I was 12 when I first realised my ‘otherness’. It’s a charged word but also the most appropriate to describe that realisation that I didn’t look like my neighbours and that they didn’t look like me. Particularly the 60 year old man across the road that helped us get rid of the dead mouse a cat had dropped on our doorstep. Jokes aside, growing up in North London and leading a relatively sheltered life, race was never much of an ‘issue’. I had the odd kid make fun of my surname or pull their eyes taught across their face, claiming that they looked like me. But nothing compared to the vicious racism that exists elsewhere. In that sense, I think I was lucky to have grown up oblivious to the world outside of my cherry blossom lined avenue. When I hit puberty and the topic of boys became a priority in the life of a teenage girl, as it often does, I had different worries to my peers. It wasn’t about the size of my boobs or if I was skinny enough (however, I had horrific teeth encaged in metal and started to develop severe acne). My main fear was that no one would fancy me because I’m Chinese. From sixth form and all through university, those kinds of thoughts eventually puttered out. After all, I was still studying in London and no one in this city is really, truly from here and that’s what makes it so magical.
This year, I received a message on Instagram that read along the lines of “it’s really great to see you doing well as an Asian blogger in the UK”. I never identified myself this way. At this point you must think I’m incredibly self-ignorant but after recent my jolts into reality, I kind of prefer how I was before. But once enlightened, it’s very hard to crawl back into the comfort of shadows. Another influencer messaged me a month or two after that, saying that we should meet because “there aren’t many of us here”. Again, that stood out to me – was there such a need for everyone of Asian heritage to congregate intentionally? It kind of reminded me of how the international students at uni would never make an effort with the rest of us and would only socialise with each other.
During my signing to my new agency, Linden Staub, I told them that I felt that being Chinese was an advantage when it came to getting work. They asked if I minded that type of positive discrimination and frankly, I said no because at least someone was getting their fee while representing. Then during a dinner about two months ago, a friend asked me how I felt about my race and whether or not it affected my job as a blogger. This question kept popping up again and again, in various forms in all kinds of approaches, until eventually this emotional wall I had built up protecting that 12 year old girl that suddenly realised her nose was flat and her skin was darker and her hair felt different started chipping away.
To answer your question: Yes, it fucking does affect my job.
With many large companies, there’s a kind of diversity quota put into place, particularly for paid campaigns. But when it comes to opportunities like one-to-one’s with designers, gifting or event invites – the little bits of the industry that keep you relevant – I feel I have to work much harder to be noticed, regardless of stats. I’m not alone. But despite all the gloom and cynicism in this post I do have some good news.
On my recent shoot with Garnier in Prague, I was honestly so pleasantly shocked that even though they would be filming with influencers and models from Asia, they still opted for myself and Mariko (@marikokuo), another woman of colour to be part of the UK team. I wasn’t a tick on a checklist preventing customer complaints and Twitter backlash. This company genuinely values representation and strives to relate to their consumers. The entire time, the phrase I heard the most was “it’s important to be authentic”.
On the other hand, not everyone is so awakened to the landscape of social media and consumer needs. In relation to a previous post, I asked my audience if they thought social media was ‘fair’. One lady told me that she’s stopped shopping at a prominent luxury beauty retailer because she didn’t feel that they took onboard her feedback, which was they didn’t feature enough women of colour (as a top-spending customer, she said she was invited to share her experience). It moved me that someone felt passionately enough about this that they’d take their money elsewhere. But it didn’t surprise me. People want brands that align with their values – data from my old workplace, a consumer trends and data agency, reported that 70% of customers felt this way. Not only that but more and more are demanding that their favourite labels stand up to social injustice. The problem is that those on the other side – the people making guestlists, allocating dressing and send-outs to influencers – they often use the reasoning that “there aren’t enough” influencers of colour.
In that same Story where I asked about ‘fairness’, a lot of my peers complained that it was the same girls that got the invites and campaigns repeatedly. I’m sure every city has this select group. It never bothered me because this tends to be super mass market, which isn’t a category I promote. Talking about this subject any further would require another post but I want to highlight that few of these ladies on that list in the UK are non-Caucasians. A part of me wonders how much of this has to do with standards of beauty.
We all know that the current ideals are predominantly Westernised – even K beauty takes inspiration from typical white features like prominent eyelids, lighter hair, small noses. That filtering app Snow didn’t even allow me to make my eyes smaller. This is shifting but very much the majority of aesthetic preference, across fashion shows to advertisements, and you still hear calls for greater change. So if you’re a Chinese girl like me, the chances that you may not be seen as the ‘right fit’ for a brand are high, especially when it comes to cautious PR agencies. Unless of course, there’s a diversity quota. Then it’s a tick!
Shop the look
I want to make it clear that I never see myself as the token Asian. I’m confident that I work hard and I deserve a place at the table as much as anyone else, regardless of race. I like to think I’m a big girl now and just about coping with the epiphanies that come with adulthood. However, not all of my equals feel that way. Some are afraid of putting themselves out there because of their race. Being unconscious in 2018 is not a good enough excuse. Social media is free and therefore democratic, and provides opportunities for entrepreneurship to everyone, regardless of background or colour. Whenever I’ve spoken to friends and even brands about this ‘in real life’, I often preface my monologue with “I hate to make it about race but…”
But I also cannot ignore the setbacks I face because I’m a Chinese girl, blogging in the UK.
Both looks: Berta Cabestany