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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.
/ Source: NBC News

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.

"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, 201703:00

"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 at Milan Men's Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2019
Joan Smalls backstage before a show in Milan on June 16, 2018.Vittorio Zunino Celotto / Getty Images

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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