Its 9PM on Friday, June 5th and I have a deadline to meet – my 2nd of the day. So naturally I’m scrolling through some of my favorite influencer’s stories on Instagram. I happen upon a thread discussing racial and gender discrimination at one of my former favorite online publications, Refinery29. Reading through these stories…it made me think. While I’m nowhere near where I want to be, and certainly not close to the woman I hoped to be at this age, I’m going to talk about my professional experiences because maybe someone needs to hear them.
Rewind 5 years to before I was writing at all. I was working 2 retail jobs and attending school full time. I wish I still had that energy. I hit a little snag with my health due to a flare up of an autoimmune disorder I’ve had my whole life, and I was taken out on disability. I temporarily lost strength in my legs and spent most of my time off on the couch, where I was inspired to partake in hobbies that made me feel less depressed. Enter my blog beginning.
I’ve always wanted to be a writer, though a very different one that I am today, but I figured any writing was better than no writing. At first, I wrote about anything and everything – product reviews, makeup especially, and style posts really resonated with me the most and eventually became the core focus of my blog. After about a year of this, I decided to put more effort into blogging as a side hustle.
My first big-girl writing experience came from a platform which shall remain anonymous, but conceptually this brand was a health-focused subscription box. This wasn’t as common in 2016 and – let’s call them Mop – Mop wanted to establish themselves as a lifestyle brand modeling online content after Refinery29. I along with a few others were taken on as interns, but the position was clearly outlined to evolve into paid work with consistent collaboration.
I believe I started with Mop around August and by Christmas I still wasn’t being paid, despite producing on average over (20) articles each month. Mentally comparing myself to the other interns, I was producing the most content and my pieces were some of the highest performing so I voiced my concerns about being compensated for my work. After a month of stalling, Mop offered me a paid freelance contract early the following year.
Once I began paid work with Mop, I was invigorated and ramped up the topics and pieces I pitched at them each week. For background, I worked full time at a very small company that didn’t have the workload to keep me busy, and I was also still in school although attending online only. I spent all my free time at work completing homework and writing articles, often submitting (5-6) each week.
At this point in time my pieces were published under my name on Mop’s platform, and I’d often share them via my social channels, hence the high-performance rate of my work. I don’t remember if piece performance was written into my initial contract, or if it was added on later as their company grew but, in any case, we were compensated not just on submissions but shares and saves, otherwise known as performance. Long story short, my pieces’ performance started exceeding their wallet.
Timing would have to be early fall 2017 and payments on my work started to stall, and at one point I was waiting on payment for almost (2) months. In my frustration I made a comment to my editor, “these are the kinds of things that get people sued,” to which he immediately took personally. They terminated my contract with them shortly after that, and eventually paid me most of what they owed me about another month or so later.
I’d like to pull on several threads here. First let’s address my comment: these are the kinds of things that get people sued. I’ll admit, the comment is a little hot, but is this not a fact? Mop clearly took it as a threat (I was 25 and hadn’t the first clue how to sue someone, let alone the desire to). But I see this very often in the writing community – writers just having to accept not being paid because its often too expensive to pursue previous contract holders for earnings. Because many people seem to think that well written words just grow on trees, writing is undervalued. Writers find it very difficult to protect our intellectual property and financial rights.
Next let’s touch on this: as an outspoken Black woman standing up for myself, even in a scenario where I’m right, I’m either completely dismissed or perceived as threatening. I do believe I was let go in part because Mop wasn’t as successful as they had hoped to be. But I wholeheartedly believe that to them, I wasn’t worth dealing with if I was going to hold them accountable.
Shortly after the end of my writing relationship with Mop I found new and better written employment with a beauty brand that I’m still working with. This is where I had my first experience negotiating my value. This brand – should we call them Nat? – Nat seemed to really want to work with me, but to be honest I still wasn’t sure I was right to stick to my guns.
The platform I connected with Nat on brings together brands and contractors but takes a 20% cut of the earnings on my side, at least until a certain point. If I were to accept the rate Nat offered me, that meant I’d be making at or below what I was earning with Mop, but my firm negotiation meant I could lose the opportunity totally. In the end, I got the rate I wanted and in a single swift move, I was able to validate my work to myself and others because of the reputability of this brand.
Over the course of 2018 and 2019 I continued to work with Nat along with several other clients on a less consistent basis, but I did hear from Mop offering me a job. To be honest I was overqualified, would have considered it a step back in my career and I knew the pay would be…let’s just say, unreliable. I declined.
I told you this post was inspired by outrage at Refinery29 and I want to get back to that. This part is going to be a bit like soup, so you’ll have to wait for it to come together in the end.
Refinery29 is committing something titled Performative Allyship – a fancy term for what we in the Black community would call, frontin’. You guys already took Shook from us so please leave frontin’ alone. In any case, let me try and give you my best original definition for P.A.
Performative Allyship: the act of presenting allegiance to a group or cause while holding back, hiding or committing acts that would alienate aforementioned group; creating an image that aligns with public perception of “right,” that does not reflect the true nature of oneself or ones’ platform.
Performative allyship is hot right now, and in some cases, it can be difficult to spot. Let’s take Nat for an example. Like I said, Nat is one of the better players in my writing career and I’m still ghostwriting for them, happily, however in short, I’m personally not satisfied with what they’re doing to support racial equality. Not just because of how minimal their social media support has been, but because as a cosmetic brand they’ve never been totally inclusive. They offer a full range of skincare and makeup products that, at best, could satisfy someone with Beyonce’s skin tone. I don’t even buy their makeup products, so that should tell you all you need to know.
Do I like working with Nat? Yes. Do I want to keep working with Nat? Yes. Do I think they need to do better? Also, yes. I believe they are good people who simply don’t care enough. So, although I’ve kept their name out of this, should they ever see this post I’m once again, “a threat,” but enough about me.
Performative allyship. If you’ve ever seen Refinery29’s website, or seen any content they produce, they have a clear visual presentation: united through the many different societal shortcomings we all face. What I saw today on Twitter and Instagram hit me hard, because I’ve always devoured their content blissfully unaware of the toasting turd atop their campfire.
I’ll include Ashley Alese’s Twitter thread where most of the activity is on this topic, but let me briefly recount what I read:
- Black folks, primarily women from the pieces I got a chance to review, and people of color are not seen as intellectual equals at Refinery29.
- Testimonials included cases of retaliation after clear and severe discrimination reports were made by the victims, with aftershocks well into these peoples’ careers (so far nothing on the perpetrators’ side).
- Black women specifically participating in this Twitter thread shared that their work was reviewed on open platforms like public Slack channels, scrutinized by peers, laughed at, and disregarded.
- Black women and women of color often had their ideas hijacked, renamed or partially reworked and presented without the creators’ participation or credit.
- Career growth opportunities were blocked at every turn, with clear messages to essentially, “stay in their lane.”
- Often underpaid in comparison to their peers with equal performance and experience, many of these women were regularly ostracized while still employed for expressing even casual levels of dissatisfaction with their circumstances.
Refinery29 as a platform doesn’t have a story to tell if it doesn’t include experiences of the very women they are discriminating against, and the biggest boop of them all is that today THEY are the story. Someone come get me, my bitch is showing.
Sesali in the thread said it best, but to paraphrase, Refinery29 is, “White feminism at its finest.” The problematic staff and writers of R29 have created this narrative of unity and triumph over victimization, yet at every turn they’ve clearly taken the opportunity to rebrand the plights of people of color; and any ‘real’ cases of societal issues they’ve presented are in many ways a colonizer mentality simply reacting to minuscule instances in which their privilege failed them.
Here’s the soup. Warning, its hot. Mop, Nat and Refinery29 have the same parents: Mommy White Privilege and Daddy White Supremacy. These brands have the ability, and often the desire, to ignore people of color. It’s the, “but what about me?” mentality. It’s the, “All Lives Matter,” line that we see and hear and reject. While there’s a clear disparity between Nat, who simply doesn’t offer inclusive makeup products, and R29 who makes it apparent internally that Black voices don’t matter, all these ingredients boil down to one dish – discrimination.
I am tired of being pissed, and like I said in the beginning, I’m working on a deadline here, but I’ll leave everyone with this. If people keep ignoring Black voices, and the outrage from people of color put in these situations, one day they’re going to go deaf. And then on a day like today, they won’t hear the mob coming.
**I forgot something. About three weeks before I was laid off from my most recent employer, the CEO of the company, head of HR and my boss at the time discovered this article I had written about travel deals in the early age of Corona. Now personally, I don’t think I’d have time to read articles if I was running a business, but let’s scoot on past this. Many of my friends and peers have freelance or remote careers, where traveling is regular. At the time my intention was to find a few of the best deals happening and simply share them.
So CEO, HR and boss got ahold of this blog post – on my personal website that I pay for and is not affiliated with my previous employer in any way – and I was immediately reprimanded not just because sharing my work on LinkedIn created a negative association between his company and my opinions (this I can understand), but the lot of them found it appropriate to attack my opinions.
In writing, everyone will have opinions of your work, but to be honest with you, the piece in question is much more about travel than it is about COVID-19. At that point in time it was hard to tell this virus would evolve into a pandemic. In any case, I felt bullied. I felt like their actions were totally inappropriate. I felt like I was being censored. I felt like I was being attacked for having an opinion different from theirs. And though I sent the CEO of my company what I thought to be a pretty self-reflective email, he never responded. And I’ve always thought this is because on some level the three of them knew just how problematic all of that was, though in that moment I was still, “awaiting any potential corrective action.” And wouldn’t you know, I was one of those to be cut in the first round of layoffs.
This was not the only time at that company I was rejected for having an opinion, but I’m happy it was the last.