The writer and producer reveals how it feels to suffer daily microaggressions, in life and in the beauty industry – and how we can all step up. Starting now
The world has been left horrified and angry at the murder of George Floyd on 25 May 2020. People have taken to the streets all around the world to protest against his murder. A white Minneapolis police officer placed his knee on George’s neck, ignoring his pleas that he couldn’t breathe. He later died in hospital.
While most of us have not been subjected to degrading and humiliating aggressions and brutality that racism breeds, we can all can intellectualise how unjust and unfair racism is. However, it is not until we truly feel it, make it personal, that we can even begin to fix it.
How can you ‘feel’ racism and begin to understand its daily humiliations, when you’ve never been on the receiving end? You may yourself enjoy ‘white privilege’. Many mistake this for money, status, education, power or fame. A POC (person of colour) can have all of these things. My father was a diplomat, I went to private school in Knightsbridge, I have a doctorate – and yet I can still be treated as a second-class citizen.
In my career as a beauty and fashion journalist, I have suffered daily micro-aggressions. I've been questioned about what I was doing backstage at London Fashion Week (I was filming and presenting for a national magazine). A designer looked at me like I was something he had stepped in and whispered to a security guard to ask me to leave. I had to produce my credentials, and even they weren’t enough. It wasn’t until I produced a white female colleague who was junior to me, that I was believed and tolerated.
When a white fashion show producer tried to drag me out of my front-row seat (apparently my place was needed for ‘more important people’ and I would be ‘more comfortable standing at the back’) I refused to leave and told her I was a guest of the show sponsor. For several minutes, I calmly endured her screaming and shaming me in a packed room, when my white PR friend spotted what was happening and flew across the room and screamed her down. I will never forget my friend (you know who you are) for having my back, nor how shamed and weak that woman made me feel. Everyone assumed I must have been an imposter. Why would a black woman be in the most powerful seat in the room?
So often, we’re presumed wrong, not given the benefit of the doubt and made to feel like we don’t belong. All because we have more melanin than you.
If you haven’t felt it, you often just don’t get it. Being made to feel ‘other’ is a lonely place
Now I’m sure you’re horrified at this behaviour just as you’re horrified watching the riots, protests and the streets of America burning, feeling powerless and helpless. So what can you do? I believe that true change can happen when we really feel what it’s like. But how? To understand the micro-aggressions that happen every day and not dismiss them as mere slights, think about scenarios, where you yourself might have felt excluded and wounded, while the world happily carried on without a care. This is what it’s like for POC every day.
Most of us can relate to what it feels like to have a broken heart: the grief, the way it makes us question why is the world still turning? Why are people around us acting normally, laughing and going about their business? This is what it’s like when, for example, you turn up at the hairdressers to be told, sorry the hair appointment you booked weeks ago is cancelled. They look at your 4c coils and don’t want to do your hair (it's more common than you think, thank goodness I now have Subrina Kidd at Hair By The Collective and Charlotte Mensah who know what they are doing. Aveda's flagship store in Covent Garden also does well in catering for everybody). It’s being followed around shops by security guards. It’s being looked at suspiciously while going about your normal business.
I know many people who feel excluded when it comes to Mothers’ Day celebrations and who will secretly be dreading Fathers’ Day this weekend. It might be because you have lost a parent and are grieving, that you face struggles to become a parent yourself, or that you have a toxic relationship with their mother or father (as I do with my father). When the social media posts of happy snapshots come flooding in, how does it feel to be on the outside?
You probably suck it up, swallow your hurt and wait for the whole thing to be over – you don’t want to make others uncomfortable. Anyone who, like Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, has chosen to put their mental health over a toxic relationship with a parent, knows the hurt of moments like these. If you haven’t felt it, you often just don’t get it. Being made to feel ‘other’ is a lonely place.
Imagine feeling excluded every day. Being the one on a work trip who always gets stopped at customs while your white colleagues are waved through. Or having to justify your fashion trainers at a members’ club, when your white colleagues at the same event are free to wear their similar and even less ‘appropriate’ shoes. You know it’s because of your colour (all this has happened to me).
It’s the same for our children too and we fear for them. My friend’s teenage mixed heritage son was walking with his friends in Knightsbridge recently, simply walking down the street. The police roughly questioned him and searched him. He couldn’t possibly belong in this expensive area, he must be there to cause trouble. He was left feeling humiliated in front of his white friends, who were neither questioned nor searched. In reality, my friend’s son lives locally, goes to private school and both his parents are rich and successful. His white friends, who lived in less affluent areas, however, enjoy ‘white privilege’, which is ultimately being given the benefit of the doubt. This is a luxury POC don’t enjoy.
So if you can accept and understand this fact using logic, it’s not a stretch to conclude even though we are all equal under the law, with civil rights, millions of POC live in a different world.
How can we affect real social change and end institutional racism? Like my friend, you can call it out where you see it. As a beauty consumer, there are many things you can do to action real change.
The next time you buy a foundation and see that it doesn’t come in darker shades, or if it does that it’s only in a particular finish (I’m fed up of finding that my shade only comes in a kind of chalky matte finish, not in the dewy radiant finishes and glow I love), challenge the brand publicly on social media asking why.
As a beauty journalist, I have been told for 19 years that people of colour can’t afford to buy makeup at an expensive price point, as an excuse for some high-end luxury brands not catering for all. Fenty Beauty has blown this nonsense out of the water making $100 million in its first 40 days fuelled by the black dollar and pound.
I was also told that as a ‘minority’, the market wasn’t big enough to bring over darker shades from the US market. Well, I reject the minority status placed on me. I’m half Nigerian where the population is more than 206 million!
As a black beauty consumer, the narrative is that things are ‘not for me’. As a white ally, you can shine a light on this prejudice and demand more and real equality. Does the skincare brand you love cater for all skin types? Does their anti-ageing range take into account that darker skin types age differently and are usually more oily/combination and that radiance, texture and hyperpigmentation are often more of a concern that wrinkles?
You can challenge your hair care brand and ask why they don’t cater for curls and coils. You can ask why your local hair salon doesn't cater for all textured hair types and demand that at college level all stylists should be taught how to nourish and care for coils and curls as it’s not mandatory to learn about textured hair. ( Sign the petition here ).
Your custom and spending power can effect real change.
I’m developing my own foundation for dewy, glowy skin and I can’t tell you how hard I have found it. I want it to be a clean silicone-free formulation free from titanium dioxide. Why is this important? Titanium dioxide is used in most foundations to give more opacity and coverage. However, on darker skin tones it looks mask-like, ashy and chalky. I want to honour darker skin tones and let the melanin shine through instead of trying to dial the volume down.
I have faced formulators and factories who have told me that the way it works is to ‘just add black’ to darken it a few shades and add titanium dioxide to increase coverage. They have never been asked to do anything else – others have considered this good enough for black consumers. It seems crazy to me as I don’t have black in my skin. My search for true brown has been frustrating and soul-destroying as I’m told over and over, 'no one has ever asked more of us, so we don’t have anything to offer you'.
My refusal to settle and be grateful for what I’ve been given has been met with aggression and hostility as I dare to challenge the way things have been done for the past 20 years. The notion that I want to create my own brand to help cater to POC with darker skin tones and other ignored areas of the beauty market has been seen as being ‘uppity’.
So what else can you do? On a wider note, you can write to your local MP and ask what they are doing to help put POC in the room of decision-makers and what laws they are helping to pass to ensure justice for all. You can write to your children’s school and the school board and ask why there aren’t more diverse and open conversations about race and the positive and impactful role of POC in our history. I had to really search for images of African American allied soldiers as well as African, Sikh, Caribbean and Indian for VE day to post on my social media feed. At 42, I had never seen these images at all, certainly not as a child.
To help make this movement more than just a hashtag and to make George Floyd’s death and all the countless other murders and harassment mean something, it’s up to all of us to be part of the cure, using our voice, money and bodies, as racism isn’t a black problem, it’s everyone’s responsibility.
Dr Ateh Jewel is a beauty journalist and film producer. Follow her @atehjewel and www.jeweltonesbeauty.com. Read more about her b eauty essentials .