Afro-Latina supermodel Joan Smalls to fashion industry: Stop feeding the 'beast of racism'

Smalls blasted the industry for giving work to "photographers who refuse to shoot black models" or casting directors that wouldn't hire them.
Model Joan Smalls in Isabela, Puerto Rico in 2017.
Model Joan Smalls in Isabela, Puerto Rico in 2017.Brock Stoneham / NBC News

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By Nicole Acevedo

Supermodel Joan Smalls called out the fashion industry for largely staying silent and failing to meaningfully support Black people at a time when tens of thousands of demonstrators are protesting the death of George Floyd nationwide and demanding accountability for the dehumanization of Black people at the hands of law enforcement.

"I see agencies, magazines and brands posting black screens on their Instagram accounts. What does that really mean? What is the fashion industry actually going to do about it? Is this just another trend?" said Smalls on a video message posted on Instagram Thursday.

Smalls, who grew up in rural Puerto Rico, was named the first Latina face of Estee Lauder’s global marketing campaign in 2011 and by 2015 placed sixth on Forbes list of the world’s highest-paid supermodels. Her mother is Puerto Rican and her father is originally from St. Thomas.

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The recent and long standing acts against the black community have been saddening, frustrating and unacceptable. I feel these same emotions when I think about how my industry, the fashion world, is responding. It is time for this industry to do more than post a black square and say they’ll “Do Better!” It’s time for us to see the change starting from the ground up. Give us a seat at the table, include us, give us a chance, because we are worthy, talented and unique. There have been so many times where I’ve had to face issues against my race within this industry because I was their token black girl. The campaigns and editorials I had to share while my counterparts got to achieve that on their own. Or that my hair was an issue or that I made a show or campaign too ethnic, the list goes on and on. This industry that I love has profited from us but has never considered us equal. This. Stops. Now. It’s time for the fashion industry to stand up and show their solidarity. Time for you all to give back to these communities and cultures which you draw so much inspiration from. I do want to thank those that did see me for me and gave me a chance. Those that helped me fight my way to where I am today. Thank you, thank you for doing what you knew to be right versus what others said should be done. You will help us be the leaders of change. In saying all of this, I also pledge to donate 50% of my salary for the remainder of 2020 to Black Lives Matter organizations. I know I can’t just talk about change, I have to be a force for it. I encourage and will continue to encourage brands within this industry to do the same and give back. Let’s all be the change we want and need to see. These battles are long from over but together we’re stronger and together we can accomplish what is needed. #WeAreNotATrend #blacklivesmatter

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"This industry that profits from our black and brown bodies, our culture for constant inspiration, our music and our images for their visuals have tip-toed around the issues. You are part of the cycle that perpetuates these conscious behaviors," said Smalls, adding that many "who claim to be all about diversity and inclusivity jumped on a bandwagon because social media was holding you accountable for your lack of acknowledgement of us."

Smalls is a familiar face on some of the most coveted runway shows for designers such as Chanel and Tom Ford. But as she was earning her place within the fashion industry, she also gained insight to their "world of complicity."

Supermodel Joan Smalls:

Sept. 20, 201703:01

"This industry that loves stereotyping us, how many times have I been told that my hair was an issue and set to control it, how many times have I had to share campaigns or editorials when I saw my counterparts have their achievements by themselves," said Smalls "It was a constant battle no one saw but one that I lived on a daily basis."

"You have continually let us down with your insensitivity and tone-deafness and damage control apologies of 'we will do better.' You fall short trying to narrate our stories by toning us down or having us be curated by people who have not lived or walked a day in our shoes," she said in the video post. "Well, now it's time to give us a real seat at the table because we are worthy, because we are talented, because we are unique and I stand by my words. I live them as a black and Latina woman."

Joan Smalls backstage before a show in Milan on June 16, 2018.Vittorio Zunino Celotto / Getty Images file

Smalls said that while she doesn't "need validation from an industry that casts me as the token black girl while ignoring my whole cultural identity," she does need the fashion industry to recognize "the systematic issues, the issues that arise from top to bottom," from continuing to work with photographers who refuse to shoot black models because "there's no need to shoot a black girl" to casting directors unwilling to give opportunities to black models.

"You feed the beast, the beast of racism and inequality," said Smalls, who also acknowledged those in the industry "that did see me for me and gave me a chance."

Smalls urged the fashion industry to take actionable steps and show solidarity by giving back to the communities "you get so much inspiration from."

Smalls has pledged to donate 50 percent of her salary for the remainder of the year to support organizations helping the Black Lives Matter movement. She also promised to encourage the brands she works with to implement policies that further racial inclusivity in their companies.

"I will do my part and I urge the fashion industry to do the same," said Smalls.

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