I don’t remember how old I was, but I remember exactly where I bought my first ever make-up item. It was at Primark Ealing; I bought mascara with my friend Misan. At the time, neither of us really knew what we were doing, but we decided we would try it.
Fast forward through the years, and Misan and I have both fallen in and out of love with make-up several times. That Primark store is still there, and they still sell cheap mascaras. In fact, Primark stocks all sorts of make-up now, but years later, and they still do not stock foundation in my shade.
However, L’Oréal saved me. It is one of the few affordable brands that does sell foundation in my shade. Although I don’t use their stuff as staunchly as I use to, it’s still a decent product I might resort to in a pinch. I’m sure L’Oréal has made lots of money from black and brown women like me, who have few other options available. But I wasn’t mad about it. The game is the game. Business is business. And being able to use something was better than having nothing at all.
In fact, when I saw that their latest campaign featuring the likes of DJ Mercedes Benson and online content creator, Breeny Lee, I was pleased. It was nice to see both of these beautiful brown women get some recognition from mainstream culture. As black women, we become accustomed to not seeing ourselves properly represented in music videos, political parties and even TV dramas about black movements such as Guerrilla on Sky 1. We learn to celebrate small scraps where we can and when we can – although it is so much less than we deserve.
Perhaps that is the problem.
Today I woke up to a Twitter storm. Munroe Bergdorf, the first openly transgender woman to front a L’Oréal UK campaign had been dropped. What could Munroe have done? – I wondered. Her crime, it turns out, as revealed by the Daily Mail (no surprise there) was a Facebook post where she wrote about systemic racism, including the phrase “all white people are racist.” Bergdorf’s crime was to call out systemic racism boldly and unapologetically, without consideration for white comfort. Her crime was to speak her mind as a black woman. This can be dangerous, and it is perhaps why Munroe later deleted the Facebook post. But why is this same scenario not dangerous for white women? As many people on Twitter have pointed out, most notably Reni Eddo Lodge ,who wrote ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’, it is ok for white women to speak their minds. Hell, they can even use their fists if they feel it’s necessary. Cheryl Cole, the nation’s sweetheart, hit a black woman and called her a black b*tch –yet she did not lose her L’Oréal sponsorship like Munroe.
It is ironic and unfortunate that a brand which sells whitening creams has the confidence to call themselves “champions of diversity,” with not even a hint of shame. The popularity of lightening creams in black and brown countries across the globe is one of the most damaging legacies of colonialism and slavery – and they profit from it.
My willingness to accept this brand is testament to just how accustomed black women have become to living off scraps. Was I not among those celebrating the supposed recognition of people of colour in the mainstream beauty industry?
Many have pointed out that the removal of Munroe Bergdorf in comparison to Cheryl Cole’s retention is a perfect example of the systemic racism that Munroe has been punished for pointing out. And they are right, of course. But what now? What do we do with this knowledge. How do we respond to this injustice?
As black and brown people, or allies of black and brown people – do we stop speaking out about racial inequality and injustice in order to assuage mainstream white sensibilities? No one should criticise us for doing so. As we have seen with the likes of Munroe Bergdorf and Colin Kaepernick, speaking our minds can have serious financial consequences.
Yrsa Daley Ward, a favourite poet of mine said “No one can live on the scraps of things but we all spend years trying.”
Perhaps it is time the beauty industry stopped expecting black women to live off of the scraps that it offers them. It is time to look with renewed determination at supporting and building a sustainable black-owned beauty industry. Now this will not happen overnight and it will certainly not be easy. But what is the alternative?
I am still not guaranteed to find foundation my shade on my high street. I still have to trawl through YouTube to find swatches of lipsticks with my skin tone. In the beauty industry, as a black woman, I remain in many ways invisible. And when black women are seen, their representation comes with a cost, and a heavy one at that – their silence.
You could call it poetic justice then, that my Twitter timeline has also been flooded with the amazing advert from Rihanna’s new make-up line. True, it is being rolled out alongside Sephora and Harvey Nichols. But it’s a step in the right direction. Of course, there are also other smaller black owned beauty lines and businesses such as MDMFlow.
We should all do our very best to try and support them. It’s not just niche or cool, it is now necessary. Allies of all races can do this too, by buying products that are more race-neutral, such as mascaras, glosses and eyeshadows. Lena Dunham, as problematic as she is, has used her social media to support MDMFlow.
Black women have been supporting white-owned brands with their coins for years -often because they had no other choice. But it is time to stop living off the scraps of things. The silence is bitter in our mouths.
We owe the next generation a more truly diverse beauty industry – not just the semblance of one.
Written by Izin Akhabau