Black girl magic in the fashion industry | Ebonee Davis | TEDxUniversityofNevada

Black girl magic in the fashion industry | Ebonee Davis | TEDxUniversityofNevada

Translator: Madison Shirley
Reviewer: Peter van de Ven I remember entering
the beauty supply shop at four years old and eyeing the “Just For Me”
home relaxer box with the picture
of a black girl about my age. She looked just like me,
except her hair was silky straight. “Please, please buy this for me!”
I begged my grandmother, and eventually she did. Despite the burn
of chemicals on my scalp and the smell of sulfur
that filled the room, I was entranced at the prospect
of having straight hair. It was beautiful,
it was celebrated, and I, with my kinky coils,
felt inadequate. Over the years, I spent thousands
of dollars at salons getting my hair relaxed
and straightened, and thousands more
on weaves and extensions to make my hair appear
fuller and longer. I didn’t realize it then,
but I was gripped by insecurity at the tender age of four,
and it stayed with me into adulthood. To be born black in America
is to be born into a world that makes you feel inferior
before you can even take your first step. It is to be under constant mental
and spiritual attack. It was not only our bodies
that were taken during slavery, but our identities as well. And we were striped of anything
that might have given us context to who we were prior to our abduction. This erasure and forced assimilation
has yet to cease. From the time we are young,
every inch of us is scrutinized. We are told that our hair doesn’t grow,
and that it’s too course. Our noses are too wide,
our lips are too big, and our skin is too dark. I used to look in the mirror
for hours thinking how much more beautiful I would be
if my eyes were blue or green, if my nose was a little smaller,
or if my lips were a little smaller, if my hair grew a little bit longer. Magazines where I would only see
two or three black models amid dozens of white models, made me feel like there was something
inherently wrong with me. Something that needed to be changed because I didn’t fit into society’s
narrow margins of beauty. A society dominated by white privilege
that refuses, time and time again, to see people of color as equal. A society that profits at the expense
of its most vulnerable citizens, by destroying their self esteem. This is the society we live in. This is the industry I work in. This is the fashion industry. Growing up, it was my dream to be a model. Raised by a single father, I relied heavily on media
for a sense of identity and confidence. I would flip through magazines wondering
how everyone and everything in them looked so perfect,
down to the glossy pages themselves. I cat walked the hallways
of my middle school. I practiced poses in the mirror. I obsessed over modeling
shows on television. And when I turned eighteen,
I attended an open-call casting at a local agency in my hometown,
Seattle, Washington. The following year, I decided to move
to New York and pursue modeling full-time. Now, I wasn’t disillusioned by some
romantic idea of the industry. I did my research. And almost every agency never had more than four
or five black girls on their board. The odds were against me,
but I was determined. I figured that once I got a contract,
the industry would open up for me. But at every turn,
I was met with resistance. I had white agents
with no knowledge of black hair care run their fingers through my hair and tell me, “We already
have a girl with your look.” Translation: All black girls look the same. Or, “We don’t think there’s room
for you on our board.” Translation: We’re at the maximum capacity
for the number of black models we’d like to represent. But the most excruciatingly painful,
“We just don’t know what to do with you.” What I now see as an admission
to their own incompetence felt like yet another attack. As if representing me
would be some extraordinary challenge, simply because of
the color of my skin. When I did get signed, my welcome speech
went something like this: “You probably won’t make it
to the cover of any magazines, but we might be able
to make you a little bit of cash. We’ll push for you when one of our
other black models is unavailable.” And when I made the decision
to wear my hair natural last year, “What are you doing with your hair?
You need to do something with that. Clients will never book you like that,”
was the response I got from my agency. Casting directors would ask me,
“Where are you from?” to which I would respond, “Seattle.” And then, “where are your parents from?”
to which I would respond, “Seattle.” (Laughter) I was met with looks of confusion,
as if it were impossible to conceptualize that black beauty exists
right here in America. If they were really bold,
they would ask me, “But like, what’s your ethnicity?
Where are your people from?” and I would say, “Well, my people were kidnapped,
and brought here as slaves and had their identities erased,
so I don’t really know.” And I wouldn’t get a great response. (Laughter) They would say to me,
“You’re so beautiful, you must be mixed.” What may have been
intended as a compliment, felt like an attempt to rationalize
the source of my beauty. If I was mixed, it would all make sense. I was told that I shouldn’t work for publications like
“Essence” and “Ebony” magazine because if I got labeled an “urban” model,
fashion would close its doors to me. Although I am black, to be labeled
black is to be stripped of value and pigeonholed into a world
of subsidiary work. I had my face painted grey by makeup artists who were
reluctant to even touch my skin. And I had my hair burned
and ripped from my scalp to the point where I had
to cut it off and start over. Should I speak up in protest, I was immediately
knocked back down into my place. “Another angry black girl,”
they’d assume – to which there was no response. How do you counter a stereotype so
embedded in the collective American psyche that it’s the first response whenever
a black girl has a differing opinion? When I didn’t have the stature
in the industry that I have now, I was afraid to speak up because I didn’t want to get marked
as “difficult to work with.” My livelihood was on the line,
so I had to shut up and take it. I was told that I shouldn’t complain
because at least I was working, which was rare for a black girl, and there were hundreds of other
black girls waiting to take my place. I was the token one
who made it in the door, while it remained closed for all others. I had to live within the confines
of trite stereotypes that compressed me into a tiny box. I felt completely powerless. I felt like everything had been
taken away from me. My identity, my autonomy,
my ability to stand up for myself, and any sense of who I was
before I got into the industry, it had all been taken away. But that all changed last summer when Alton Sterling
was murdered by police. I went home and wrote a letter
to the fashion industry, emphasizing the duty that media has to help change the perception
of black people. No longer could I remain silent. It is the same lack of value
for black lives that causes black models to be excluded
from the fashion industry, that causes black men and women
to be gunned down in the street. That same day, my first
Calvin Klein campaign came out. And there I stood,
photographed with my nostrils wide and my hair defying gravity
in all of its natural glory. I wrote about how proud I was to create imagery that represented
a new kind of beauty. After reading my letter, the chief marketing director
of Calvin Klein brought me back for another shoot, walked up to me as I was
getting my makeup done, and told me that her two bi-racial
daughters read my letter, and they felt so beautiful and so proud. I was moved and immediately
brought to tears. Everyday, I receive messages from young
women of color via social media, thanking me for representing what they’ve been
so desperately waiting to see. Someone who looks like them. For them, I represent hope. I represent the proof
that they can follow their dreams despite what they’ve been told,
and they can feel beautiful and comfortable with who they are,
free of insecurity. Despite the grave injustices
we face as black women, we can, and have, and will continue
to rise out of the ashes, and become examples
of resilience, drive and excellence. I like to call this, “Black Girl Magic.” And with this magic, we are creating
our own publications. We are creating our own television shows. We are creating our own narrative. So, where do we go from here?
How do we move forward? Let’s start with inclusion. Inclusion doesn’t just mean
one token black model. I don’t want to be hired
so that I can fill an HR box. I want to be hired for my unique
contributions to the industry. Instead of forcing my beauty
into your preexisting box and asking me to change, expand your definition
of beauty to be inclusive. Change in the fashion industry
isn’t just about making it easier for models of color. It’s about using our collective voice to reshape the way we think
about ourselves and the way we think about
one another. It’s about raising the self-esteem
of our sons and daughters, who look to models as examples
of who and what they can be. It’s about eradicating the phobias
surrounding cultures other than our own, which is needed now more than ever. We must examine the historical pretenses
that have led us to this place and make conscious efforts
to counteract them. The fashion industry does not only
reflect beauty standards; it’s a reflection of the current state
of our democracy. Do not simply say, “Black Lives Matter.” Make a black model
the face of your campaign and not just next to
or secondary to a white model. Put a model in a hijab on the cover
of American Vogue. Put a Latina model
on a billboard in Times Square. Make an Asian model
your brand ambassador. As creators of media, we have a responsibility to re-humanize
the systematically dehumanized, and create a society where each of us
can be recognized, represented and celebrated across the board,
so we can take pride in who we are and where we come from. Thank you. (Applause)

100 Replies to “Black girl magic in the fashion industry | Ebonee Davis | TEDxUniversityofNevada”

  1. Preach , how we’re portrayed says a lot of the perceptions of the world we live in. Everything looks different through media, magazines and social media. She just gave us the REALITY of the world. Thank you for being brave and being the light in the dark. Blessings my sister ??

  2. Women's struggles and hardships in life: I am not considered pretty, so you have to change your perspective.
    Pathetic tiny creatures.

  3. this! i just moved to nyc to pursue modeling, and i've been feeling the words in your video like MAD. hella respect for getting this out there. <3

  4. The thing is – the modeling world is HARSH. The very specific features demanded by modeling agencies are NOT representative of the wide spectrum of current day beauty ideals in the minds of normal people (vs the modeling world). Taking the demands of those agencies and internalizing/broadening/projecting them to be representative of stances of the wider society isn’t helpful, realistic or progress-inducing. This message isn’t my cup of tea and these type of talks do nothing to advance any kind of change. Instead, I see them as tools to only further embed off-kilter and downward-dragging perceptions.

  5. Hi naturally beautiful friend. Wow. Love this Ted talk. I'll always play with hair and make up. Same. You look great! You are great!

  6. They do this because TGEY actually see you as A THREAT to what not in THEM!….. But GOD will fix all of this!….Soon!.Ps 37:9,10-11

  7. She's beautiful. This coming summer, expect for her to debut on my semi-annual "60 Most Beautiful Women" list. I ♥ Ebonee. x X x

  8. Does anyone know any scholar articles, books or authors that focus on the top of race and fashion? Looking into it for my disso

  9. Very lovely lady. Well, how many modeling companies has she started having been through this? Or, has she modeled for FashionGhana (or similar) yet where she'd likely not experience what she's painfully experienced. Same for Beverly Johnson and Iman.

  10. Lame excuse. America did not make you insecure. Own up to your own insecurity. Almost everyone wants a different look, straight hair, curly hair, pink, green and yellow hair. How about all the individuals that lost their hair to illness, or just genetics like balding men. In my twenties, I wanted curly hair and for years I permed my straight hair (which some people loved my straight hair). However, I was completely happy with permed hair; now many years later being age 59 I color my hair all the time. And I'm happy with the results and thankful I live in an age I have access to hair color. I also love the new pastel hair colors. Consequently, your blame is within, not exterior.

  11. It's not just an American white people's attitude. It's simply the attitude of the majority of white people all around the world!

  12. tf…i dnt understand people…shes beautiful just like any other human..and no one deserves to be treated that way….shes effin beautiful..glowing skin.pouty lips wide eyes..howd she been done that way?

  13. We don't need to be accepted by other people. We are beautiful whether they accept or not. We should stay out of industries that degrade us.

  14. I think it's about time we stopped blaming whites for past mistakes or ignorance and just be the best we can be. For how long are we gonna cry?

  15. "I don't want to be hired to fill in an HR box" a sentence worth so much value. This tedtalk was amazing and inspirational. BGR GO EBONEE!

  16. She must be mixed seriously but her hair looks funny. I dont know why she is crying without the white fashion industry she would have a job at all.

  17. Omg! Her voice, her talk, her words…. expanding for a collective beauty is so spot on and true. Every word that absolutely flowed from her mouth is true. She is ???????

  18. that's true. A physical inferiority complex only occurs in blacks and it's all whitey's fault. Who would have guessed? Alright then: one big round of pity, plus more bucks from welfare and for NGO nonsense. Satisfied?

  19. As many Ted Talks as I've watched I'm upset this is my first time seeing this. This is absolutely amazing

  20. I'm glad she is speaking out for all women of color, rock on little sis and I love your hair and your smooth, flawless skin. You are so beautiful naturally.

  21. Free yourself from mental slavery! White people can't be on the beach without protection. *The sun created by God is killing white-people everyday.* Are white-people really from God??

  22. Many people are paying a lot of money for a cheap white-skin, that God is destroying with the sun; just like the sun has killed Bob Marley at the young age of 36 years, while Robert Mugabe is more then 90 years old and he is still alive.

  23. Why can't she just call herself Ebony? Going through life having to say, "No, it's EbonEE, not Ebony" Come on girl it's got to be a bore! But then again she can have a little rant about how people (white people of course) have no respect for her blackness, her uniqueness, blah, blah, blah.

  24. Put it this way, there's more to big lips, big nose, and a dark skin. One just has to know the secret to those qualities.

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