For the past few years, the beauty industry has been abuzz with talk of ‘transparency’ when it comes to ingredients and supply chains and ‘inclusivity’ when it comes to shade ranges. But what if brands approached their own employment practices, corporate structure, internal training, external marketing, product development and on-set talent with that same level of regard for transparency and inclusivity? Despite the relative ubiquity of 40-shade foundation ranges and self-aggrandizing empowerment messaging, the beauty industry — like most of corporate America — remains a racist and toxic place, wherein Black talent is often neglected, ignored and erased. Sharon Chuter is on a mission to change that.
On June 3, in the midst of a growing international movement to fight racism and scores of performative posts on social media from brands across corporate America, Chuter went public on Instagram with a simple ask: Pull Up or Shut Up. The founder of UOMA Beauty — whose tenure in the industry includes roles at Revlon, L’Oréal and Benefit — was inspired by Rihanna‘s moving speech at the NAACP Image Awards encouraging people to ask their friends of all races to “pull up” for the Black community. Chuter turned her attention to her own industry, calling upon beauty brands to not just share hollow messages of solidarity on social media — but to get honest about their own shortcomings, offer transparency about the diversity of their employees and outline concrete goals for doing better in the future.
“We ask all brands who have released a statement of support, to publicly release within the next 72hrs the number of black employees they have in their organizations at corporate level. We also need to know the number of black people you have in leadership roles. You all have statements and policies about being equal opportunity employers, so show us the proof,” she wrote in an Instagram caption. Within that first 72 hours, dozens of companies, including Ulta, L’Oréal and Glossier, had indeed pulled up — a testament both to the power of social media and of Chuter herself. The movement has also expanded beyond beauty, with companies like Gap, Levi’s, Apple and Microsoft coming forward with employment statistics and action plans for change. But all of this, says Chuter, is just the beginning.
Several weeks after she first asked brands to pull up, Chuter took some time to chat with Fashionista about how consumers can continue to hold brands accountable, as well as share her perspective on what companies need to be doing beyond simply hiring more Black people, some awkward vibes with Rihanna and the big plans she has for the future of the movement. Read on for the highlights of our conversation.
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Plenty of brands have made statements of “solidarity” and promised to “do better” in the future when it comes to hiring Black people. But how can we know when brands are being authentic, and how can we continue to hold them accountable?
I think really we just need to see the numbers go up. [Pull Up for Change] is a public forum, so when you release numbers out there like this, you’re open to critique. Your very own employees challenge you and say that’s bullshit and publicize it. A lot of people go, ‘How do we know these brands aren’t lying?’ and I’m like, ‘We don’t.’ That’s why it’s a topic of conversation. But when you release those numbers, you’ve opened yourself up to an exposé, because at some point, some journalist is going to get very curious. Your own employees are going to want to talk, and they’re going to send information to a journalist, and then they’re going to publish the real numbers, and then that’s a real PR disaster for you.
What are the specific benchmarks or milestones that we should be looking for from these companies in the future?
For me, it’s about coming back in six months’ time — I want to see improvements. We can’t be standing still, we can’t see those numbers go backwards. We want to see it go forward. Even one percent is huge, that’s a huge number, especially when you look at big employers like L’Oréal and Estée Lauder. Any percentage point jump that we see might look like a small jump, but it’s tangible, it’s human beings. So I want to see improvements — we’re not giving them, ‘Oh, it has to be 10% in six months.’ No, that’s not realistic. All we want to see is that you’re doing better because you said you’d do better than you did six months ago. Whatever that looks like, we’ll take it, as long as it’s better.
You’re going to see some brands where you see huge leaps. Let’s take, for example, Fresh Beauty. Fresh Beauty didn’t release the actual numbers. But they did make a statement and a commitment to increase Black employment by 50%. That probably tells me they have one Black person if they’re wanting to see that level of a jump. The good thing is that a lot of these companies have come up with their own tangible targets. Lauder has said ‘We want to get to 15% over the next three years.’ Okay, let’s see that happen, but in six months’ time, I want to see progress, and I want to see them moving up to that number. For those that didn’t commit to a number, really we just want to see progress.
Are there any brands or retailers in particular that you’d really like to hear from that have been silent so far?
There’s the obvious, like Fenty Beauty, which has gobsmacked everybody in their silence. This Pull Up movement was inspired by Rihanna’s speech, and so for me it’s actually awkward. I even considered changing the name of the entire movement and the whole campaign because it was not expected. Watching that speech I was very, very inspired: ‘Tell your friends to pull up,’ — I’m like okay, I’m going to tell my whole damn industry to pull up, not just my friends. And then there’s this complete silence from that brand.
I tried to stand with [Rihanna]. I said, ‘Everybody — every damn person in this industry — pull up, everybody in corporate America, pull up.’ So that silence has created a lot of awkwardness. Other Black-owned brands were the first to pull up, like ‘Let us show you how it’s done.’ Iman came and shut that thing down. The queen walks in, she puts her face on the poster, and says ‘I have been here since 1994 fighting for the community, and my team is still 85% Black and I’m still the CEO.’ So Iman was essentially saying ‘I’ve been pulling up for 26 years, and I’m still pulling up.’
This was [Fenty’s] opportunity to come and show ‘We’re the OG brand that dropped 40 shades of foundation, let’s also show you our team.’ This was a moment to brag, and then it was just complete silence, and that’s been disappointing.
And now people are getting curious and investigating companies’ (like Fenty’s) employments stats for themselves, right?
It’s kind of created this moment where people are now going on LinkedIn and researching, and sending me the information. I’m not going to publish that information, because the whole intent of this is for brands to come up with transparency. There’s no point in ignoring it, when you ignore it it makes it worse because it makes everybody use their imagination to make the problem probably worse than it actually is. And if it’s actually not good — hey, everybody knows that [Rihanna] stands for the community, everybody knows that there is no doubt about Rihanna being legit for the Black people. Okay, she has problems in the business, and maybe there’s a point where the brand comes out and says, ‘Hey we screwed up. We didn’t focus on this, and now we’ve learned, we know better, we’ll do better.’
It’s been a very weird silence for me personally, if I’m being honest. I’m a part of the Navy, I’m one of the most aggressive Rihanna fans ever, but at the end of the day I’m fighting for my people in general, and I have to stay honest.
Are there other brands that you think could have responded in a more meaningful way?
I never expected Benefit to pull up and release numbers. I worked there, I know what their diversity looks like — nonexistent. So I never expected them to. To be honest, they don’t even make [makeup] colors for Black people — that should not happen. They made a statement where they said ‘Accountability is the best cosmetic,’ but then went on not to be accountable, so that was quite laughable for me. It literally started with the comment about accountability, and then they went ahead to give no numbers, nothing where they could be held accountable.
They had a fluffy statement of, ‘We will donate money, we will look at employment’ — nothing had a goal. If you’re talking about accountability, you have to have a goal to hold yourself accountable to. So that was not surprising to me. My trust for corporate America is zero.
What would you say to brands that don’t think they need to be a part of this transparency?
To all the other big players who think they can stay silent, I hope they see this is inevitable, this is not going away. We see people like Gap pulling up, Levi’s, all these really old-school brands coming to the table and then any brand who is still trying to be young and progressive trying to hide, the message to them is: There is nowhere to hide, these conversations are not going anywhere. This is not a one-week movement that will go away. We’ll be talking about this in a year’s time, in two year’s time, in three year’s time. We’re going to continue to be a thorn in people’s sides and a thorn in people’s necks until we get full transparency and accountability and we’re going to start lobbying politically as well.
What political or legal actions do you think need to happen to make the industry more accessible to and inclusive of the Black community?
We need a lot of things about advertising and marketing to change, we need declaration of ownership. A lot of brands are using Black faces to market to Black consumers and then not hiring Black people, and here is what I say: If you’re going to put a Black face in front of any business and say it’s somebody’s business, you owe the public to disclose how much of the business is that person’s business.
I don’t know why that’s not the standard and the law. It should be completely illegal; right now it’s just unethical, what happens. They pretend it’s the person’s business, but really, that person is only getting 10 or 20% of that business. That is not that person’s business, it should never be declared that person’s business. At best, they should be a face of the company, and I think we’re going to lobby for those laws to be changed, because right now, especially for the Black community, corporations are deceiving Black people and throwing Black faces in front of things and saying ‘this is Black-owned;’ meanwhile, it’s not. So Black shoppers are running and throwing their dollars at these brands, meanwhile they’re not being hired by these brands, and that has to change. There’s a lot of work for us to do, and I’ve got time for it and I’ve got passion and we’re going to get it done.
As these brands are presumably following through on some of the promises and goals they’ve outlined over the last few weeks — things like trying to rethink their hiring practices and hiring more Black people — what can they also be doing internally in terms of training their existing team, in terms of onboarding new employees, and so on? How does that internal structure need to also change?
To be honest, before even hiring more Black people, you need to first take care of your home. Do you have a company conducive for a Black person to be in? I would argue that most of the companies don’t. These are the conversations I’ve been having with a lot of business owners, CEOs, founders, chief diversity officers over the last week — plain and simple, your organization is not currently designed to be Black-friendly, so Black people there are not thriving, they’re surviving.
There’s a very toxic work culture for Black people, and that’s why this work is beyond, ‘Let’s just go hire more people,’ but that’s why the numbers are important. Right now, lots of companies supposedly want to hire Black people right now, but in a lot of cases, even if they are in these jobs, they won’t be happy. But now that more companies are going to be open to hiring [Black employees], they won’t have to just suffer in silence in their jobs. [They can say,] ‘If you don’t treat me properly, I’m just going to go to a company that’s going to treat me properly,’ and that’s the exciting thing about this exercise.
I think companies who are doing the right thing, naturally, Black talent that’s available within organizations are going to start flocking to those companies. And the other companies are going to really have to start doing a lot of work.
What is your advice to companies looking to really transform their company diversity in the long term? Where can they start?
We have to look at both unconscious and conscious bias. I’ve told a lot of companies, ‘Your training videos are useless. They’re made by white people who are keeping these conversations soft because they want to make it politically correct.’ But do a proper damn training.
We need to start having more compelling and unadulterated training videos that people are going to watch and be shook, because that’s the Black experience. I think corporations always want cute training videos that don’t ruffle any feathers. But people should watch it and understand the reality.
What else can companies do to make sure they are fostering an anti-racist work environment where Black employees are supported?
Most importantly, they have to have a zero-tolerance approach — zero, because most companies don’t have a zero-tolerance approach — to racism and any racial issues and discrimination. What does that mean? It means one complaint against you, and you’re fired. Once people see it’s that serious, everyone will automatically start adjusting their behaviors, because it’s now beyond just a corporate training, it’s seeing it in real life.
We’re not just talking about employment here. We’re talking about your campaigns: How many Black people are you actually using? We’re talking about the set — a lot of these companies do shoots. Your entire crew, or 90%, are white. Black talent is not even comfortable in that environment.
You should not be hiring any hairstylist that can’t do all hair. Why should a hairdresser only know how to do white hair? Right now, we [as an industry] encourage that. Most celebrity stylists cannot touch Black hair. Everybody should learn how to do all hair, it’s not that complicated. At a minimum, every hairstylist should be able to do Black hair, every makeup artist should be able to do Black makeup, and if they can’t, the brand should not be hiring them. There’s a lot of responsibility that corporate holds that they’ve sort of been passive about. But they control a lot, they hire models, they hire photographers, they hire makeup artists, hairstylists, they create products. They need to look at all the things they control, and all the things that are broken right now. A lot of them, when they are posting Black people on their social feeds, it’s just UGC, it’s not even people they paid to do that, so they’re not putting money back into the influencer community. There’s a lot brands can do to start normalizing the Black experience within their ecosystem, and if they can do that, they’ve done a lot.
Anything else to add?
The thing I want to continue to scream out is: Everybody, don’t get tired. Continue this work. This is not two weeks and we’re done — our work has just started. We have a lot that we need to do. To everybody who’s not part of our movement, join us. It’s very, very easy, it does not take a lot of work on the part of the consumers. Vote with your dollars, be active with us. Take over brands’ [social media] pages and ask them to pull up. You’re protesting with your fingers, and you can make enormous change just by being consistent. It’s a very noble cause. We’re aiming to create the biggest economic shift for the Black community in centuries, so let’s make that a reality and make that happen.
This interview has been edited for clarity.