decision-making positions within their organization seems to go perennially unheeded. That call to action was thrust into the digital spotlight last week in response to the #BlackOutTuesday campaign in support of the Black Lives Matter Movement. Black fashion professionals like Danielle Prescod and Jason Campbell and Henrietta Gallina of The Conversations podcast used their platforms and wrote op-eds to publically decry the structural racism and inequality that has long been rampant in our industry. And in what feels to be the beginning of the ultimate reckoning of the oppression of structural racism, the continuity of brutal murders and pervasive racism in the United States serves as a glaring warning that any new norm built for fashion will be unacceptable without addressing and hopefully eradicating anti-Blackness and inequality within the industry itself.
“This conversation is important because people need to be reminded that fashion plays an enormous role in shaping how we view and value people. If we don’t consider how the fashion industry is embracing, showing or including various people, then we risk allowing whole groups to be, if not devalued, then ignored.”
— Robin Givhan, fashion critic, Washington Post – The Cut
Luxury fashion managers: It took the extreme outrage at the senseless killing of George Floyd for you to take stock of your brand’s anti-Black practices. To notice how anti-Black policies have been perpetuated within your companies. To observe how the industry has codified them and empowered employees to implement them through anti-Black hiring practices and hostile work environments. How our system has perpetuated a narrative about Blacks and luxury through storytelling that props up the superiority of the white European standard of beauty. How your collective actions ultimately have contributed to society’s maintenance of white privilege. Social media prompted your organization to show its solidarity with the Black community through carefully written messages to your audience. You pledged support through donations and planned initiatives. Acknowledging how systemic racism and white privilege cooperate in tandem to devalue Black lives is a key first step. What comes next will be one of the most, if not the most, significant challenges in your brand’s existence.
“First, don’t be silent.
Second, listen to your Black employees.
Third, review representation of Black employees in your workforce.”
“Corporate America: Speaking Up On Systemic Racism Is Only The First Step. Now Let’s Act” – Yusuf George, Forbes
The journey to anti-racism will be a radical experience for every brand, executive, designer, marketer, pr. associate, pattern maker, receptionist, courier, and cleaner. Avoid Optical Allyship and fully commit to ANTI-RACISM. There is an abundance of resources available to guide your organizations through the process. I invite you to support educators like Monique Melton, Myisha T. Hill, Rachel Cargle, and Brittney Packnett Cunningham who are forging the anti-racism paradigm. Investing in their work will strengthen and assist in enriching the conversation and the Black Lives Matter movement. Start enacting changes at your brand from the inside out. Listen to your Black employees and create a safe space for them to share their experience. Be transparent about the status of diversity at your organization, commit to balancing out the number of Black people employed, and provide anti-racism training for white staffers. Put systems in place to keep all team members accountable. If someone is unable to fulfill the task of adapting an anti-racist mindset, replace them with a more diverse candidate. Expect that the transformation of your organization to an anti-racist company will shake you up personally, tear apart whole sections of your business, and end relationships. But please remember: this work will never compare to the 401 years of inequality that Blacks have suffered. Further and crucially, dismantling institutionalized racism means demolishing every structure that devalues Black lives. If brands work collectively, the industry has the power to reshape society in an anti-racist light.
“It is important for brands to truly buy into the fact that being diverse is a good business move. In terms of opening up your business to different perspectives, to different ideas, to different revenue streams, to the value of not having group-think, of moving away from that, it’s powerful.”
– Shannae Ingleton Smith, Head of Influencer Talent Kensington Grey
Up until the current moment, the lack of inclusivity and diverse faces in the luxury arena at the influencer level has created a host of lost opportunities for brands. In contrast to a common assumption, Blacks do buy luxury goods. According to Nielsen, as of 2018, Black spending in the category of luxury, non-essential products such as women’s fragrances was $151 million of a $679 million industry total, and for watches and timepieces $60 million of $385 million in overall spending. Therefore, as a consumer group, Blacks are reliably paying both money and attention to brands in the sector. By not hiring Black content creators, brands are missing the opportunity to connect with these consumers, which we know from Black Twitter are extremely engaged and impactful. In addition, Black culture remains a significant influence on mainstream culture. Brands consistently work with Black celebrities across the sports, entertainment, and more recently the art industry. These Black culture-shapers drive considerable sales through their campaigns. However, brands do not work with Black creators who follow these personalities, who look like these personalities and who share a portion of the followers who are fans of these celebrities. Black content creators would add value to amplifying campaigns that feature Black personalities because they are able to authentically share the narrative on their platforms. Moreover, brands are losing out on the rich cultural input and diverse points of view Black influencers offer as content creators. Black content creators are not monolithic, as perceived by the industry, and by whites in general. They are informed by different backgrounds, different cultural references, come from the 50 states, the UK, Europe, and the African Diaspora, travel the world and process and absorb cultures with a unique vantage point because of their Blackness.
“The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.” – Viola Davis
So as you Zoom into your boardrooms to define your long term strategies, I urge you to hire more Black content creators. There is no more room for excuses as #DiversifyYourFeed picked up traction this week on the heels of the #BlackOutTuesday campaign and an outpouring of support was given to Black influencers and businesses in the form of follows and dedicated posts. The initial work has been done for your PR and partnership teams as white and non-Black sources provided countless lists of content creators who offer endless fashion inspiration that can enhance your brand’s storytelling.
Over the past few years, Black content creators have spoken out about their lack of representation in the luxury fashion market. Valerie Eguavoen, a content creator, creative consultant, and social justice advocate, created the platform You Belong Now to highlight Black talent in response to a Revolve influencer trip that did not include any brown talent. As the conversation expanded, creators turned to exchanging stories detailing their experiences and observations of treatment by and exclusion from meaningful work with luxury brands; and created resources like The Glow Up to support each other and share business-related information. As mentioned earlier, in response to the current Black Lives Matter Revolution, creators are sharing their experiences and frustrations and have initiated many insightful conversations on social media. Natasha Ndlovu and Aysha Sow have both called out the fashion industry for their performative solidarity in candid IG videos.
It’s time to level the playing field for Black content creators. PR and partnership managers, listen to these stories and ask yourself why have you failed to see the value of these talents before this moment? A lot of the answers to these reflections will be a result of your white privilege and personal biases. If your next steps are truly non-performative, you will work to check your privilege and commit to lifting up these creators. In doing so, I ask you to stop employing the common excuses used in the industry to justify why Black content creators are not represented in digital luxury marketing.
Black content creators have high rates of engagement and conversion with their audiences. You have access to social media accounts now – do your research and you will see how well their content performs. Beyond this, hiring a content maker for a project should not be based solely on statistics, but rather a mix of elements that include point of view, creativity, and personality. Relying on numbers alone promises that your brand will miss out on a refreshing spontaneity and magic in your narrative.
Black content creators’ storytelling is as impactful and visually pleasing as our white counterparts. Expand your perception of what is attractive beyond the white Eurocentric concept of beauty. Embrace, diversity in style, features, in opinion – look outside of the box. I once consulted on an editorial partnership where the project leader went through a list of Black talent to make sure I understood the type of Black girl the client was looking for. It was an exercise to reduce the range of Blackness presented into white society’s perception of acceptable Blackness. It was an insulting experience, but it is fairly common in the system. Most of the time individuals are so deep in their bias that they don’t even realize how they are perpetuating these practices. For an industry that prides itself on newness and openness, these biases and bars to inclusion are a true limiting factor. If you are working outside of an anti-Black Eurocentric-focused paradigm, Black content creators will align and complement the aesthetic of your brand.
Avoid tokenism. Don’t book a single Black talent in a project as a placeholder just to spice things up. Everyone will see right through this performative act to its inauthenticity. Invest the time in building rich, diverse, and thoughtful stories.
Do not use the concept of “friends of the brand” in a way that ends up becoming exclusive of Black talent. Diversify your feed by ending the favoritism that has become common in the digital marketing space. Promoting and using the same rotation of white talents prevents inclusivity, and that is ultimately a loss for your brand.
Economically empower Black content makers. Compensate them at the same pay rate as their fellow white creators. Taye Hansberry recently shared that an agent that was interested in representing her proposed an asking fee five times less than her actual fee in a preliminary signing meeting. Lowballing Black creators’ fees contributes to the socio-economic scarcity historically experienced by Black people. Financial equity is important in decreasing the economic disparities caused by systemic racism. Further, content creation requires several hours to execute, often including the cost of photography and other related expenses. Don’t just offer exposure to your audience and product as payment for content. Give Black creators that exposure as well as paying them for the time and resources dedicated to promoting your goods. Build long term symbiotic relationships with Black talent in an effort to help their businesses grow like you do for white talents. These partnerships will help empower a community that has historically not been seen by the luxury market while fostering authentic and compelling stories for your brand.
Finally, as you mobilize to educate your organization on anti-racism and the need for inclusivity, please compensate the Black content creators that you are reaching out to for guidance. As many of them are stating, they have been pointing out these offenses for years and you have chosen not to listen. They shouldn’t be required to help you pick up the pieces for free, when it’s their time to mourn and address the trauma that they endure because of their Blackness.
Tamu Nailah “Kameka” McPherson