"I don't need validation from an industry that casts me as the token black girl while ignoring my whole cultural identity as a proud Latina as well."

By Alyssa Hardy
Jun 11, 2020 @ 9:35 am
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Joan Smalls is opening up about the systemic racism she experienced in the fashion industry. The 31-year-old Puerto Rican model made her mark working for dozens of high-end brands including Alexander Wang, Burberry, and Fendi. She was also a Victoria's Secret model for five years and the first Latina to become the face of Estée Lauder.

In a powerful essay (that Smalls read in an Instagram video), she explains how she has felt tokenized and overlooked throughout her career. As many brands come forward in public support of Black Lives Matter, she felt that she should share her painful experiences to highlight how the issues run deep. "An industry that profits from our black and brown bodies, our culture for constant inspiration, our music (that continues to glorify these brands), and our images for their visuals have tiptoed around the issue at hand. You are part of the cycle that perpetuates these conscious behaviors," Smalls writes.

She goes on to call the industry a "world of complicity" that wants to jump on a diversity bandwagon as social media pressure mounts. "Sadly, you fall short trying to narrate our stories by toning us down or having them curated by people who haven’t lived our experiences or walked a day in our shoes. It’s time to be an active participant in this conversation," she explains.

Smalls says that despite her many achievements, throughout her career, her cultural identity has been erased, she has been mistreated and tokenized. "How many times have I been told that my hair was an issue and said to control it? How many times have I had to share campaigns or editorial when I saw my counterparts achieve those milestones solo," she asks. "It was a constant battle no one saw but one that I lived daily.  I don't need validation from an industry that casts me as the token black girl while ignoring my whole cultural identity as a proud Latina as well. What I do need is recognition of the systemic issues. The issues that arise from top to bottom within the industry. From photographers not wanting to shoot me because there was no need to shoot a black girl, to the magazines, brands, and agencies who continue to work with people of that mindset. Just like stylists and casting directors not willing to treat us fairly and give us a chance, yet you, the industry, continue to employ them. You feed the beast. The beast of racism and exclusivity."

This is, unfortunately, an experience that so many other models have dealt with over the years, and Smalls recognizes that. She writes, "Brands have continually let us down with their insensitivity and tone-deafness and the damage control apologies of 'we will DO better.' My reply to you is ... THIS is your chance! The moment where you speak up and demonstrate that you care. If you genuinely care, then show it!  Your silence is not only insulting, it is a part of the bigger problem within this industry. I’ve seen many people that miraculously developed empathy yet when they are behind closed doors, they are a part of the group holding us back. We see you! Do you see us now?"

The model ends her essay by saying that she plans to donate 50% of her income from 2020 toward Black Lives Matter causes. She will also urge all of the people she works with to do the same monetarily and work with them to diversify in a meaningful way.

In an email with InStyle, Smalls elaborated on her decision to come forward about her experience. “If not now, then when?" she wrote. "This moment is one made for history, it’s the catalyst for us to begin to see a change in the right direction. With everything happening in the world, with inequalities and an unjust system it makes you reflect on different aspects of your life, with your career (industry) being one of them."

She elaborated about the complicity of the fashion industry and called for people working in it to speak their truth and hold brands accountable. “We’ve been walking on eggshells this whole time and not much has changed," she said. "So I say rise up and speak your truth, this is a cruel reality we’ve lived with, so the fact that all people have to do is just hear it and learn from it and hopefully grow from it, is not much to ask. All we want is to be treated as equals.”

Additional reporting by Samantha Sutton.