Illustrated by Ally Zhu

Francesca Hodges
23 August 2020

June 8th saw Christene Barberich’s resignation as EIC of Refinery29. June 11th witnessed Leandra Medine Cohen’s self-removal from Man Repeller’s main operations. That same day, over 450 writers and creatives halted publishing content to stand in solidarity with Black and non-Black people of color (POC) in fashion media, under the #QuietAsWereKept campaign.

Since then, many testimonies from past and present employees at legacy fashion media platforms continue to surface, undermining the gender glass ceiling that these companies broke to find their success.

While each testimony speaks to different workplace microaggressions or wage inequities, most stories surround race.

“It is not uncommon for Black writers to have more experience and more education than, not only their white counterparts but their white leadership as well,” Celeste Little, a current writer at Man Repeller, said in an email. “For me, the result of this has been having my ideas taken without compensation, having grammatical errors edited into my work.”

While Little could not comment on racial equity at Man Repeller specifically, with nine years of industry experience, she has become familiar with the systemic disparities between herself and her white colleagues.

This racial reckoning surprised many long-time readers of Man Repeller and Refinery29, as both companies display a diverse work staff and produce inclusive, progressive content. Refinery29 even boasts its Unbothered section as a space to celebrate Black voices.

However, Connie Wang, a current senior features writer at Refinery29, stressed that solely focusing on hiring a diverse staff or publishing content from Black creators proves futile in actualizing company inclusivity.

“When I see campaigns that exclusively focus on representation or exclusively focus on the content that gets made, it’s maybe a little too superficial,” Wang said. “So I think amplifying the content is, of course, important, but I think what’s really crucial is the structural elements of what it means to create a workplace where people feel supported in their work — financially, culturally, and professionally supported.”

Man Repeller issued a series of apology statements that have dissatisfied readers who demand corporate rectification for alleged racial misconduct — including the unprovoked firing of writer Crystal Anderson. The founder and CEO Leandra Medine Cohen said she would step back from Man Repeller, which sparked some criticism from fans and critics alike. As the platform started as Medine Cohen’s own personal blog, many readers read her distancing from the company as a diversion of responsibility. 

“It’s not enough to say you want to do better or abdicate the position of power that you’re in if you’re not an institution investing in hiring … more Black writers and writers that aren’t white,” Frida Garza of The Guardian said.

Garza questioned Man Repeller’s relevance in a recent article, claiming that their mission statement has failed to adapt to changing times in which the premise of “man repelling” does hold weight.

The platform’s alleged internal elitism surfaced alongside workplace microaggressions. Emma Hager, who interned at Man Repeller in 2015, stated that she remained close with former employees “folx who have tried to speak up about these issues within the company and the mistreatment of people in the company and their lives have been made, their company lives that is, been made utter hell because of it.”

Hager expanded upon the company treatment of Black and non-Black POC employees, as she detailed how “They’re not let into certain meetings and they’re not allowed to write certain things, so the silencing that’s gone on against these issues, which people have been calling them out for internally for a really long time was rampant.”

Since its inception in 2010, Man Repeller has diversified its staff (they now have 14% Black employees), however, employees accuse the company of gaslighting their Black creatives as seen with exclusion from promotions or lack of credit for work.

To combat this invisibility of the alleged internal racial misconduct at fashion media giants, hashtags on Twitter seek to attract public attention to the issue.

Channing Hargrove, a former writer at Refinery29, remains vocal on Twitter through the thread #BlackatR29 about microaggressions she faced in the office that allegedly culminated in her formal dismissal last January. In an email interview, Hargrove reflected on her time at Refinery29 and the drastic change that she believes needs to occur in fashion media. 

“Refinery29 needs to gut its entire management and executive staff,” Hargrove said. “No real change can be had under the people who were very much complacent in creating the toxicity in the company.”

A tweet by former Refinery29 writer, Channing Hargrove
Illustrated by Ally Zhu

Another contributor to #BlackatR29 Taylor Smith said that corporate leaders overlooked her attempts to confront microaggressions at the company. 

“There’s no room for grievances,” Smith said. “When I did bring up things [to HR] that were alarming to me, I wasn’t met with much support, or asking ‘How can we fix this?’ It was more, ‘That’s the way it is, get over it.’”

Looking to the future, many critics within fashion media are turning inward to see how systems that hinder Black and non-Black POC corporate success may be dismantled, and then restructured.

“You need people of color at the top to implement change that affects the entire business model. It is about hiring from the top and it has to be more, in terms of Man Repeller, more than just having some freelance writers who are people of color,” Priya Elan, deputy fashion editor of The Guardian, said.

Elan also posits that fashion media platform executives will have to negotiate their current, capital-accumulating business models to create inclusive workplaces that readerships are calling for. This buy ivermectin uk .

Freelancer Allyssia Alleyne also challenged the commitment level of fashion media platforms to implementing internal change.
“If inclusion and diversity and anti-racism is something you really claim to value, you need to take responsibility to find these people to help your company,” Allyssia Alleyne said.

Alleyne’s most recent work focuses on fashion media’s performative activism in the wake of national protests against police brutality, while exposing internal racial issues within the industry as a whole. 

Smith echoes Alleyne’s desire for future hiring practices that reflect corporate accountability.

“There needs to be doors opened, and not the type of doors that will make people say ‘You don’t deserve to be here’ — the type of doors that actually are supportive and sustainable and not just hand-outs — for people who actually deserve them and feel like they’re worthy and that they’re respected at that company,” Smith said.

Naydeline Mejia, a current freelancer whose work has been published on Refinery29, questioned the temporality of corporate allyship in the face of employee testimonies.

“It’s one thing to say that you’re an ally. It’s another thing to actually act on that and actually care about your employees and not say that you do because of something that’s being said online, or because the whole movement is ‘trending.’” Mejia said. “It’s not a trend for BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, people of color]. It’s their reality.”

When Refinery29 and Man Repeller first came into internet positions of power, their feminist counter-culture appeared revolutionary to many. And they were, considering the polished, runway-focused elitism that ran through mainstream fashion media sites at the time.

The performative optics that many media companies are currently embracing
Illustrated by Ally Zhu

However, these outwardly inclusive companies still operate within an economic schema that is based off of aesthetics, grounded in luxury desires. These media platforms that started off as smaller blogs not only adapted to, but highly encouraged their own incorporation into the capitalist world of paid partnerships with name brands. The relatable became the attainable, and with that, readerships were left witnessing a massive disconnect between mission statements and monetary realities.

Amidst our current social climate, we are awakening to a time where questioning systems of privilege and institutions of power is necessary to create the inclusive, progressive society we wish to see. With that, we must also turn and challenge the institutions that govern our expectations of what content holds our time and attention.

We must ask what voices are being amplified, and under what conditions they are being brought to the forefront of their platforms. We must investigate for ourselves whether or not these platforms are prioritizing performative activism over changing their involvement with capitalist-based partnerships. It might have been enough in the past to diversify content or staff demographics, but now, the exposure of workplace cultures speak stronger to the morals and values of those in positions of power. These individuals continue to profit off the exploitation of their Black and non-Black POC employees, through a false guise of diversifying content.
“Black and Brown people contribute greatly to every facet of every industry they belong to, and media is no different,” Little said. “We are the writers and what is written about.”

Fashion media for far too long has utilized content from Black and non-Black POC without sufficient financial compensation or equal access to corporate positions. Over the past month since the initial testimonies from Man Repeller and Refinery29 broke, both platforms have issued an increase of transparency reports and have published Black-created, Black-centered content. Their outward optics present that the two mediums are committed to changing their internal dynamics; however, only time will tell if they continue this movement into future hiring practices and equitable compensation for equal work.