Joan Smalls during Paris Fashion Week in January 2020.
Joan Smalls during Paris Fashion Week in January 2020.
Photo: Lucas Barioulet (AFP via Getty Images)

The fashion industry has long prided itself on making statements, but its recent response to outcries for racial justice has left much to be desired in the eyes of some of its most luminous members. The black boxes splashed across social media on #BlackoutTuesday (June 20) have been followed by a similarly echoing silence on the part of several labels and influencers, and supermodel Joan Smalls says it’s not enough.

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On June 11, Smalls wrote a heartfelt yet indicting open letter to the industry that has made her a star, published by Harper’s Bazaar. “An industry that profits from our Black and Brown bodies, our culture for constant inspiration, our music (that continues to glorify these brands), and our images for their visuals has tiptoed around the issue at hand,” she wrote. “You are part of the cycle that perpetuates these conscious behaviors.”

Smalls continued (in part):

I want to share a little insight into this world of complicity. Many of you who claim to be all about “diversity and inclusivity” jumped on a bandwagon, because social media held you accountable for your lack of acknowledgment of us, and you hid behind your aesthetic of creativity or so-called beauty...But was it sincere, or were you forced to make changes to please and placate your consumers?

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I don’t need validation from an industry that casts me as the token Black girl while ignoring my whole cultural identity as a proud Latina as well. What I do need is recognition of the systemic issues—the issues that arise from top to bottom within the industry, from photographers not wanting to shoot me because there was no need to shoot a Black girl to the magazines, brands, and agencies who continue to work with people of that mindset. Just like stylists and casting directors not willing to treat us fairly and give us a chance, yet you, the industry, continue to employ them. You feed the beast. The beast of racism and exclusivity.

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Smalls minces no words in calling for accountability from industry gatekeepers, promising to personally curate a list of “models, hairstylists, makeup artists, and other creatives and people of color within the industry who can help diversify all brands.” And yet, the Puerto Rican supermodel is leading by example when it comes to using her status and wealth for good. For the remainder of 2020, Smalls has pledged to donate 50 percent of her income to racial justice and equality organizations and has just made it easier for interested parties to follow suit, partnering with Nashville-based entertainment marketing agency FlyteVu and digital agency Aardvark Brigade to relaunch the online donation platform Donate My Wage, making it easy for individuals to calculate a one-time donation to show solidarity and support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Per a release sent to The Glow Up:

The Donate My Wage site helps individuals easily calculate their potential donation based on yearly salary. Suggested donations can be a month’s, week’s, day’s or hour’s wage, however, there is also the option for a custom amount. After calculating, donors are then able to select from a variety of organizations handpicked by Smalls to support. Once selected, donors will then be directed to the organization’s donation page to complete the commitment.

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“I knew that I wanted and had to do more,” said Smalls in a statement. “Donating a portion of my salary will make an impact but I wanted to do something that gave anyone and everyone the opportunity to act and donate. My hope is that Donate My Wage will help educate those that are interested in being an active participant in the Black Lives Matter movement and bring needed attention to organizations that require monetary support to continue their important work. This is just the beginning and together our impact can be so much more.”

Smalls’ agency, IMG Models has already joined the effort, pledging a founding donation of $250,000 to the 11 founding organizations identified by Smalls, including Black Women’s Blueprint, Black Visions Collective, BLD PWR, Color of Change, Equal Justice Initiative, Gideon’s Army, Innocence Project, Know Your Rights Camp, The Marshall Project, Until Freedom and United Negro College Fund.

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“IMG Models is proud to support Joan and Donate My Wage in creating opportunities for everyone to participate in advancing racial equality and justice,” said Ivan Bart, President of IMG Models and Fashion, via a statement. “We hope this donation will contribute meaningfully to raising awareness and affecting systemic change as part of our ongoing efforts to champion diversity and inclusion in the fashion industry.”

Hopefully, Smalls’ challenge will motivate industry leaders to make more than performative gestures while they continue to perpetuate a culture of exclusivity and bias—not to mention a silence on social justice issues that Smalls calls “insulting.” No doubt, the supermodel will be watching, as she noted in her open letter, “I’ve seen many people who miraculously developed empathy, yet when they are behind closed doors, they are a part of the group holding us back. We see you! Do you see us now?”

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“Brands have continually let us down with their insensitivity and tone-deafness, and the damage control apologies of ‘We will do better,’” Smalls also noted. “My reply to you is: This is your chance! The moment when you speak up and demonstrate that you care. If you genuinely care, then show it!”

Maiysha Kai is Managing Editor of The Glow Up, an avid eyeshadow enthusiast and always her own muse. Minneapolis born, Chicago bred, New York built. Nuance is her superpower.

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