Taylor Johnson / The New York Times

A broken beauty product in New York.

August 7, 2020

As Beauty Industry Reckons With Race, Scholars Remain Skeptical

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After the Black Lives Matter movement proliferated in the wake of George Floyd’s death, many beauty companies released statements in support of the movement.

However, several brands in the beauty industry have been criticized for appearing to only promote diversity and racial justice on a surface level through social media statements.

L’Oreal Paris is one of many beauty companies that made public statements of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement on their social media accounts. But the company received backlash once news surfaced that it fired campaign representative Munroe Bergdorf, a Black transgender woman, in 2017 after she publicly spoke out against white supremacy at a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The beauty industry is no stranger to backlash when it comes to racial discrimination and the lack of representation for people of color. While Black and brown skin tone oriented makeup brands such as Fenty Beauty and HUDA Beauty have seen rapid growth, many large beauty brands are still struggling to adapt their products for a diverse customer base.

In 2019, Tarte Cosmetics faced backlash for the lack of shade representation in its new “Shape Tape Foundation” line. Other brands like It Cosmetics, Yves Saint Laurent and Beautyblender were also criticized for their limited foundation shade ranges and shades catered primarily toward lighter skin tones.

Prof. Noliwe Rooks, Africana studies, explained that the corporate ramifications of racism in the beauty industry stem from a consistent pattern of not crediting minorities.

An example of this is in hairstyles like “white or Asian people with dreadlocks or box braids, at a time when Black people wearing those styles will have them kicked out of school or fired from their jobs. Some academics talk about this as loving Black culture, but not Black people,” Rooks said.

“[Companies] need to reckon with their own exploitation of their relationships with the Black communities. To what degree have they been making money [off of them] without reparations?” said Zifeng Liu grad, a fifth-year Ph.D. student in Africana studies.

Paid internships with social media influences present another diversity issue in the beauty industry. Instagram and other social media influencers are often white, and influencers of color have spoken out about brands discriminating against them.

Influencer Valerie Eguavoen recently penned a letter to Fohr, a leading marketing platform, asking it to be more transparent in how an influencer’s race affects pricing. Other beauty influencers signed onto Eguavoen’s letter.

On the other hand, other beauty companies are donating to causes related to the Black Lives Matter Movement and promising systematic change within their companies.In May, Glossier pledged $100 million to Black-owned beauty businesses and other organizations advocating for the goals of Black Lives Matter.

Liu said he was still skeptical of some of the statements and recent initiatives of major beauty companies, saying that consumers should support local businesses owned by people of color instead.

Rooks was more hopeful, but also expressed reservations about companies’ actions in following through with their initial statements.

“We are all, I think, gratified about how many corporate and institutional statements we are seeing about Black Lives Matter, and I think at the same time, we are all waiting to see what types of concrete actions follow,” Rooks said.

Maia Lee ’21 contributed reporting.

Correction, Aug. 10, 12:19 p.m.: A previous version of this article misstated Rook’s department affiliation. She is a professor in the Africana studies department, not feminist, gender and sexuality studies. The article also misattributed the concept of “racial plagiarism” to Rooks. Former Cornell professor Minh-ha Pham first penned the term. The article has since been updated to reflect these changes.