“This is Not a Passing Trend”: Joan Smalls Pens Powerful Letter About Racism in Modeling

by Freya Drohan

Puerto Rican model Joan Smalls (full name Joan Smalls Rodríguez) wrote about her experience within the modeling world in an impassioned personal essay for British Vogue.

Back in June, Smalls uploaded an Instagram video in which she called out brands, publications, and agencies that remained silent as Black Lives Matter protests took place across the world, and shamed those who made “empty” statements. Smalls accused the fashion industry of only weighing in on crucial issues, such as diversity, when it was considered “trendy” to do so. She added memories of her own experience, often being regarded as the “token Black girl” (thus erasing her Latinx heritage) and being told things like, “Your hair is an issue.”

In her upload, she urged the fashion industry to put their money where their mouth is and pledge money to organizations that support the Black Lives Matter movement, adding that she will donate 50% of her income for the remainder of the year.

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The recent and long standing acts against the black community have been saddening, frustrating and unacceptable. I feel these same emotions when I think about how my industry, the fashion world, is responding. It is time for this industry to do more than post a black square and say they’ll “Do Better!” It’s time for us to see the change starting from the ground up. Give us a seat at the table, include us, give us a chance, because we are worthy, talented and unique. There have been so many times where I’ve had to face issues against my race within this industry because I was their token black girl. The campaigns and editorials I had to share while my counterparts got to achieve that on their own. Or that my hair was an issue or that I made a show or campaign too ethnic, the list goes on and on. This industry that I love has profited from us but has never considered us equal. This. Stops. Now. It’s time for the fashion industry to stand up and show their solidarity. Time for you all to give back to these communities and cultures which you draw so much inspiration from. I do want to thank those that did see me for me and gave me a chance. Those that helped me fight my way to where I am today. Thank you, thank you for doing what you knew to be right versus what others said should be done. You will help us be the leaders of change. In saying all of this, I also pledge to donate 50% of my salary for the remainder of 2020 to Black Lives Matter organizations. I know I can’t just talk about change, I have to be a force for it. I encourage and will continue to encourage brands within this industry to do the same and give back. Let’s all be the change we want and need to see. These battles are long from over but together we’re stronger and together we can accomplish what is needed. #WeAreNotATrend #blacklivesmatter

A post shared by Joan Smalls (@joansmalls) on

Now, as part of British Vogue’s hope-themed September issue, the 32-year-old wrote a powerful statement, further talking about the pressures faced by BIPOC models and the obstacles she faced as a young Latina in the industry (Smalls was first signed in 2007.)

Sections of her letter calling for diversity are published below; the full statement can be read on Vogue.co.uk.

“Racism doesn’t only exist in certain industries. It is present in all professional capacities. Any person of color is subject to it no matter where they live or what they do because racial profiling and stereotypes exist in individuals that see skin color before character. As people of color, we have to claw and fight our way to where we want to be and overcome obstacles that try to keep us where some believe we should stay. The pressure of constantly having to prove ourselves, and go above and beyond any expectations can sometimes be draining, but it’s a task that needs to be done. To those people that try to hold us back, I say to you good luck! We are going to prevail and show the resilience our ancestors have instilled in us.

“I have worked in the fashion industry almost all of my adult life and it wasn’t handed to me. I work all over the world and encounter racism in many forms, no matter where I go. And while I had those that believed in me and wanted to help me achieve my goals, many tried to hold me back. Unfortunately for them, my drive was bigger than their rejections and barriers.

“I looked adversity in the eye and took those hurdles as building blocks for the fire burning inside me to prove to myself, my family and the world that success can be achieved through determination, hunger, a positive attitude, and good work ethics. It’s not up to anyone to dictate my future or stampede on my dream because of my cultural background. But the truth is that many in this world are held back and broken down because of the systemic racism that exists.

“That is when I decided to release my initial statement to the fashion industry in June. I wanted to share my experiences and what had been weighing on me for years. I, like many others, needed the industry that I love to hear me and understand that silence is not only complacency, but it is detrimental to the progressiveness of our industry. That is why I also decided to found Donate My Wage. I wanted to provide a resource for people who were looking to give back and contribute to the cause at hand. Through Donate My Wage, people can contribute portions of their wages to Black Lives Matter organizations, whether it is an hour, day, week, or month’s wage. I chose 11 organizations to cover the whole sphere of communities in need of support, from education and women’s empowerment to media and inclusivity.

“The fashion industry has a social responsibility to its consumers to be equally represented from the inside of a company to its images that narrate stories and visuals that reach so many demographics and inspire so many. It is time to steer the conversation towards a more inclusive normalcy. In addition, it can lend its platforms and monetary support to organizations making a difference in the improvement of the legal reforms that need to take place. There needs to be substantiated change. This is not a passing trend. Leaders of our industry must make it their mission to move forward in the right direction. If they are in the position of power to mentor and be the force that’s needed in order to see growth, then they must act. There has to be constant inclusion and acceptance in every aspect of the fashion community.

“The lack of diversity within fashion can be somewhat astonishing. Whether you are a model, photographer, casting director, make-up artist or fashion editor, there is a need for more diversity in every corner of this industry. It is up to us, the people who have found success, to raise up others. Brands, corporations, publishing houses, agencies, and more, must act to put processes in place to change the dynamics of their institution. Create opportunities for people of color to shine and show their talent and worth. Create boards, committees, or whatever else you would like to call them that evaluate the professional diversity within a company or establishment and see how they can expand their talent pool to include more people of color. This is going to take a lot of work, long days and endless hours to create real change, but it is time. We need consistency and not one-offs. I don’t want things to go back to how they were. It wasn’t working. That’s not fair, or right.

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