Why Artists and Collectives Of Color Need To Start Demanding Magazines To Pay Us For Giving Interviews
Last December, 2015, after PopSugar Latina published a post titled, “Kylie Jenner Is Basically a Mix of All Your Favorite Latina Celebrities”, there was uproar that came not only from individuals, but from mainstream media outlets. Digital magazines including Buzzfeed, Huffington Post, Cosmopolitan and Teen Vogue all took the disastrous article as a chance to publish think pieces about appropriation and eurocentric beauty standards — words that a few years ago were largely reserved for academic spaces where people quote Baldwin and hooks, not corporate magazines. Although this moment was an important glitch in the mainstream iconization of the Kardashians, the alternative and independent outlets that have written about white supremacy within pop-culture for years often do so without the same reception and resources as the mainstream ones. The backlash against the PopSugar Latina article was just one instance of the trend of publishing resistance movements using academic social justice language, yet the implications of this form of documentation for people of color can be just as severe. As our nation’s gaze turns towards the brutalization of Black, Brown, trans, queer and femme bodies, pop-culture outlets, blogs and critics’ have no choice but to adapt, and they do so by piggy-backing on work that’s already been done. Parallel to the foundation on which the United States was built, white-run collectives are self-sustaining through their exploitation of work done by people of color.
Pop-culture platforms’ recent fascination with social justice movements feels wrong, like an acknowledgement that they need to adjust to the times in order to stay relevant as opposed to sincere commitment to make our world safer. Overwhelmingly white newsrooms and reliance on hierarchical systems (with almost always white editors) still reign within mainstream media outlets, and because of this underlying whiteness, attempts at representation are inauthentic at best, violent at worst; one day, a magazine might publish a piece with a pull quote about why Black Lives Matter, and the very next day, tweet an attack of Beyonce’s daughter, Blue’s, hair. On top of this, many articles being written about critical resistance movements are written by people of color who are either being paid less than white people, or asked to work for free. Micha Borneo is a New York City-based journalism student and pop-culture critic, and when I ask her about mainstream media outlets that cover people of color and queer movements offering unpaid internships, she highlights the irony. “Not only is it racist, but it’s classist to expect people of color to work for free, when we spent the last 400 years building this society for free, and we’re still doing it today.” Borneo’s point gets to the crux of labor issues in this country. Much like Kylie Jenner’s look, it’s Black and Brown people who have done the work, then have had it re-packaged and sold for white consumption without getting compensated.
Aside from lack of racial and gender diversity within newsrooms, there are countless other issues with the co-opting of social justice movements: unpaid labor for “exposure” of a certain issue or individual; “social media journalism” that simplifies stories to fit into a tweet or soundbyte; the diluting of critical movements in order to have content that sells. During a time when death and war are completely unavoidable pop-culture anchors and social justice language and terminology is more widely used, it’s profitable for mainstream media to co-opt movements. However, this isn’t sustainable. Cultural advocate and social entrepreneur, Natalia Linares, of Conrazón said it best last year, while on a day-trip with me to her Staten Island home. It wasn’t so much as a hypothesis as much as a revelation: “This shit is crumbling,” she told me, “We’re going to see a new way.”
We already know it’s crumbling. In 2016, a dictatorial entertainment icon has a good chance of winning the United States presidency, the police have lost any morsel of accountability they had to the law and young people of color are graduating while acquiring a surreal amount of debt with no promise of employment because of a destroyed economy and continued maintenance of racial hierarchies in the work-force. During this visible collapse of antiquated systems, every move for traditional media outlets to stay relevant is a sign of an unsustainable foundation. In our country, whiteness cannot be separated from capitalism, which is why alternate community models that go against hierarchical systems are the “new way” Linares believes is next. These models have always manifested in independent news outlets, but more recently have looked like women and queer people of color-lead multimedia collectives that thrive both online and IRL, intentionally centering their experiences as historically marginalized bodies. These collectives have also existed to create a digital space for radical politics and art to co-exist on one platform.
Around the time she told me this in late 2015, the Art Hoe Collective had gained traction and was on the bid for number 1 on Dazed Magazine’s #DAZED100 top influential icon list (in collaboration with Calvin Klein). Leading up to the Dazed list, I also recall Sula Collective, Born in Bread, and Brujas, among other radical women and queer people of color-lead collectives in the mainstream eye, on magazines like The Fader, Dazed, i-D, New York Times, and Vice. I remember being so excited by the fact that outlets I saw as important were covering something I had watched grow from inception or regarded as incredible expressions of resistance and liberation.
Fast forward one year: many of the artists involved with these movements continue to create unpaid content in the form of interviews, columns, videos, and other short pieces for mainstream blogs and magazines on top of the in-depth culture production work they do for their own collectives. While these larger outlets continue to be at the forefront of whitewashed culture production, they reach out when they need politically correct words and images images or striking photos of a diverse group of people, but rarely hire enough gender non-binary, queer and trans people or people of color. An intergenerational system of co-opting resistance for white profit continues; communities that face daily violence have adapted by creating smaller outlets that represent them, while mainstream outlets have learned to use collectives’ content, contributors, and image in order to keep their position as important cultural documenters. Mainstream outlets are paying themselves back for work they didn’t do, while their interests remain with profit, not liberation. Sandra T. from the Art Hoe Collective told me about why the group decided to take a stand and no longer do free work, saying, “It's counterintuitive to our message and counterproductive to our future. We want young artists of color to strive for more than simply exposure. We want them to know that they SHOULD be compensated for their labor as well as exposure.”
This message is complicated in that we often crave exposure because of the lack of representation we have grown up with, however if the last few months of pop-icons, athletes and artists have taught us anything, it’s that people of color hold so much power globally, and we have found ways to create resistance networks that keep us alive. What these large platforms don’t seem to understand is that alternative collectives and movements are a way to create resistance to not only issues of identity and visibility, but issues of social exclusion and economic exploitation. The consequences of those issues tend to corner those of us that do get represented in the paradigm of capitalism, when we become the underpaid ambassadors for a company (or mainstream outlet) that maintains its power by selling an image to our community that embodies the trappings of consumerism and exploits another community of Black or Brown origin to fabricate the product that is being consumed. It’s still a fine line between reparations and exploitation of one’s community, which leaves people of color to publicly and privately maneuver their image within global capitalism. Yet, power lies within community. Our collective decision to use media (not the other way around) can result in something much greater than visibility.