By now you’re probably beginning to recognise my choice in literature tends to lean toward essays, advice and ‘self-help’ from women with the ‘been there, done that, got the t-shirt, here’s what I wish I knew’ type of narrative. Whilst I feel a degree of ease in reading these types of books – for their more casual and conversational writing style – I also enjoy this genre because I think no matter what storm is headed your way, there is a lesson somewhere between these pages that can help you rise up to your current challenge.
Particularly, Lisa Sugar’s ‘Power your happy’ lends itself to assisting with challenges everyone will face at some point in their professional lives; whether this be during that post-Graduate job search; building your network once in a role or deciding in the midst of your career that you’re unhappy and need a change. Instead of promoting self-care, and urging to have faith that everything will eventually fall into place, Sugar offers practical solutions with real life examples of how these worked for her. The structure of Sugar’s book is one split into chapters regarding areas of importance, rather than chronology – straying from the traditional autobiographical career guide approach. In opting to categorise the overarching lessons she learned in each of her roles, Sugar makes her powerful position of founder, seem no different to her job of folding Levi jeans as a teenager.
Sugar’s words aren’t just powerful in the face of career challenges, though, they are also powerful in navigating the day-to-day tasks, responsibilities and confrontations; if you’re not striving to establish your own company like Sugar was with Popsugar, there is still something of value for you to take away. I’ve always heard people speak of books they could read over and over again, though I’d never shared the same outlook, despite thoroughly enjoying each of the books I have read. This book, however, revolutionised my stance in regard to re-reading, because I can definitely see myself picking up and annotating Sugar’s book throughout my professional life. Why? Because I regard it as an honest, genuine and knowledgeable career companion. It is that tangible evidence you search for when you start a career conversation with friends and family who tell you to ‘hold tight’ in the face of challenges. While it is important to get things off your chest, it’s equally as important that you do not get mad at others when they’re unable to fully comprehend your situation, and provide you with a list of viable solutions.
While the career advice Sugar offers is helpful, the biggest reason I enjoyed reading this book was because I found Sugar’s words refreshing. Her ‘Work Hard, Play Nice’ motto which is too often overlooked by others who seek to give career advice, packs a punch in the face of those who claim being successful means being ruthless. Instead of replicating the ‘you can’t have it all’/ ‘nice girls don’t get the corner office’/ ‘it’s a dog eat dog world’ rhetoric we seem to be bombarded with, Sugar explains how a work-life balance is not only possible, but essential. Though this book was gifted to me, had I been browsing the professional development/ career advice section in my local book shop, amazon list or library I would see myself picking up Sugar’s book over others with this being one of the biggest reasons. From the blurb, to the opening timeline and every page afterward, you see that not only is Sugar aptly named, but well-founded in her sweet philosophy.
In early September, Huffington Post broke the story that the main character of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Charlie Bucket – was originally imagined by the author as a ‘little black boy’, but was persuaded by publishers to scrap the idea. Donald Sturrock, Dahl’s biographer, informed readers that Dahl’s agents at the time persuaded him Charlie being black did not serve to the purpose of the plot. Huffington Post went on to explain this reason further:
‘Publishers have long considered whiteness to be the default and expect that a character will only be non-white if their race serves a specific purpose in the story. Until recently, diverse representation in books was not deemed inherently valuable by the literary establishment’ – Huffington Post
‘Until recently’? Does that mean attitudes toward ‘default whiteness’ are changing?
Since this story broke, I couldn’t help but notice default whiteness at large in today’s culture, one of the most famous examples being the race debate over one of J.K. Rowling’s leading characters, Hermione Granger. In the West End’s Cursed Child production, a black actress, Noma Dumezweni, was cast to play the character, sparking widespread discussion as to what Hermione Granger’s racial background is. Like The Rowling Library, many turned to disseminating the books in search of evidence, only to conclude Hermione’s race was open to interpretation, confirmed by Rowling who did not see an issue in the casting decision, denouncing the racists who did, adding ‘Hermione can be a black woman with my absolute blessing and enthusiasm.’ (Shoutout Rowling)
Despite Rowling’s humbling reaction, isn’t the fact that Hermione’s race is never mentioned in the books, yet sparked controversy when Dumezweni was cast, conclusive of default whiteness in action? The idea that most readers and even the book’s filmmakers assumed Hermione was white, because a physical description did not explicitly tell us otherwise?
How do we go about rectifying this assumption?
As always, before the ‘how’, let’s talk about the ‘why’. In the publishing world, organisations like ‘We need diverse books’ are proving powerful sources for mobilising change to default whiteness by campaigning for greater representation. They cite a host of reasons for increasing diverse representation, two of the standout ones to me being:
- allowing young black and ethnic minorities to be given a sense of identity and belonging in reading characters like them
- stories from diverse perspectives facilitate the narratives of complex racial and cultural issues, which allows a better understanding of such issues to an otherwise uneducated audience
Indeed, this call for greater representation is reflected in publishers enlisting writers who pen characters and even personal experiences from a perspective other than white – one of my favourites being Roxane Gay with her Haitian family in ‘An Untamed State’ and her work with the ‘World of Wakanda’ comics.
But what about default whiteness on other platforms?
Whilst I can’t argue with the fact that we are beginning to see more black and ethnic characters, it’s clear that just seeing them isn’t enough. From children’s shows to adult sitcoms, it is clear the non-white characters are remaining true to the idea of being present to serve a specific purpose – and it’s becoming even clearer, this purpose is to serve as a source of comedy. Growing up with characters like Cory in the House’s Meena Paroom and Disney’s more recent take on ethnic minority Ravi Ross in it’s hit show Jessie, it’s clear Disney’s purpose with these narratives is humour, at the expense of ‘funny’ accents derivative of cultural identities. In short, I can’t help but wonder when Disney is going to wake TF up.
Meena is hardly representative of a minority, purely because Bhavaria – the country she is from – is fictional, with her portrayer Maiara Walsh admitting her accent is a take on a ‘mixed Arabic and Brazilian’. Not to mention, the character culturally appropriates Asian and Eastern European countries to build Bhavarian customs. How hard is it to pick a real country, and represent it accurately?
For Disney, their character Ravi Ross proves it is almost impossible. Despite being adopted into an American family from a young age, Ravi’s accent says otherwise, and there is limited mention of his origin other than when it is made fun of, even by himself, as he jokingly calls himself a ‘human samosa’ in one episode and is made fun of for playing an indian instrument in another. If Disney can’t get it right, what hope is there for other television networks?
How do we combat default whiteness, whilst giving diverse characters fair representation?
While getting networks to provide accurate representations of ethnic minorities – particularly considering second generation characters – by doing some research before constructing a stereotype may seem like a mighty ask, in reality, this goal is achievable through small steps, and one which has been done before. Though Meena, Ravi and Rajesh are examples of distasteful comedy at the expense of ethnic backgrounds, Mindy Kaling has successfully facilitated the narrative of second generation Indian women in her book ‘Is everyone hanging out without me’ and perhaps more famously in her TV show ‘The Mindy Project’.
Dev Patel has also showcased success in bringing stories to the big screen that facilitate an entirely different narrative to that of second generation ethnic minorities, with his portrayal of Jamal in Slumdog Millionaire and more recently, the true story of the little lost boy, Saroo Brierly in Lion. In an interview with the Guardian he recently revealed his experience with the perception he plays the token ethnic minority and how this translates in the face of default whiteness:
‘You used to worry that the roles on offer for you were limited – do you still?
Yes and no. There should not be any limitation to playing my culture. I’m a British Asian, it is part of the fabric of who I am. My grandparents are from India and Nairobi. So what I’m trying to say is that Lion and Marigold and The Man Who Knew Infinity are completely different. Journalists sometimes label them as “Indian guys” as if this were an umbrella term.’
Furthermore, the growth in shows with predominantly black casts successfully facilitating black narratives, include ‘Being Mary Jane’ starring Gabrielle Union and Netflix’s infamous ‘Dear White People’. Along with others, these shows illustrate it is possible to get it right; when black and ethnic minorities are put in the drivers seat. The driver’s seat isn’t necessarily getting these individuals to lead on creation, writing or starring in these shows, but is simply just the principle of listening to what they have to say.
- By pressing script writers and authors to accurately research the backgrounds they intend to portray
- By pressuring publishers or networks who choose to give these stories an audience to do their own research; testing pilots or chapters with the groups they are representing to ensure these are both accurate portrayals, and not solely used for the purpose of throwing in a face that isn’t white
- Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, pressuring black and ethnic actors to ask the right questions before taking a role: has this character been well researched? does an accent serve a purpose other than humour? are aspects of this characters heritage going to be represented throughout the show? the list goes on. Actors need to understand the power they are being given; they are using their gift to represent an entire people, and getting it wrong for the sake of 15 seconds of success, will surely mean their success will only last 15 seconds.
If we make these principles the norm, this eliminates the powerlessness in one actor walking away from a script, only to have it picked up by an all-too-eager 15 second success searcher later. For the very reasons ‘We need more diverse books’ point out, we need greater representation across every platform. Allowing another generation to grow up seeing characters that look and sound like them being nothing other than a token face, or the butt of the joke – and willingly accepting to play these roles – is inaccurate, demeaning, and most of all, insensitive. In a world full of Meenas and Ravis, be a Mindy, Dev or Rowling.
Taking the music industry by a storm for almost 15 years and being hailed as a style icon for just as long, it’s no surprise Rihanna’s beauty range, Fenty Beauty, had around the block line ups at Harvey Nichols stores across the UK. There is no denying the brand’s success is clearly here to stay, but the question plaguing so many brands seeking to emulate Fenty’s success is not ‘why?’, but instead, ‘how?’ Whilst for some the answer is straight forward – Rihanna’s personal brand is so strong it almost guarantees everything she touches turns to gold; for others – like myself – it goes beyond this, and remedies an issue that has been long-fought for by women of colour in the beauty industry.
Before launching her first line of Fenty cosmetics, Rihanna pressed that the point of Fenty Beauty as a brand was to be inclusive of ALL types of women, and ALL of the skin tones these women come in. In response to a personal message she received enquiring whether the rumoured 40 shades of foundation was true, Rihanna responded with a humbling ‘You knoooowwww it!!!!’ going on to explain women of colour had been overlooked for too long in the industry. Rihanna’s vision of making Fenty Beauty a brand with a universal shade range is clear from the outset of the campaign, especially social media, which focused on using diverse women, and the continued explanations of how existing brands were failing to cater to certain skin tones, specifically those on each end of the shade spectrum. The inclusiveness of Fenty Beauty doesn’t stop at colour, though. The line also featured women of different cultural and religious backgrounds, one of which received the most attention being a young muslim woman who wears a hijab, Habiba da Silva leading to young hijab wearing women and beauty gurus alike to rejoice in such an inclusion; Youtuber Dina Tokio even mentions this as one of her favourite parts of the campaign in her online review of Fenty’s products.
Why does inclusiveness mean Fenty Beauty’s success is here to stay?
From a personal point of view – it’s obvious. I grew up surrounded by brands doing little other than marketing their products to a select few women. Most brands used well-known models or actresses making the idea of these products being for girls like me an even more distant thought than it already was. Sometimes coloured women were lucky to get a mention at the end of a commercial or in the fine print at the bottom of the billboard which read something along the lines of ‘available in 12 shades’ but only going on to be disappointed in realising none of these shades were a match for my skin tone. It made me feel like even more of an outsider when I’d browse the beauty section drugstores trying to find products that would match my skin tone only to go on and be disappointed. This feeling is largely reflected in the reviews I’ve come across from leading publications like The Telegraph but more so from the Instagram/ Youtube community, whose reviews I’ve been shamelessly binge watching.
Whilst it could be argued there are others in the industry looking to remedy this underrepresentation – like Maybelline’s release of the FitMe foundations, which now stocks over 40 shades. However, hunting these shades down is a dilemma in its own. Most drugstores tend to stock between 4 to 5 of their most popular shades; two ‘light’, one or two ‘medium’ and one ‘dark’ and Maybelline not having a storefront of it’s own makes getting shade matched correctly almost impossible, unless you’re willing to order a few shades directly from the website or use their online matching system which doesn’t include the full range in its results. Alternatively, MAC’s Studio Fix Fluid exceeds Fenty and Maybelline’s 40 shades with a whopping range of 42 colours and corresponding undertones, with plenty of storefronts and staffed counters to match you correctly. Though Maybelline and MAC may remedy the shade representation, Fenty hits another ethical dilemma by opting to be a cruelty free brand. If shoppers are not cruelty-conscious, Fenty Beauty’s final reason to stay is for the line’s ultra competitive price point; every product is priced at under £30 – packing a punch against it’s non-cruelty free competitors (NARS, Bobbi Brown, Dior) and falling just below or in-line with those who are (Too Faced, Urban Decay and Tarte).
From using diverse women in the launch campaign, to it’s cruelty free status and price point, Rihanna seems to have hit every box on the checklist. But this isn’t just about Fenty’s success – it’s about the gap Rihanna saw in the market that clearly needed filling and took it upon herself to do so. While other brands may be starting to roll out larger shade ranges, for the ones who are not, Fenty’s success will be sure to give them a kick up the backside. Yes – it cannot be denied that price-point, the anti-animal testing and personal brand affiliation has rendered the brand successful, it also cannot be denied that the shade range is a big part of the success, too. Fenty’s campaign goes to show when women of colour are represented, women of colour engage. The line is set to extend it’s release to eyeshadows and lipsticks by the end of the year, and I’m confident Ms. Fenty will change the game, yet again.
Disclaimer: This piece is different to what I normally write. It’s not a well researched essay or person or quote, but more of a mind dump of the thoughts that have been tangled in my brain over the past few months.
Whilst this Summer had some extraordinary highlights, including University Graduation, an anniversary and tonnes of travel, it also had it’s fair share – if not more – emptiness. Precisely one week before my last formal examination of my final year of undergraduate studies, a close family member became riddled with health complications following ‘minor surgery’. Whilst friends were celebrating the end of an era and toasting to the future, I spent my time in hospital waiting rooms, getting to grips with the idea that I was losing a loved one.
At first, I remained logical and did not allow myself to grieve. I cited the age, lofty achievements and wonderful life this family member had led as reasons for grief being inappropriate. Instead I focused on celebrating their achievements because I knew this is what they would have wanted. I would remind myself to be thankful that death hadn’t touched my life until my early 20s, when others experienced this at far younger ages . I would try and fill this feeling of emptiness and loss by reminding myself of some of my favourite sayings – ‘this, too, shall pass’ and ‘everything happens for a reason’. I would remind myself that this person passed without pain – still one of the greatest things to help me find comfort. When friends or family members asked how I was doing, I would project this feeling of happiness and remain positive, because I thought this would fill their emptiness like I was trying to desperately use it to fill mine. Being the strong and silent type worked at first, but what I slowly began to understand that no amount of books, friends or family gatherings were going to fill this emptiness. It was good at masking it, but not filling it.
Weeks and months passed and my positive outlook became weaker as I realised it wasn’t helping anyone, least of all, me. In fact, it was making others feel guilty that they weren’t ‘just moving on’ like I was and I was beginning to wonder why everyone was slowly able to get through their daily routine when I was still stuck trying to make sense of how everything happened so quickly. Whilst others who had allowed themselves to grieve were beginning to do the things they stopped for a while – meet friends, go out to dinner, take on new responsibilities at work – I was still wondering how this loved one was my first thought in the morning and last at night. I’d want to be alone and bury myself in books because they allowed me to forget and provided encouraging words of wisdom to help me feel like I was not alone. I’ve always been a book worm, so the increase in reading was nothing completely new, but it was only when my Amazon recommendations became plagued with ‘self-help’ and ‘road to happiness’ books that I came to question the obsession with being, or even just appearing, happy.
I slowly realised the reason I and so many others in painful situations are determined to mask this pain, and it all pointed to the ridiculous, poisonous, impossible standard that our generation is obsessed with: ‘Good Vibes Only’. This phrase is almost everywhere we look, from being plastered all over social media accounts dedicated to positive thinking; to being branded across t-shirts and sweatshirts; to the millions of ‘self-help’ books claiming to put you in charge of your happiness. All of these platforms ignore that happiness is a mood – not a destination, and trick you into believing that if you think otherwise, you are inherently flawed. Whist I agree there are certain situations in which you can control your behaviour – for example, remaining calm through a disagreement or taking a walk before replying to an annoying email or text – you cannot control how this situation initially makes you feel, because those are your instincts. They are your gut and your heart, and ignoring them would be denying that you are human. ‘Good Vibes Only’ denies you of this chance, because it makes you think that if you do not always take the high road, or immediately look to the bright side, that you are a negative person wallowing in self pity, which is not true.
Everyone has their good days, their bad days and their horrendous days, but telling someone who is sad or angry or hurting that they should ‘look on the bright side’ is going to do nothing to help, but instead, it will alienate them, and make them think there is something wrong for feeling an emotion other than happiness. In doing so, you are invalidating their feelings, and telling them the kind of strength they should have when you have no idea of what they are going through. Yes, you can help them control how they respond to a situation, but it is important to acknowledge their pain before moving on swiftly.
‘Good Vibes Only’ is the very same mentality that made me think I couldn’t write this blog post sooner. It convinced me no one cared about what I was going through because it was depressing, and even had me contemplating opening with an apology for being radio silent for over two months. Then I realised in opening with an apology I would be validating the logic that remaining regular on a blogging site, appearing normal and happy in a space I started as a hobby, was more important than taking time away to deal with something more important.
With this being said, I feel like taking a break from all the things I thought I had to continue with, has taught me so much more than the tough love I would normally opt for. I think it’s made me better, and I think it’s finally helped me shed light on why I think ‘Good Vibes Only’ is counterproductive to it’s preach.
Glad to be back,
‘Nobody will protect you from your suffering. You can’t cry it away or eat it away or starve it away or walk it away or punch it away or even therapy it away. It’s just there, and you have to survive it. You have to endure it. You have to live through it and love it and move on and be better for it and run as far as you can in the direction of your best and happiest dreams across the bridge that was built by your own desire to heal. Therapists and friends can help you along the way, but the healing – the genuine healing, the actual real-deal, down-on-your-knees-in-the-mud change – is entirely and absolutely up to you’. – Cheryl Strayed, Brave Enough
Though technically an essay bound between two covers, I couldn’t help but reflexively share Adichie’s words as something which grabbed my attention this month. Aptly named, Adichie’s essay – adapted from a TED Talk of the same name – presents compelling arguments in favour of feminism being embraced as an all-encompassing ideology, as opposed to a stereotype or label for a certain type of woman; the woman who does not shave, the woman who burns her bra, the woman who cannot find a man to accept her. By sharing her experiences of gendered discrimination from as young as nine years old, Adichie shows us all how this stigmatism affected, affects and will continue to affect women and girls for generations to come, if we do not all become feminists.
Despite meeting the condition of having the highest score on a test to become class monitor, Adichie watched her ambition slip into the hands of someone who scored lower than her, and someone who had no desire to fulfil the role though filled it nonetheless, – because the teacher’s assumption was girls knew the monitor had to be a boy. Or more recently, where on a trip to Lagos, accompanied by a male friend, she tips the valet, who turns to thank him instead of her, because of the assumption that women cannot be financially independent from men. Or when entering her hotel, she is harassed with questions relating to her stay, or asked to produce a room key as evidence of her lodging, because of the assumption a woman entering a hotel alone means she is a prostitute.
Much like Pateman’s argument, Adichie questions, why, in the incident she may be a prostitute, the focus is on combatting her as the supplier, as opposed to the one who demands her. Being ridiculed by friends and family from Nigeria who claim her mindset has developed through a Western upbringing, – where attitudes and literature allegedly encouraged Feminism as a concept – Adichie questions if this were the case, why equal pay was only brought to the table as an issue in the 2009 Lilly Ledbetter fair pay act.
Though the ’80s popularised the movement, Adichie highlights in these daily assumptions regarding jobs, financial independence and social settings, how both developed and developing countries are still lightyears behind where they should be when it comes to rectifying gender inequality, because feminism remains a label with ‘baggage’, as opposed to an ideology which affects us all. It’s negative stickiness – in the words of Ahmed – means it fails to attract an audience beyond the narrow pool of women who understand a woman needs a man, like a fish needs a bicycle.
From Adichie’s Essay:
‘If we do something over and over again, it becomes normal. If we see the same thing over and over again, it becomes normal. If only boys are made class monitor, then at some point, we all think, even if unconsciously, that the class monitor has to be a boy. If we keep seeing only men as heads of corporations, it starts to seem ‘natural’ that only men should be heads of corporations.’