Though we’ve long known it to be true, in some ways “Black Lives Matter” has suddenly become the little black dress of the fashion industry: the oft-forgotten yet indispensable and unfailingly stylish way to show solidarity in a moment of global outrage. One need look no further than the spate of daily newsletters sent by an assortment of fashion publications, now suddenly laden with black-owned brands and talents previously only featured during Black History Month and recirculated articles of black celebs and influencers, for lack of any more substantive way to say they care about black lives.
As one who has done that same work daily for years, the sudden solidarity and recognition of the rest of the industry is bittersweet. Big ups to the brands getting a well-deserved boost in amid an economic downturn and senseless tragedy, but to the critical eye, these publications might as well have just said, “See? We have black friends!”
But do they?
In August 2018, Lindsay Peoples Wagner, then fashion editor of The Cut, published a revealing and searing report titled “Everywhere and Nowhere: What it’s really like to be black and work in fashion.” In it, “100 black individuals, from assistants to executives, stylists, celebrities, models, and everyone in-between” gave firsthand accounts of the bias, marginalization and tokenism they’d encountered within the industry. And yet, nearly two years later and following a series of high-profile, racially charged public relations nightmares, it would take a national racial crisis to reveal the parallel and persistent problem within the fashion industry—one ironically prompted by countless poignant platitudes splashed across social media in public, if passive, shows of solidarity. (In the case of those regurgitated stories, I’d simply call it “lazy.”)
For those of us who’ve long felt the fashion industry needs more black friends than the celebs on its pages, it has been further proof of how blind its media outlets remain to their own race problem—and how ill-prepared they were to confront it in a moment that demanded discussion. As Jason Campbell and Henrietta Gallina, hosts of the intersectional podcast The Conversations noted in a June 3 op-ed in Business of Fashion titled “Fashion Is Part of the Race Problem”:
[O]verall, the [fashion] industry’s slow and lackluster responses to racial injustice in the days since the killing of George Floyd has overwhelmingly been underwhelming, all too often consisting of vague statements and repurposed content. And black people in the fashion business know all too well that these symbols of support are no reflection of the darker realities under the surface of the industry...
It’s no secret that we have very few people of color and fewer-to-no black people in leadership, decision-making, gatekeeping roles in this industry. Perhaps, then, it’s no surprise that fashion has established narratives that effectively support white supremacy—from the sinister measure of beauty by white European standards to the criminalization of black bodies in luxury stores to a legacy of erasing black culture’s contributions to fashion aesthetics to anti-black hiring practices and workplace bias.
Indeed, the fashion industry has been and still is one of the greatest racial oppressors in the world, a fact that makes all those social media posts a lot less credible.
And then, there were the testimonials. Offended by what many perceived to be a wholly performative show of support, several black fashion and culture journalists began speaking out on social media, calling out the hypocrisy of media outlets publicly expressing concern for black lives while allegedly marginalizing and tokenizing those on their own staffs. Of particular note was Paper magazine’s now-former culture editor Michael Love Michael, who explained their recent resignation in a now-viral tweet that included a somewhat dismissive exchange between themselves and the magazine’s CEO, Tom Florio, following an all-staff memo from Florio which promised solidarity and “increasing editorial coverage of the macro issues of racism.”
Michael, a black, non-binary creative who uses “they/them” pronouns, paints a different picture of the culture at Paper, where they spent the past 2 1/2 of their 10 years in media. After joining Paper as a permalancer and advancing to Culture Reporter (a role Michael says was created for them), they were promoted to Culture Editor in November 2019. However, they say their promotion was hard-won in comparison to those of white colleagues.
“Of course, everybody always tried to sort of downplay [it] and say it wasn’t like that...But I just think of how I’m aware of how raises were dispensed to certain people before me,” Michael told The Root. “I was the senior-most person on our digital team before other white people who were promoted, and I suddenly found myself reporting not just to one person, but to three people—two of whom had less experience than I did.”
It was Michael’s own request for a promotion and raise that marked the end of what they’d previously regarded as a “honeymoon” with Paper. By their estimate, it took nearly two months to receive any response whatsoever to their formal request for a raise or promotion, only to be told no. In their online exchange with Florio, the CEO indicated the issue hinged on Michael asking for more money than the company was willing to offer for the role, calling any insinuation that race was a factor “disingenuous.”
“Well yeah, of course—I deserve a lot more than I’ve been able to get,” said Michael, who added that despite being told their work was stellar, they “basically auditioned” for the editorial role they eventually earned. “It was a really roundabout, drawn-out process; but then I saw how easy it was for other white people that I worked with…I really showed up as my full self, put my full self into [my job] and I really felt like that was encouraged but then I just kind of realized that it was being completely taken for granted.”
But even after earning the title, Michael says they were not given commensurate autonomy.
“I’m allegedly a part of leadership but I’m not really being treated like a leader in some ways,” they said. “I look around and I see everyone’s white and they have certain capabilities that I don’t and I’m just like, ‘Is there’s some unconscious discrimination going on? Like, what’s going on?’
Bringing their concerns to a supervisor, Michael quickly became “sort of fed up” with the tenor of their meetings and approached Paper’s HR in hopes of mediation. Instead, Michael said the meeting became an “emotional” one for them, the only person of color in the room.
“[T]he very next morning, I was called in for a meeting with my boss and with the HR director...my boss ended up leading the meeting and kind of putting me on the spot and being like, ‘I want you to tell me everything you told HR’…It just felt like this setup…I didn’t feel like I could say ‘no.’
“I left that meeting feeling kind of like it was just a way for them to kind of dot their i’s and crossed their t’s,” Michael continued, “and not that they had any real concern for me or my wellbeing, or what this process was kind of doing to me in terms of my trust, my morale—which was already just sinking lower and lower.”
The disillusionment was only compounded by the coronavirus outbreak. Michael told us that Paper, like many media outlets, coupled announcements of pandemic-related pay cuts with expectations of increased productivity. After Michael’s expressed concerns about the emotional wellbeing of the staff became buried in a semantics debate that felt tantamount to tone-policing and “gaslighting,” they ultimately decided to resign—only to feel “edged out” and seemingly given the silent treatment in their final two weeks at Paper with no announcement made about their departure (an experience corroborated by another colleague of color).
“It just really felt like I was like being allowed to leave like really unceremoniously as if I wasn’t a valuable member of the team,” they told The Root.
Kayla Greaves, Senior Beauty Editor of InStyle magazine, echoes Michael’s experience when speaking about prior positions in the industry. She credits InStyle with being “the easiest, most comfortable, comforting, supportive place [she’s] ever worked”—and her colleagues for doing the heavy lifting in recent weeks without being asked—but her current workplace sits in stark contrast to her experiences at other media outlets. (Greaves declined to name names, but a glimpse at her LinkedIn profile reveals former roles at Bustle Digital Group, Contempo Media’s S Magazine, and HuffPo, predated by positions at Upscale and Blavity).
“[T]here are other places I’ve worked in the past where it’s been mentally exhausting, it’s been taxing, it’s been discouraging to the point where, by the end of my time there, I was so checked out…It was such a fight to do anything—just to do something that had to do with blackness,” she recalled. “And then, people wanted me to overexplain to them [and make it] more palatable for white people to take in...And when you’re a company like that and these are the types of things you push onto your employees of color—and specifically, your black employees—how do you expect to retain these people? Nobody’s gonna want to stay in an environment like that.”
Greaves’ words proved true as other journalists of color simultaneously aired grievances online in response to public statements made by their former employers. Among them was former Refinery29 editor Ashley Alese Edwards, who began a thread of her own about her former workplace in response to its #BlackoutTuesday post, tweeting, “my patience for performative allyship is over.”
On Wednesday, Edwards doubled down, calling on other current and former Refinery29 employees to share their stories of “discrimination and microaggressions [they’ve] experienced from management.” Her request garnered multiple responses, including an anecdote from writer Sesali Bowen about being confused for a caterer by a superior and recollection from writer Channing Hargrove of being asked to write “an apology piece to white women” after a piece she’d written about cultural appropriation went viral. One of the most damning accounts came from writer Ashley C. Ford, who wrote:
I worked at Refinery29 for less than nine months due to a toxic company culture where white women’s egos ruled the near non-existent editorial processes. One of the founders consistently confused myself and one our full-time front desk associates & pay disparity was atrocious.
This is not to say that *I* personally was underpaid, as I was not, but it didn’t take long to learn that no other Black woman at the company was making anything close to my salary, while they were being overworked and under-appreciated. I went back to freelancing.
Of course, the scenarios described run contrary to the public images of Refinery29 and Paper, both of which have long prided themselves on inclusive content and imagery—including Refinery29's popular black woman-centric spin-off, “Unbothered.” And yet, multiple tweets alleged that Refinery29's racial disparities extended well beyond black employees. “[I]n the spirit of solidarity,” Latinx journalist Andrea González-Ramírez tweeted that she’d been paid significantly less than white colleagues in the same role during her tenure, while current Senior Features Writer Connie Wang recounted her demotion from a directorial role after asserting that the site should focus on quality over quantity. Wang also recalled being expected to do the work of vanity hires positioned above her, calling the experience “frustrating and humiliating.”
“This week showed me how doing things ‘the right way’—something WOC have been doing at their workplaces forever for security/safety—might work on an individual level, but it is profoundly ineffective at dismantling the status quo,” she tweeted, apologizing to those she may have “let down.”
At Refinery29, which was recently acquired by Vice, the reckoning would seemingly be swift. On Monday morning, the site’s union announced that co-founder and Global EIC Christene Barberich was stepping down from the site, prompting an immediate search for her replacement “which will involve a ‘fully inclusive hiring process.’” A memo from Vice CEO Nancy Dubuc claimed the transition had been in the works since the acquisition and had only been accelerated by the complaints; a follow-up tweet from the R29 union read: “However, there are many changes left to be made at the company to account for the aggressions that our past and current employees have faced. We hope to continue taking leadership to task on their promises to promote a diverse [and] inclusive workplace in the immediate future.”
It’s the type of corrective action we should be able to expect from any corporation that claims to value diversity. But as the testimonials of far too many journalists indicate, those claims—which extend well beyond fashion media—are often as performative and empty as the series of black boxes that overtook our timelines a week ago. And while the responsiveness is appreciated, “Why did it take extreme violence and a weekend of protests and riots for you to really pay attention?” asks Michael Love Michael. “We’re right here—we’ve been here all this time.
“Paper is this thing that stands for elevating marginalized communities. But that’s very much just on the surface,” they said, pointing out that much of the public perception their former employer enjoys is due to its success on social media. “Paper has a really immaculately crafted digital presence but that also [is due to] the brilliance of black women...it’s pretty well known within the industry and that’s because we have these voices of black women running the accounts…but as far as writing [and] being an editor, there was just me, in terms of black people.”
And in a moment that has reinvigorated a discussion of the myriad ways in which anti-black racism manifests, Michael is careful to specify the ways in which black talent, in particular, is sidelined. “I want the media industry, especially now, in this moment, to really contend with this idea that [it] survives on the backs of black labor, black culture, etc.” they later added. “Stop exploiting us. Stop using our likeness for profit to line your pockets, and respect us. Respect our talent; respect our value.”
“I’d like to see companies take a hard look at themselves,” Kayla Greaves agreed. “There’s a lot of people we have seen who are scrambling at this time, and if you were scrambling, you were telling on yourself,” she continued. “You need to have black people...Hire black people, invest in black people, promote black people, care for your black employees. Let them have a seat at the table, let them make decisions, let them do their own thing. Black people are the tastemakers of culture...So it is only of a benefit to you to have black people on staff and in decision-making positions. We will not steer you wrong; we never have. So I think that’s what companies need to do and they need to stick by that—if they’re saying they stand by black employees and they only have one black employee to stand by, they need to think about that.”
Instead, it seems some companies have been content to rely on the desperation bred by a constantly narrowing media landscape—not to mention increasing unemployment—to intimidate already marginalized employees into silence.
“It’s interesting how in media we’re like purveyors of truth and justice, and yet whenever people experience this sort of stuff—because they’re so afraid of: a) losing their job, or b) getting blacklisted, or c) having no other career opportunities—we clam up and we overintellectualize real things that are happening on the ground that are abusive, toxic and fucked up,” said Michael, who has launched the hashtag #blackerthanaPAPERbag to amplify the concerns of other employees. “We bury our pain and then we go to another outlet, and then that [last] outlet just gets to keep being toxic and abusive and nobody does anything and it’s just like that. But that, to me, is the aim of white supremacy: it is meant to make us silent; it’s meant to make us question ourselves. It’s meant to make us feel like we don’t have any other options so that it can continue to perpetuate its agenda, continue to profit off of us while exploiting us.
“If you’re experiencing a toxic, abusive environment that’s impactful to your mental health in a negative way, I’m sorry, [but] people need to know about that because you’re also potentially doing people coming in after you who look like you a serious disservice,” Michael added.
For once, if momentarily, the fashion industry may actually be listening. Paper CEO Tom Florio has since publicly apologized to Michael in a series of tweets promising to “make sure every member of our team, from every background, feels valued and appreciated.” However, while Florio boasted of “a vibrant community with almost 40 percent people of color” (h/t New York Post); that figure fails to satisfy the more nuanced aspects of Michael’s complaint.
“I think black people know this, but I think a lot of white people when they think ‘black lives matter’ they mean literally the physical body or something, ‘cause they think of the murder and they think of the killing and that’s what we see across all our timelines,” Michael noted. “But that, to me, also means the interior life, the spiritual life of a black person, a black soul. Like, black souls matter…our lives mattering also means that we have a self-worth that literally it can’t be bought, it can’t be sold, it’s completely invaluable. So I guess that’s what I hope: that we just carry that with us every day.”