Fake Love: It's Time to Stop Celebrating Appropriation Masked as Representation
When I first saw Nylon Magazine’s “Fashion Month & Black History Month” digital cover, I didn’t know what to think. There it was: what looked like the cover of… my magazine, featuring five gorgeous Black models with various natural hairstyles, positioned in such a familiar manner, on such a familiar backdrop, image cropped in such a familiar way…. In the caption below were the words: “Recognize. Represent. Reclaim. Revolutionize.”
But it wasn’t the cover of CRWN Magazine’s Love Issue I was looking at — it was the digital cover of Nylon Magazine. For their February cover story, they decided to work with an all women-of-color team of creatives. A novel idea.
To be exceedingly clear, I am not a fan of controversy or confrontation. I make a point of avoiding conversations that could pit me against my kinfolk in any way. And don’t get me wrong: their cover image is strikingly beautiful and features women — and the work of women — that I truly admire and hope to work with one day soon.
Furthermore, my typical approach is to stand firm in the fact that our work at CRWN Magazine speaks for itself. We touch real Black women in real, tangible ways every single day. That’s a fact, even if we’re never considered “mainstream” or a “household name.” Even if there’s another “digital cover” that looks like ours. We are creating from an authentic place, for the love of our people; and when all is said and done, that is the legacy we’ll leave behind. With this and more in mind, I decided to bite my tongue.
But over the next several days, dozens of friends and colleagues reached out to us directly; customers even writing lengthy, passionate posts on social media about Nylon’s cover. The common thread was a feeling of betrayal and disrespect. They were offended. And if I was being honest with myself, I was offended.
And then it hit me: as per usual, this isn’t really about me or my personal feelings at all. This isn’t even about CRWN. It’s not really even about Nylon, or their Editor-In-Chief, Gabrielle; who more than likely feels like she’s making a huge impact by being able to tell her friends that, “Everyone we hired for the February cover story was a woman of color ⚡.” No, this is about the sneaky, insidious little ways that mainstream media consistently takes shortcuts to capture the dollars and influence of the incredibly powerful Black consumer...while paying us the least. It’s about appropriation masked as representation. It’s about the brand of “empowerment” that allows people to march with us in the streets and get all revolutionary one day (but only when it’s not that heavy police brutality stuff), and deny us access and resources and fair compensation the very next.
After reflecting on it over the last two weeks, my overwhelming sentiment is, NOT TODAY. This is a touchy subject for many reasons, and one I don’t take lightly; but here is my shot at articulating exactly why I find this cover problematic:
The Fetishization of Blackness and Black History Month for Commerce.
Black History Month is not a marketing plan. The Black “bodies” Nylon featured this month shouldn’t be leveraged for a few weeks of PR. This type of blatant tokenism is a direct affront and insult to the work of our ancestors — like Carter G. Woodson, who warned us of the Mis-education of the Negro and lobbied extensively to establish Negro History Week (later expanded to the full month of February) almost a century ago. It’s not a fad and it’s not about selling shiny Black
people objects; it’s about accurately documenting our legacy as a people.
Instead of making a commitment to address hiring and casting practices year-round, Nylon casually borrowed the purpose of CRWN Magazine’s very existence — and made it their marketing plan for one month. Black creative entrepreneurs have to eat twelve months per year. Will these same women of color be hired by Nylon in March, April and beyond? I hope so. It’s time to move beyond lip service and cute gestures to address cultural and institutional practices at large.
There are indeed productive and impactful ways that mainstream platforms can participate in Black History Month, but replicating the cover of a Black-owned publication is surely not one of them.
Established Brands Preying on Black Excellence.
We were truly appreciative when Nylon interviewed us about CRWN in 2016, calling us the “Black Girl Magic Bible” and specifically praising our cover’s minimal aesthetic: “The first thing that stands out about the recently launched magazine CRWN is its stunning, minimalist imagery…. There are no cover lines, no teasing of articles, no description of the magazine. It pulls you in without having to shout.”
Similarly, the women involved in the creation of Nylon’s cover are proud to have their work showcased on such an established platform — and rightfully so. But my question is this: where were Nylon’s Black History Month covers the last 18 years when they were still a print magazine? February 2017’s (print) issue was covered by Lena Dunham. February 2016: Michelle Phan. February 2015: Anna Kendrick. 2014: Vanessa Hudgens... Is it a coincidence that they chose to “celebrate five amazing [Black] models killing the game” during the first February after discontinuing their print offering? Or is this an attempt to grab a piece of the Black Girl Magic for the low?
As the owner of a print publication, I’m acutely aware of the costs and investment associated with producing print, and I believe that Black women are “worth the trouble.” I wonder if Nylon can say the same.
Professional and Creative Integrity.
Shit happens. Creatives borrow from each other and are inspired by each other all the time. Hell, Solange has inspired Black women across the globe to dress in various shades of nude & pose with foliage on the ‘Gram for the last three years. I get it. And it has been glorious. To be honest, when I saw the Nylon cover, I initially felt flattered on some level. CRWN’s presence is being felt, and that’s a beautiful thing, for all of us.
But at the end of the day, this is not about the borrowing of aesthetic, or having similar creative influences. It’s about, as our cover girl Lauren Ash so eloquently put it (in an unrelated post), the historical “misrepresentation, erasure, and re-writing that has wreaked irrevocable damage on the ways we see ourselves.” That is the very reason she chose to be on our cover and that is what CRWN is here to combat. Every month. We are putting in the painstaking work it takes to own the platform so that we can own our narrative. Instances like this muddy the waters, all while claiming to “celebrate us.” Pardon me if the celebration feels disingenuous.
Whether Nylon’s leadership deliberately replicated CRWN Magazine’s cover or not, maybe we’ll never know. What I do know is this: if their true mission is to empower and celebrate Black women, it would have taken all of 30 seconds to identify the short list of Black-owned, independent publications based in NYC; and to, at the very least, create an image for Black History Month that doesn’t look like one of them. Is that too much to ask?
The unfortunate answer is, perhaps it is. And still we rise...
My parting questions for us all are as follows: what is Nylon seeking to Recognize? Who are they Representing, exactly? What are they Reclaiming, and from whom? And I’d especially love to know: what is their definition of Revolution? I know what mine is.
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