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.”

Ebonee Davis and her father
Source: https://www.instagram.com/eboneedavis/

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.

https://www.instagram.com/eboneedavis/

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?

https://www.instagram.com/eboneedavis/

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.”

https://www.instagram.com/eboneedavis/

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?

Black Girl With Long Hair

Leila Noelliste, founder of Black Girl with Long Hair (April 2008). Social media, pop culture and black beauty enthusiast. bell hooks' hair twin...

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18 Comments on "Calvin Klein Model Ebonee Davis Confirms that, Like Your Typical F*ckboy, the Fashion Industry Doesn’t Think ‘Just Black’ Girls Can be Pretty"

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Yasmin Rivera
I really don’t know where to start. She is complaining about an industry that she sold out too and the reason that she is even heard is because she is BEAUTIFUL. People are so blind to the fact that this is all a part of the agenda to keep us from seeing the truth. The truth that nothing is going to change in our world. Nothing. Racism doesn’t matter, discrimination doesn’t matter, feminism doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is serving the most high. My Lord Jesus Christ. He can also be your Lord and savior. We are not… Read more »
Essa
I love that this is happening in the industry. I HATE the idea that only European features are seen as beautiful, and that African American women are berated. I am so sick and tired of seeing a black model covered in some silky long flowing wig, and made to look as white as possible in brown skin. Don’t get me wrong, Kinky hair can grow long too (we have seen proof of that many times). It also can be straightened if you want that look….so Im not saying that length isn’t natural to kinky hair…Im saying silkiness isn’t. Kinky hair… Read more »
AsiaAnn

I LOVE HER!!! Keep up the good work. She’s BEAUTIFUL inside and out. God richly bless you and thank you! 🙂

MimiR

This is funny–not hahaha funny but sad funny. To white people, highly almond eyes read as Asian/Native American. But they’re a normal variation for black people. Black people will tell me to my face that my mixed Asian kids aren’t Asian because they’re too pale and their non-white eyes mean nothing to them (which is really insulting to my Asian husband–but that’s another story). Turns out that white people will tell black people that they must be something other than “just black” if they’ve got extremely almond eyes. I shouldn’t be surprised! SMH.

Kellie

I didn’t realize that I was so used to seeing white faces until I started seeing black ones. They popped up everywhere and I felt like I was being manipulated. But its so refreshing to see a black model with no weave and non-European features. I can imagine seeing her in the club or in the corner store near my house 🙂

Love when I see a black woman slaying it for all of us!!

MyTwoCents

Imagine looking at this lovely young woman and seeing something “ugly”. Racism and colorist really blind people. I have seen African-Americans say similar things, even about young babies. It starts so early, it’s sad. In 2017, no less, I am shaking my head.

steve

There is a quick, “easy” way to solve this. Black folks create and support their own fashion industry. Everything black folks do in this country is look for dominant society validation from 400 years of conditioning. You can’t expect anyone to value your beauty until you show you value it word, deed and dollars. Till then, all you are doing is begging for validation from a society that doesn’t care about you. Its psychotic.

Darlyn

You hit the nail right on the head. I don’t know why black models allow people to put them through the crap.

There’s TOO MUCH white supremacy going on in the fashion industry.

maralondon
Exactly. Black models come out time and time again talking about the discrimination they have faced from those who run the fashion industry. This has been going on from time. I met an ex model from France through a friend of mine who cited working with Iman and all those other well known black models at the time. She sat and showed pictures/paper clippings of her doing shows but the industry had really messed her up to the point where she said to me that if she could come back to this world she would rather come back a white… Read more »
Charise Wynter
I know. It’s a little illogical to expect other ethnicities to be compelled to recognize are worth. I don’t believe that is human nature, rather we(humans) like to build ourselves up and that includes belittling others. Living as a black person for 27 years I’ve come to realize that such an outlook is irrational- just certainly, but just not the human way. We must validate ourselves and give no thought to how others view us. I believe that when we do that it often provides opportunity to be demeaned or undervalued. I think we may be overly generous with ourselves… Read more »
Wilma

Word, deed and dollars. You’re absolutely right, people need to do the work to get there instead making excuses and being delusional.

olive

It is very psychotic. Thanks for speaking up and adding that point of view cause most black Americans, I think, grow up thinking this is how to play the game. We need to make our own game.

LongHairedGyro
I usually get white people contributing my long, curly hair and them finding me pretty to my being West Indian. I’ve had both white friends and boyfriends exoticise my heritage. Going to be honest and say that I’ve never done anything to challenge those views because there are obviously a lot worse things to be called than “exotic” and “island girl”. I noticed many also had a monolithic view of African and African American women of all embodying negative stereotypes, I.e. “bad” hair, unattractive, etc. I’ve also seen the same pass given to Hispanics like being from certain ethnicities over… Read more »
maralondon

“I usually get white people contributing my long, curly hair and them finding me pretty to my being West Indian.” Shows how ignorant people are because we are all from the same source and share the same history of being kidnapped from Africa and forced into slavery.

TWA4now

Wow! She is right and it’s long over due! Bravo to you, my sista!

Ivie

Feeling awkward cause I cried while I read this because when u get older and u think u get over it only to realize there’s still a little girl inside u that suffers from the pain of being called ugly. It’s quite deep.

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