The Inside Story of the Revolt at Refinery29
After years of pivots to video, laughable salaries, slow professional development tracks, private Slack groups for Black employees to share inside jokes and commiserate, mostly white leadership, relentless rounds of layoffs, and more of us venturing out on our own to try influencing, Black media professionals snapped. Yes, COVID-19 further weakened our sense of job security and left many of us at home bored; and the death of George Floyd, plus the subsequent uprising that forced America to once again face its deadly racism, were just the straw that broke the camel’s back. The media industry has been hurtling towards this moment of reckoning for a while.
It started with a tweet from Ashley Alese Edwards. Since then, editors-in-chief at Refinery29, Bon Appetit, and Man Repeller have resigned or “stepped back.” Employees at these publications and the media companies Bustle and Condé Nast have spoken up about discrimination and microaggressions. Hundreds online supported our calls for accountability. Then we started a movement that reinstilled us with some hope, after all. All this happened in less than two weeks.
When the country started protesting after Floyd’s death, Refinery29 wanted to show their support. They turned their homepage and the background color of most of their social channels from white to black. I’m sure they thought it would make a bold statement of solidarity with Black people. But it had the opposite effect. Edwards tweeted that the aesthetic shift was “cool.” (As a friend and former co-worker of Edwards during our time at Refinery29, I can tell you she was being sarcastic.) Then she added, “But you know what real allyship looks like? Paying your Black employees fairly, having Black women in top leadership positions & addressing the microaggressions your Black employees deal with from management on a daily basis.” She recounted the time her bosses tried to get her to appear on Tucker Carlson, which would have certainly opened her up to the harassment of conservative trolls. She called for other R29ers of color to direct message her with their own experiences of “discrimination and microagressions” so she could help demand accountability. But she’d opened the floodgates, and morale in the industry being what it is, none of us felt the need to speak privately about it.
Tweeting with the hashtag #BlackAtR29, Khalea Underwood recalled being pigeonholed as the Black hair expert on the beauty team and not allowed to cover much else, and certainly not allowed a promotion. Her experience at Refinery29 caused anxiety attacks. Channing Hargrove was asked to write an apology piece to white women after a story about them co-opting gold chains went viral. The same editor-in-chief who raised the stink about it cried in another meeting when someone said she was “squeamish” about race. Ashley Ford left after less than nine months, during which time she was repeatedly mistaken for another Black female employee and witnessed what she called “a toxic company culture where white women’s egos ruled the near non-existent editorial processes.” Raven Baker was verbally accosted by a talent director as an intern while her white female colleagues looked on in silence. I remembered being mistaken for a caterer because I stopped a white woman drinking wine that wasn’t her’s, and agreed that Refinery29 was an official publication of white women.
We shared insights from the growing thread in a private group chat. Things got especially juicy when someone defending Refinery29 created what appeared to be a dummy Instagram account to troll Edwards, Hargrove, and several others. But the momentum was too strong to be shut down. So many stories like ours started to pour in across social media platforms that @R29Stories was created on Twitter just to aggregate them all. What we did not expect, though, was for similar accounts to pop up on behalf of Black current and former employees at Bustle and Condé Nast. This was bigger than Refinery29. It turns out that the media, an industry that has continuously leaned towards progressive values, wasn’t exempt from treating Black people poorly. They relied on our silence to avoid accountability.
For Hargrove, this is why it was important that she spoke up. “I felt railroaded while I was there,” she tells me. “The racism I experienced was perpetuated against me by a white woman with a grudge. The editor-in-chief was a huge part of that, but she was not the only one complicit in it. She was empowered by those around her in upper management and it's really quite sickening.” Hargrove said that speaking up publicly was the only way to guarantee no other Black journalist had to experience what she did.
Without a massive overhaul of the entire industry, it’s hard to make that a guarantee. But Edwards thought that we should at least acknowledge the pain and circumstances of these professionals, most of them Black women. She proposed a day of solidarity that called on these women of color, allies, and their publications to pause their creative output. Hargrove and myself brainstormed the name Quiet As We’re Kept, a nod to the Black saying “quiet as kept,” and the silencing of women for years in the industry as a whole. To support freelancers who wanted to participate without losing out on income, Karina Carmona created a fund to help pay some of them. Ludmila Leiva made graphics, and our networks shared them widely.
Reliving our media trauma was scary and honestly exhausting, but it was not in vain. Several companies, including Refinery29, are implementing structural changes, and rethinking what it means to live up to equitable and inclusive values. Over 450 people across outlets that included Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Vogue, Garage, Men’s Health, Fashionista.com, GQ, The Zoe Report, and The Cut participated in #QuietAsWereKept. Our freelance fund raised nearly $40,000, allowing us to pay 75 women of color over $500 each.
Ultimately, Black women telling their own stories will always have the biggest impact, as long as we can make sure someone is listening. In this case, we harnessed the power of our media expertise and extensive social networks to create the industry we wished we worked in, even if it was only for a few days.