NEW YORK, United States — For beauty journalists just starting out in the industry, becoming an editor at a high-profile magazine or website is a covetable career move. The job can be glamorous: free products, exclusive invitations; plus, you get to be seen as an authority on all things makeup and skincare.
But for aspiring editors of colour, it’s a role that can come with strings attached. When we get those coveted jobs at major publications, they are often quickly revealed to be two roles packed into one: the usual job of sourcing stories and writing up what’s new in the world of beauty, and an unspoken job of representing our race on mastheads that are still overwhelmingly white.
“When I first started out in the fashion industry… it was truly disheartening to not see myself represented among the mastheads of popular glossies or among the bylines of digital outlets covering the latest beauty trends,” said Dana Oliver, beauty director of Yahoo Lifestyle, who is black. “So, when I was able to secure my first full-time job as an editor, I made it my mission to use my position and platform to highlight our unique experiences and advocate for carving out a safe space where we could be celebrated and respected.”
Though editors like Oliver often take on this role willingly, they say it can take up nearly as much time as their official duties — and doesn’t come with additional pay or benefits.
Black editors frequently find themselves in the role of “gatekeeping,” ensuring their white peers don’t misuse or gloss over culturally sensitive terms and topics. And they’re considered the staff experts on black beauty products, regardless of whether it’s their primary area of interest.
“There's a bit of an unspoken rule that, as black editors, we have to know what works for straight and textured hair, what treatments can work on fair skin versus dark skin and so on,” said Kayla Greaves, fashion and beauty features editor at Bustle, who is also black.
That role has only grown more complicated as the beauty industry has taken steps toward improving its record on inclusivity in the face of growing consumer interest. More brands are putting a diverse range of models in their advertising campaigns, and rolling out products meant for customers with darker skin, from Rihanna’s LVMH-backed Fenty Beauty to black-owned beauty brands such as Juvia’s Place, Beauty Bakerie and Mented Cosmetics.
If you have a predominantly white team, then it’s highly likely that they are going to stick to catering to predominantly white audiences.
But beauty publications often struggle to talk about inclusivity in an authentic way, which is why the task often falls to a handful of black staffers. “Marginalised groups are often the people tasked with editing a story to flag any problematic points, then charged with giving that feedback to their [white] co-workers,” says Augusta Falletta, supervising producer at BuzzFeed and a former beauty editor, who is white. (Disclosure: I am a style and beauty writer at BuzzFeed).
“There’s the labour that falls on people of colour to ‘represent their community’ when tone-deaf editors have questions about headlines, hair textures, and appropriation,” adds Phillip Picardi, Editor-in-Chief of Out, who is also white. “This is, point-blank, not something most white editors are called upon for on a daily basis in a workplace setting. This is extra labour.”
To be sure, black editors are often the go-to for “black” beauty content for a reason: they’re likely more familiar with the topic and terminology than their white colleagues. And if a black editor doesn’t pitch a piece on a topic relevant to their community, it might not get covered at all.
“If you have a predominantly white team, then it’s highly likely that they are going to stick to catering to predominantly white audiences,” Oliver said. “Sure, you can assign a feature about baby hairs and box braids to a white beauty editor, but can she authentically report on it? My answer: Absolutely not.”
But the work of showing up for one’s culture while still excelling in a mainstream, white-dominated environment, though rewarding, can also be draining for editors of colour. And that’s on top of the wider everyday struggles of being black in fashion.
In 2018, The Cut’s then-fashion market editor Lindsay Peoples Wagner wrote, “What It’s Really Like To Be Black And Work In Fashion,” a piece that examined the experiences of black creatives working in the fashion industry. “I wrote the [fashion] piece because it's how I've felt ever since I started in this industry and I was eager to hear other peoples’ experiences,” says Peoples Wagner, who is black and succeeded Picardi in the top spot at Teen Vogue last year. “Over the years, things have changed on the surface, but underneath there's a lot of passive-aggressive and subtle racism that still goes on every single day.”
Peoples Wagner’s sentiment was echoed by black editors lower down the masthead. “For black editors that are working in majority white spaces, there's always the issue of microaggressions and just plain old camaraderie,” says Nikki Brown, senior beauty editor at StyleCaster. “As cliché as it sounds, there's also the fear of looking like the angry black woman when you want to speak up about something. Sometimes, you don't want to rock the boat.”
So, what’s the solution?
At beauty desks, white editors should be encouraged to attend events and product launches that fall outside their comfort zone. “This is a crucial part of having honest conversations and dialogue that will lead to less racially insensitive incidents in the beauty industry,” Oliver said.
But the wider issue ultimately comes down to greater representation on mastheads.
“I think the beauty industry has finally reached a place where we know generic content — or products — will no longer resonate with audiences,” adds Greaves. “When you're hiring, you should be looking for people with expertise, but theirs should be different than your own. That's how you grow as a publication and move out of this ‘meeting a quota’ mindset.”
Jamé Jackson is a style and beauty journalist based in New York and is the founder of TheBlondeMisfit.com.
The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.