A few days ago Calvin Klein model Ebonee Davis delivered a powerful TedX Talk on race. With insight and intelligence she recounted the many micro-aggressions she has faced on her journey to becoming a model. In one eyebrow-raising segment, she discussed how the fashion industry sees African American women who are not multiracial.
“Casting directors would ask me, “Where are you from?” to which I would respond, “Seattle.” And then, “Where are your parents from?” to which I would respond “Seattle.” I was met with looks of confusion. As if it were impossible to conceptualize that black beauty exists right here in America. If they were really bold they would ask me, “But, like, what’s your ethnicity? Where are your people from?” And I would say, “Well my people were kidnapped and brought here as slaves and had their identity erased so I don’t really know.” And I wouldn’t get a great response. They would say to me, “You’re so beautiful, you must be mixed.” What may have been intended as a compliment felt like an attempt to rationalize the source of my beauty. If I was mixed it would all make sense.”
Here are 8 more powerful excerpts from Davis’ speech (emphases mine.)
On her agency having low expectations of her because of her race, and resisting her natural hair.
“Now I wasn’t disillusioned by some romantic idea of the industry. I did my research. And almost every agency never had more than 4 or 5 black girls on their board. The odds were against me but I was determined. I figured that once I got a contract the industry would open up for me. But at every turn I was met with resistance. I had white agents with no knowledge of black hair care run their fingers through my hair and tell me things like “We already have a girl with your look.” Translation: All black girls look the same. Or, “We don’t think there’s room for you on our board.” Translation: We’re at the maximum capacity for the number of black models we’d like to represent. But the most excruciatingly painful, “We just don’t know what to do with you.” What I now see as an admission to their own incompetence felt like yet another attack. As if representing me would be some extraordinary challenge simply because the color of my skin. When I did get signed my welcome speech went something like this, “You probably won’t make it to the cover of any magazines but we might be able to make you a little bit of cash. We’ll push for you when one of our other black models isn’t available.” And when I made the decision to wear my natural hair last year, “What are you doing with your hair? You need to do something with that. Clients will never book you like that,” was the response I got from my agency.“
On being told to say away from black publications.
“I was told that I shouldn’t work for publications like Essence and Ebony magazine because if I got labeled an “urban” model fashion would close its doors to me. Although I am black to be labeled black is to be stripped of value and pigeonholed into a world of subsidiary work.”
On the fashion industry’s notorious inability to deal with black skin and hair.
“I had my face painted grey by makeup artists who were reluctant to even touch my skin and I had my hair burnt and ripped from my scalp to the point where I had to cut it off and start over.”
On being labeled an ‘angry black girl’ if she spoke up.
“Should I speak up in protest I was immediately knocked back down into my place. Another angry black girl, they’d assume. To which there was no response. How do you counter a stereotype so embedded in the collective American psyche that it’s the first response whenever a black girl has a differing opinion?“
On being silenced out of fear of losing jobs.
“When I didn’t have the stature in the industry that I have now I was afraid to speak up because I didn’t want to get marked as difficult to work with. My livelihood was on the line so I had to shut up and take it. I was told that I shouldn’t complain because, ‘At least I was working’ which was rare for a black girl, and there were a hundred other black girls waiting to take my place. I was the token one who made it in the door while it remained closed for all others…. I felt completely powerless. I felt like everything had been taken away from me — my identity, my autonomy, my ability to stand up for myself and any sense of who I was before I got into the industry.”
On why she wrote an open letter to the fashion industry after Alton Sterling was shot dead at close range by police in Baton Rouge.
“No longer could I remain silent. It is the same lack of value for black lives which causes black models to be excluded from the fashion industry, and also causes black men and women to be gunned down in the street.”
On emerging in the industry as a model with natural hair.
“That same day my first Calvin Klein campaign came out. And there I stood photographed with my nostrils wide and my hair defying gravity in all of its glory… After reading my letter the chief marketing director of Calvin Klein brought me back for another shoot, walked up to me as I was getting my makeup done and told me that her two biracial daughters read my letter and they felt so beautiful and so proud. I was moved and immediately brought to tears. Every day I receive messages from young women of color via social media thanking me for representing what they’ve been so desperately waiting to see — someone who looks like them.”
On black women’s resilience.
“Despite the grave injustices we face as black women we can, and have and will continue to rise out of the ashes and become examples of resilience, drive and excellence. I like to call this black girl magic. And with this magic we are creating our own publications, we are creating our own television shows, we are creating our own narrative… As creators of media we have a responsibility to rehumanize the systematically dehumanized.”
You can listen to the full speech below.
Ladies, what are your thoughts on Davis’ words?