Last summer, model Ebonee Davis learned Alton Sterling was killed by police on the same day that she saw herself—dark skin, natural hair, round nostrils and all—in a Calvin Klein campaign for the first time. The former was a heartbreaking, angering loss to the black community, while the latter was a hopeful step towards black women being fully accepted in the world of fashion and beauty. They were two starkly different events, but together, they motivated the 19-year-old to pen an open letter to the fashion industry, describing how fashion perpetuates systematic racism in America, and how it can dismantle it.
"Systemic racism began with slavery and has woven itself into the fabric of our culture, manifesting through police brutality, poverty, lack of education, and black incarceration," she wrote. "The most dangerous contributors? Advertising, beauty and fashion."
After months of candidly sharing her story as a black model, Davis' fight is not over yet. She recently led an impassioned TEDx Talk at the University of Nevada, released yesterday, about her experiences with racism in modeling, why she called out the fashion industry in her letter, and how the industry can be more inclusive.
On relaxing her natural hair for the first time as a child:
"Despite the burn of chemical on my scalp and smell of sulfur that filled the room, I was entranced at the prospect of having straight hair. It was beautiful. It was celebrated. And I with my kinky coils felt inadequate."
On experiences of racism throughout her modeling career:
"I had white agents with no knowledge of black hair care run their fingers through my hair and tell me things like, 'We already have a girl with your look.' Translation: all black girls look the same. Or, 'We don't think there's room for you on our board.' Translation: we're at the maximum capacity for the number of black models we'd like to represent. But the most excruciatingly painful: 'We just don't know what to do with you.' What I now see as an admission to their own incompetence felt like yet another attack. As if representing me would be some extraordinary challenge, simply because of the color of my skin."
"The fashion industry does not only reflect beauty standards, it's a reflection of the current state of our democracy."
On how her agency responded when she stopped relaxing her hair:
"When I made the decision to wear my hair natural last year, 'What are you doing with your hair?' 'You need to do something with that,' 'Clients will never book you like that,' was the response I got from my agency."
On why she wrote a letter to the fashion industry:
"But that all changed last summer when Alton Sterling was murdered by police. I went home and wrote a letter to the fashion industry emphasizing the duty that media has to help change the perception of black people. No longer could I remain silent. It is the same lack of value for black lives which causes black models to be excluded from the fashion industry, and also causes black men and women to be gunned down in the street."
On her definition of Black Girl Magic:
"Despite the grave injustices we face as black women, we can and have and will continue to rise out of the ashes, and become examples of resilience, drive, and excellence. I like to call this 'Black Girl Magic.' And with this magic, we are creating our own publications, we are creating our own television shows, we are creating our own narrative."
"Inclusion doesn't just mean one token black model. I don't want to be hired so I can fill an HR box. I want to be hired for my unique contribution to the industry. Instead of forcing my beauty into your pre-existing box and asking me to change, expand your definition of beauty to be inclusive. Change in the fashion industry isn't just making it easier for models of color; it's about using our collective voice to reshape the way we think about ourselves and the way we think about one another."
On how the fashion industry reflects the current political climate:
"The fashion industry does not only reflect beauty standards, it's a reflection of the current state of our democracy. Do not simply say, 'Black lives matter,' make a black model the face of your campaign; and not just next to or secondary to a white model. Put a model in a hijab on the cover of American Vogue. Put a Latina model on a billboard in Times Square. Make an Asian model your brand ambassador."
Watch her full TEDx Talk below.