Outside View: Black Unison — Voices of Makeup Artists

James Fallon and Zadrian Smith

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Working on “Black Unison” for WWD has been a cathartic process, allowing me to connect with my community on a level I never imagined possible. It’s been an honor to host all the amazingly talented Black professionals, whose unique experiences and voices are testaments to the power of perseverance, community and support, within and without the fashion and beauty industries.

My final panel with makeup artists Ashunta Sheriff-Kendricks, Sir John Barnett and Tasha Reiko Brown continues to address the issues of racism and discrimination these creatives have experienced in their careers, but the biggest takeaway is in the solutions they have provided for moving forward, which are centered around education, mental health and self-love and empowerment.

Nigerian musician Seun Kuti believes, “The answer to being Black is to become African.” Sheriff-Kendricks agrees. “To identify with Africa means we identify with a rich cultural history that predates slavery. Black Americans were born here. So, when we are Black, we are all of this country, everything that has happened to us from the 1400s and on, but if we are African, we are antiquity and we are beyond a time that we even understand,” she explains.

African history has been erased from most textbooks: stories of immense wealth, royalty, spirituality and generations of powerful kings and queens have been suppressed to sustain a narrative of white supremacy. Braids, beads, jewels and makeup all have African origins, but colonialism across the globe has whitewashed our culture and community. Sheriff-Kendricks, who also has a degree in anthropology, says: “You have to have knowledge of self. That is part of the problem, because when you don’t know your history, you don’t know where you’re going.”

She grew up reading texts such as “The Destruction of Black Civilization” and “They Came Before Columbus: The African Presence in Ancient America” and has passed on her knowledge to her children, hoping to restore the truth and create a future of true freedom.

Social media has also played a critical role in liberating voices that for too long have been silenced. Barnett believes “social media has brought us into the future. I think it’s so powerful the fact you don’t have to be a supermodel. You don’t have to be in the fashion industry. If anything, the fashion industry is the last industry that is going to be inclusive. Fashion is supremely racist. And anyone who doubts that, either doesn’t work in fashion, or is just willfully ignorant.”

It seems as if the fashion and beauty industries allow for no inherent value in the perspectives or experiences of people of color, and only recently have luxury beauty brands begun to pay attention to the power of the Black dollar. As Reiko Brown says, “Black women spend two to three times more than their white counterparts and are grossly underserved.” She struggled for many years to find the makeup tools she needed for her clients with darker skin tones. “It was a scavenger hunt to put together my kit,” Reiko Brown continues. “If you’re going to make the majority of your gross off of Black women, Black culture, then you need to serve Black women and culture.”

The 2019 Nielsen Report revealed that the annual spending power of the Black community was $1.3 trillion, but even with numbers at this scale, it wasn’t until 2017 that a Black woman spearheaded the movement to ensure that Blacks, who account for 90 percent of the overall spend on ethnic hair and beauty products, have a secure place in the luxury beauty market. That woman is Rihanna, founder and chief executive officer of Fenty Beauty, which launched with more than 40 shades, one of the most inclusive color palettes the industry has ever seen, is now valued at $3 billion, according to Forbes, and is part of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the world’s biggest luxury conglomerate. Although this is such a progressive feat for Black beauty, luxury companies aren’t necessarily recognizing the Black consumer because it is the right thing to do, but only after realizing the power and value of their spending power and how a partnership with a world famous Black woman with a vast fan base can drive sales and increase profit.

Inclusion based on profit and not humanity is not equality at all.

Barnett is also in a position of power at a major luxury beauty brand. He is a brand ambassador for L’Oréal Paris, a position that has put him at the forefront of the Black Lives Matter movement internally within the company. Barnett spoke to more than 200 employees and board members on a Zoom call to begin to unpack issues around race. Conversations of this nature at a corporate level tap into pockets of trauma for both Blacks and whites, because it forces them to address the effects of structural racism. Blacks attempting to educate their white peers on their experiences are tiptoeing around white fragility and for those whites who don’t identify as racist, there’s an awakening of how their privilege perpetuates systems of aversive racism.

To ensure lasting systemic change, we must all work toward a common goal. As Barnett says, “We lose nothing by allowing equity and justice to happen for other people. Whiteness will still be there. You’ll still be able to operate and allow Blacks to fully let their lights shine.”

Reiko-Brown, an advocate for mental health, believes that, as an artist, you must not dim your light and creativity. “You’re protecting your heart, which is the gift that you have to give to the world. You owe it to whoever or whatever gave you that gift to do it in your most authentic, true self,” she says.

Hosting this series of panel discussions has made it painfully clear to me that there’s so much more work to be done in dealing with racism in the fashion and beauty industries. Every person of color has a story to tell about how racism has affected them. I used to fear that these stories may never be heard; that they might not matter.

As a product of the Deep South, the topic of racism is not new to me. I was born into it and its insidious residue became a permanent stain on my life. I became desensitized to the microaggressions and discrimination often inflicted upon me by my white peers. For years I tried to disassociate myself from my Blackness, as a necessity of survival so that I could exist in white orbits and not be perceived as threatening or problematic. Whilst studying in London for both my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, I was employed at British Vogue, which was then under the editorship of Alexandra Shulman. I was a speckle of Black pepper, in a sea of white salt. There were moments where I felt incredibly alone, without anyone to relate to, getting further away from my identity and authentic self. After four years of being the first person to arrive to work and often the last to leave and giving the job my everything, a full-time position finally became available in the fashion department. Having put in the work, I was confident I would get the position, but was informed I was overqualified and that my aesthetic was already so developed that an assistant position would impede my artistic progression. My seat at the table was removed and I was replaced by a white female.

My fears have since subsided because I now know that I am not alone. I stand with a community of like-minded Black creatives who have agency and self determination and are fighting for freedom and equality not only for us, but for the legions of young Black creatives who will one day come and take their seats at the table we’re creating for them.

There is still trauma, deeply ingrained in our cultures. The emotions are still very raw, sometimes visceral, because there is so much unhealed trauma from more than 452 years of baggage that has been handed down from generation to generation.

The trauma surrounding racism can only be healed if we deal with the issues as a human race, without judgment and with an open heart so that a pride in Blackness is not equated with being anti-establishment. This process will allow generational wounds to begin to heal and allow the Black community to let their lights shine, tell their stories and take their seat at the table.

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