Microaggressions and the feelings that come after them were among the topics explored at Fairchild Media Group’s “Fashioning Equity” Diversity Forum held on March 23. The virtual event examined fashion and beauty’s progress on diversity and representation through candid conversations by leaders and power players in the industry.
Bri Hall, a content creator and podcast host of Count to Ten, moderated a discussion of personal experiences on how microaggressions manifest in the workplace and throughout everyday life — and the unwelcome space they can create for marginalized communities.
A common experience the panelists shared was how quickly some microaggressions can occur. “They can take you by surprise,” Hall, who identifies as Black, said of some of her past encounters.
Elizabeth A. Morrison, chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer at Levi Strauss & Co., said she recently had an unexpected encounter with someone that resulted in a microaggression. Morrison, who identifies as Black and is based in Los Angeles, recalled taking her friend and her sister, who was visiting from out of town, to the Venice Canals, a picturesque L.A. community known to attract tourists because of its canals, landscaping, tony homes and resemblance to Italy’s city.
“We were there laughing, talking, having a good time and taking pictures, which was what quite a few groups of tourists were doing,” Morrison said. “Out of the blue, a woman who was pushing a baby stroller — we’re three Black women and she was a white woman walking with another white woman — came up to us and interrupted our conversation and said, ‘Are you lost?’ And my sister and I looked at each other, and my girlfriend immediately was like, ‘No, we’re not [expletive] lost.’ And I was just taken aback. I didn’t understand what had just happened. And it happened so quickly…it’s just one of those moments where you’re, like, ‘Why did that just happen?’ And you don’t want to think it’s because of the color of your skin, and you don’t want to think it’s because of your identity. But what other reason is there? We didn’t look lost. We weren’t acting lost and we weren’t lost.”
Danielle Williams Eke, who identifies as Black and is the design director of luxury size-inclusive e-tailer 11 Honoré, also recalled a microaggression that diminished a positive experience during a moment that was one of the highlights of her career. “Mine actually took place at fashion week,” she said.
“The show was about to start, and so I went up to the makeup artist that I had actually met earlier that day as we were talking through our inspiration for the team and for the models. I went up to her and asked her, ‘Could you give me a quick lip?’ because that was really all we had time for, and her response to me was ‘No, like, not even a little bit.’ It was really snarky, really rude. And initially, I thought maybe she was being sarcastic,” Williams Eke said. “I gave a little laugh and then found out she wasn’t being sarcastic. And that just really took me off guard. It was one of the biggest days of my careers…And in two seconds, I felt this big because it was really dismissive.
“Typically, I find the microaggressions that I encounter are kind of, like, ‘Why are you supposed to be in this space? Why are you in this space?’ Long story short, the show has started. I’m kind of behind the models about to walk out — the final walk that all of the designers do — and I feel a tap on my shoulder and it was the lady I had asked to do my lip….And she’s, like, ‘I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.’ I guess she didn’t realize I was the designer,” she said.
Sometimes it’s unconscious bias at play for those who perpetrate microaggressions. And it can lead to an opportunity to educate someone about their offenses.
Pamela Zapata, who identifies as Afro-Latina and is the founder of talent agency Society 18, recalled how a first-time face-to-face meeting resulted in an assumption of her status.
“I had a trip and come out to L.A. to meet [an influencer client’s mother] for the first time and I remember when she saw me, she said, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re not what I thought you were going to look like at all.’ And initially I said, ‘What did you think I was going to look like…What did you have in mind?’ And she said, ‘I thought you were, you know, blond hair, blue eyes,’” Zapata said.
She described feeling “a mix of emotions” after the comments.
“She didn’t really understand the power behind those words and what that really meant,” Zapata continued. “I think just because I was articulate and I could negotiate a deal and make a contract that I couldn’t have been a person of color, right?”
These realities are constant for people of color and, the impact of these encounters won’t always come across in corporate trainings, which is why, as Morrison said, companies will need to do the work to get at the whys behind these biases and focus on education to root them out.