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Edit: originally written 13/06/20 and updated 28/06/20
It has been three weeks since I shared my experiences with racism in the beauty industry (article here), but it honestly feels like much more than that. So much has happened within this short period of time including the murder of Rashard Brooks, at least five probable lynchings and the murder of activist Oluwatoyin Salau. We have now found out about Elijah McClain, three Black trans women (Brayla Stone, Riah Milton and Dominique Fells) were murdered (and now more) and white supremacists tried to set Althea Bernstein on fire.
Not only that, this month alone it marked the three year anniversary of Grenfell, the five year anniversary of the Charleston church shooting, 99 years since the Tulsa massacre (ended on June 1st) and beautiful little Tamir Rice would have been turning 18 and celebrating graduation with the 2020 Class if he had not been murdered by the police at age 12.
Then there’s distressing news that some Native American tribes have more Covid-19 cases and deaths than some states combined (article), the Yemen crisis is largely being ignored, China is sterilizing Uighur women (article), garment workers in Bangladesh are starving due to brands not paying them (article) and Breonna Taylor’s murderers are still free.
All this is happening while there finally seems to be a global awakening to the racism that has been there all along out in the open and because of that I find myself still feeling incredibly sad, angry, overwhelmed and just exhausted by it all. It has been and still is a daily emotional rollercoaster and even as I sit here I don’t know how to feel, which is why I haven’t been able to give an update until now.
I didn’t intend to go silent again and was actually feeling really positive after speaking with Gill Sinclair (Victoria Health) and Georgie Cleeve (Oskia), but the weekend after those calls I just crashed. I think the anniversary of Grenfell (one of the most blatant examples of the insidious systemic institutionalized racism in the UK) and then finding out about Rashard Brooks was too much to take. While white people were feverishly sharing anti-racism graphics and hailing their faves as allies, Black people were just out there still suffering as usual.
I have found it hard to balance the emotional and mental trauma of speaking out against racism with having the resilience and positivity needed to advocate for real change. I constantly go back and forth feeling like I can’t do this and that nothing will change to desperately wanting to believe that this time will be different. My calls with Gill and Georgie were an important step in hopefully making sure things can and will change for the better.
I spoke with Gill on June 10th and while the conversation started out extremely contentious (I almost ended the call after just 15 minutes), it was ultimately deeply healing and cathartic for both of us. We talked for almost two hours and while I won’t give too many specifics on what we discussed, I will say that she eventually apologized and understood my feelings on the situation. We both had a lot to say and while Gill started out defensive, I think I was able to help her understand how complex the issue is and that’s what I want to highlight here.
Like many of you, Gill is an incredibly kind and caring person. She is sensitive, emotional and deeply believes in doing whatever she can to help people. Despite that, she was completely oblivious to the ways in which her actions had racist ramifications and this is the reality for many white people. Good people with good intentions can make huge mistakes when it comes to racism because that’s exactly how racial bias works. It’s ingrained, unconscious and especially in the UK, very much a “normal” way of life.
I don’t believe Gill intended to act in a racist way and I am sure the thought to discriminate against someone has never crossed her mind, but that is the problem. White people need to realize that not all racism is intentional and malicious, which means you are very often participating in it without even knowing it. This also makes challenging the racism we experience really hard to navigate a lot of the times. It is not an easy subject to bring up, especially with people you care about because most white people have only been taught to recognize racism through the lens of violent yobs in the street, but it is so much more than that.
I talked to Georgie on June 12th and it was a really good conversation that I truly wish had happened two years ago. She is a lovely person and it would have made all the difference to have heard from her back then. She is also someone who had no ill intentions and had no idea how racist and harmful her event was, but again that’s what we need to change. Georgie is an absolutely kind, compassionate and thoughtful person yet the Oskia event (and then her refusal to address it) was insensitive and cruel.
This dichotomy can be hard to reconcile when we’re talking about racism but both things can be true – you can be a good person and still act in racist ways. The good in a person doesn’t excuse the bad things they do and the bad doesn’t cancel out the good either. This is something really important because for a lot of people the idea of racism and racists is this very outdated idea of something that’s perpetuated by awful people, but that’s only a small part of it. Many genuinely good people out there have no idea about how unconscious bias and systemic racism is a part of their daily lives.
Another thing I thought was important to share from our chat was how easily these things can happen. Georgie explained that the staff event was held in a place that had the fake teepees on site already, which lead to them deciding to wear the racist Native American costumes to add some fun. That’s it – nothing calculated or malicious planned, just a very unfortunate display of careless privilege and ignorance. She understands the issue of cultural appropriation now and sincerely apologized for the event and how she behaved when it came out on Instagram.
While both conversations took a lot of mental and emotional labour, I am glad we were able to finally openly talk after so long. These are two women I have long admired and supported and one of the biggest realizations that came out of our talks was that the racist incidents that really stick out to me (and the ones that hurt the most) are from the people you are close to and/or those you least expect. Would I have reacted differently if these incidents had happened with a person and brand I didn’t know? Absolutely. My closeness with Gill and my love for Oskia made both occurrences deeply personal and even more painful.
Moving forward, Georgie and I plan to stay in touch about how to make the industry more inclusive, which I am more than happy to do. I believe that we cannot change things unless we work together and she is someone who is genuine in her desire to do better with her brand. Gill and I did not get a chance to talk about next steps for Victoria Health, but I do hope they plan to make changes with their platform. I believe I was the only BIPOC writer on the editorial team and I hope in the future they will welcome more diverse voices and topics for their audience to learn from.
I also wanted to say I received a DM from my editor at Victoria Health (she is no longer with them) when I first posted on Instagram and she apologized immediately and unreservedly, which meant a lot. We have plans to meet up once it’s safer out there to talk more in person.
Unfortunately, Klaudia Kedziora (Oskia’s PR Executive in 2018) refused to take responsibility for her actions and did not apologize. In the light of photographic evidence (below) of her complicity in acts of racism she chose to lie, deny and play the victim. Georgie did apologize on her behalf, which I appreciate, but people like this are an huge issue when it comes to fighting racism, but that’s a discussion for another time.
This type of gaslighting is exactly what many of us face whenever we try to confront racism and sadly this reaction is not unique to Klaudia or this industry. Caroline Hirons told me she had seen the Oskia post at the time, but judging by the fact that neither addressed it, I’m guessing the consensus was to just ignore it. A pretty standard response for British people in general and as a nation it seems that many want to just pretend racism doesn’t happen and are happy to ignore it when it involves them or their friends.
I know from experience how much this type of denialism can affect marginalized communities. Growing up we were told to just “ignore them”, “keep your head down” and “let it go” because nothing ever came of speaking up. Society taught me at an early age that me, my family, my community and our pain were worthless and this industry has spent decades reinforcing that message. Even now I have not seen enough British retailers, brands and influencers actually say the words “I’m sorry” and this is massively disappointing. An apology is vital to healing and without it you are invalidating our experiences with racism and denying your complicity in it.
Saying you’re listening and learning is not an apology. We can do more is not an apology. We have not done enough is not an apology. We can do better is not an apology. We’ve failed is not an apology. We are taking action is not an apology. We are deeply saddened is not an apology. We are committed to change is not an apology. WE ARE SORRY is an apology. Has any brand actually said this?
What we have seen as story after story comes out across all sectors is that essentially every brand, business and retailer has failed their BIPOC employees and customers. The stories are the same over and over again yet they have persisted because white people refused to be held accountable for the harm they have done. This has to change. You cannot be an ally if you will not hold yourself and your friends, colleagues and industry accountable. Talking about all the things that need to change without starting with an apology for the ways in which the BIPOC community in the industry has been harmed only causes further damage.
In the end I still don’t know how I feel about what’s happening but I am glad I shared my story. The outpouring of support from friends within the community, long time followers and newcomers has meant a lot to me. Even so, I am heartbroken by those who have shared their own stories with me because it just made it even more obvious what a massive problem racism is for the beauty industry. I want things to change and while I am cautious to get my hopes up (out of self preservation) I am willing to give the industry a chance.