The death of George Floyd sparked global protests and prompted many to speak up about the long history of racial inequality in America. People from all over the world stood in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) Movement and revealed the prevalence of racism in almost every aspect of everyday life. Many media companies, especially the ones that explicitly promote inclusivity, released statements in solidarity with the movement—though this was met with their black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) workers and former employees exposing them for not practicing what they preach.
Within the popular internet media company, several employees spoke up about how Buzzfeed exploited BIPOC culture. Buzzfeed’s former beauty and style writer Daniela Cadena wrote on Twitter that the company only had two Latinx people creating content for years and said “every time I pitched a Latinx story, my white editor would say ‘but who’s going to read that?’” On top of her full-time job as a writer, she was also managing and editing work from freelancers, for which she was underpaid.
Many creators accused the company of using their content mainly for profit and not for proper representation. Cadena mentioned that during her time in Buzzfeed, “they only started caring about Hispanic Heritage content after someone from sales said ‘we could sell this.’” Other testimonials from former Buzzfeed employees were linked to Cadena’s Twitter thread, exposing more instances of the media site exploiting BIPOC culture.
Buzzfeed’s former regional director to the Americas Conz Preti mentioned more instances when management didn’t value their Latinx employees. In her Twitter thread, she admitted that she “fought so hard to hire latinx and kept reminding management that we needed more diversity everywhere in the company. It was not surprise when the lay offs happen to see all the latinx I had personally hired affected by them.”
As a Latina, I also have things to say about @BuzzFeed. Like that time I found out a white dude who reported directly to me made WAY more than I did. When I complained, instead of acknowledging the pay gap, they moved him to report to another white dude. https://t.co/SpNjmSpwlv
— Conz Preti (@conz) June 4, 2020
Journalist Patrice Peck wrote on her Twitter that her experience in the company was filled with times that “BuzzFeed’s Woke White Managers/Execs Gaslit TF Out Of Their Black Colleagues.” Here, she included statements from Preti, Cadena and their former entertainment reporter Alanna Bennett who claimed that the company barely had any black managers. Not only that, former Buzzfeed writer Tracy Clayton raised the issue that even the “black [people] on the highest rungs of the company” contributed to the existing work culture.
this is one of the most painful parts honestly, and its so hard to talk abt bc it’s uncomfortable
but i left buzzfeed completely feeling like none of the black ppl on the highest rungs of the company ever gave a shit about what the rest of us were going thru. that hurts to say. https://t.co/SLSwgRrTFK
— tracy clayton aka CHUBBA BEEF (@brokeymcpoverty) June 4, 2020
Former Refinery29 editor Ashley Alese Edwards called out the website on Twitter for not practicing “true allyship” because of the pay gap, lack of black women in top leadership and the microaggressions they regularly dealt with. Edwards’ tweet opened the flood gates to testimonials from former employees which eventually drove Refinery29’s top editor Christene Barberich to step down from her position.
I worked at Refinery29 for less than nine months due to a toxic company culture where white women’s egos ruled the near non-existent editorial processes. One of the founders consistently confused myself and one our full-time front desk associates & pay disparity was atrocious.
— Ashley C. Ford (@iSmashFizzle) June 4, 2020
Many employees had a lot to say about how they were treated under the “toxic company culture.” Former beauty writer Khalea Underwood called out Refinery29 for belittling their BIPOC staff and described her experience of being “tokenized.” Underwood said that she was initially happy to be writing about black women and wanted “to take advantage of the ‘diverse storytelling’ that the brand prides itself on.” However, she felt that the company restricted her from taking on more responsibilities and attending events that would have helped her grow.
And ofc, there were cliques. I constantly observed some of my fellow writers and senior editors talk recklessly via Slack and Gchat when they thought no one was watching. They teased the quality of other people’s work, writing speed, their ideas, and even the site’s 67% Project.
— Khalea Underwood (@letsbeKHAlear) June 5, 2020
Other former Refinery29 employees spoke to CNN Business and expressed that Barberich was dismissive of minorities, specifically black women, when it came to her editorial choices. A former editor and a former executive photographer noticed that Barberich would constantly reject photos of black and plus-size women, considering them “off brand.” Both Refinery29 and Barberich released statements addressing the situation and said that the company would take this as an opportunity to change.
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I’d like to start by saying that I’ve read and taken in the raw and personal accounts of Black women and women of color regarding their experiences inside our company at Refinery29. And, what’s clear from these experiences, is that R29 has to change. We have to do better, and that starts with making room. And, so I will be stepping aside in my role at R29 to help diversify our leadership in editorial and ensure this brand and the people it touches can spark a new defining chapter. A chapter that demands a new voice—both for our team and our audience—one that can shape and guide the critical stories that have the real power to shift and disrupt our culture, helping to eliminate institutional barriers that separate us and hold our society back. We will begin the search for the next Global Editor-In-Chief of R29 immediately. It’s time for a new generation of leadership that’s truly reflective of the diversity of our audience with divergent points of view, one that builds and expands on our original mission to amplify and celebrate a wide range of voices, perspectives, and stories…stories that need and deserve to be told. That is still at the heart of this company and why its community has loved it so much for the past 15 years. Because they ARE Refinery29 today—and what it will become—which is even more important in this moment than what inspired us to create it in the first place.
Not having someone that represents them in upper management was a struggle that many BIPOC creators have been going through. Prachi Gupta, a former writer for Cosmopolitan, was inspired by Underwood and described her experience of being “tokenized” in Cosmopolitan. In a Twitter thread, she noted that she was placed in “very uncomfortable positions as a POC [and] there were no leaders of color to confide in or seek advice from.”
There were many other incidents, but since this is getting long: Around this time, abt 1 year in, I asked for a raise. I knew that I was paid less than the white woman who had held this job before me, and I wanted my compensation to reflect what my work had done for Cosmo’s brand
— Prachi Gupta (@prachigu) June 6, 2020
She noted that she also wasn’t being paid fairly compared to a white woman who previously held the same position as her. And when Gupta asked for a raise, her editor gave her one but she still earned less than her predecessor. Her stories about US President Donald Trump and her interview with Ivanka Trump boosted Cosmopolitan’s reputation and Gupta wanted appropriate compensation for the amount of work she did for the brand.
“Publicly, Cosmo benefitted from my work, but privately, I wasn’t allowed to take ownership of it. Higher-ups cut some of it bc they didn’t want it to seem like I was ‘bullying’ [Ivanka Trump]. I was forced to decline every TV opp & was not allowed to tweet when Trump insulted me,” Gupta explained in a Twitter thread.
Gupta’s story is a clear example of racial gaslighting which shows how people in top leadership dictated how people of color were supposed to feel when it comes to job opportunities.
To recap: As one of the few POC at the site, I advocated for fair pay, I asked for equal comp time, I asked about vague rules that held back my career–all things that Cosmo champions women to do at their workplace–and for this, I was reprimanded in a way that felt racist.
— Prachi Gupta (@prachigu) June 6, 2020
BIPOC workers have been consistently speaking up about unfair treatment internally, but many companies only decided to address these issues now. PAPER’s former editor Michael Love Michael publicized their resignation and claimed that PAPER’s sudden commitment to be sensitive felt “performative at best and hypocritical at worst.”
According to Michael’s Twitter thread, PAPER CEO Tom Florio sent an email to the whole company committing “to using our voice to help bring awareness and change to a system that continues to violate the rights of people of color.” This led to an exchange of emails between the two which Michael wrote “reveal so much about how Black/POC people are treated.”
Several employees tweeted their support to Michael including the social media editor who used PAPER’s official account to say that they stood with them. Florio, then, used the same account to publicly apologize for the open letter to the company that was “not more thoughtful and thorough.”
Bon Appétit’s editor-in-chief Adam Rapoport resigned over allegations of his racist tendencies that stemmed from backlash over a 2013 photo of him and his wife using brownface for Halloween costumes. Journalist Tammie Teclemariam shared the photo on Twitter to show Rapoport’s offensive behavior as he and his wife were all dressed up as Puerto Rican stereotypes. This drove several of their employees to expose the reality of the food magazine’s toxic work culture beyond Rapoport’s stance on race and diversity.
Among those who were enraged by Rapoport’s photo and asked for his resignation was Bon Appétit assistant editor and Test Kitchen member Sohla El-Waylly. In her Instagram stories, she denounced Rapaport’s brownface photo and spoke up about how she was used for the magazine’s videos as a “display of diversity.” She wrote, “In reality, currently only white editors are paid for their video appearances. None of the people of color have been compensated.” Not only that, she also spoke up about being hired to assist white editors with significantly less experience than her. Fellow Test Kitchen members Christina Chaey and Priya Krishna also called out Rapoport.
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As a BA contributor, I can’t stay silent on this. This is fucked up, plain and simple. It erases the work the BIPOC on staff have long been doing, behind the scenes. I plan to do everything in my power to hold the EIC, and systems that hold up actions like this, accountable. https://t.co/admyW8W2eM
— Priya Krishna (@priyakrishna) June 8, 2020
Aside from not paying the Test Kitchen cast members, Rapoport’s former assistant Ryan Walker-Hartshorn spoke up about how he treated her like the help and was the only black woman on their staff that was denied a pay raise.
Their former photographer Alex Lau also posted a Twitter thread that detailed how demoralizing it was for BIPOC creators to work in the company because management kept shooting their ideas down. He added that this was a problem that had to do with Condé Nast—the company behind Bon Appétit, Vogue, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and GQ—which has long allowed this culture.
Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour wrote a letter to their staff welcoming thoughts and reactions to how the brand could change and move forward. According to the letter acquired by Page Six, Wintour wrote “I want to say plainly that I know Vogue has not found enough ways to elevate and give space to Black editors, writers, photographers, designers and other creators. We have made mistakes too, publishing images or stories that have been hurtful or intolerant. I take full responsibility for those mistakes.” Wintour did not resign or step down from her position, but Matt Duckor, the vice president in charge of programming in Condé Nast announced his resignation on June 10 after being called out on Twitter for his racist and homophobic tweets.
These are only some of several confessions from BIPOC workers that have called out companies for how they’ve been experiencing discrimination in the workplace. Many of those mentioned above have echoed recurring factors that overlap with one another. Those who have experienced pay disparities, also experienced microaggressions from their colleagues.
Variety’s former writer Piya Sinha-Roy expressed the same sentiments and called out the industry for using them to “look better.” According to a 2019 survey from Lee & Low Books, only five percent of the publishing industry identify as black. Aside from this, the publishing workers who organized the “day of action” on June 8 called out the industry for practicing corporate diversity and inclusion initiatives that are toothless and built on a top-down approach that often exploits marginalized workers.
Publishing companies have a platform that serves as a voice of information towards their viewers. How can a company claim to be standing in solidarity with the BLM Movement if they fail to listen to their BIPOC employees’ concerns and reprimand their employees when they do speak up internally? While these companies have issued statements in support of the movement, these are long overdue. These BIPOC talents in the media are seeking to end systemic racism by calling for companies to do better than just hiring more BIPOC employees. Until all workers are treated equally in terms of salary, leadership and representation, a company can’t claim that they are a true ally.
Photo courtesy of Unsplash
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