This Black Beauty Publicist Has an Important Message About Products Everyone Needs to Hear
Chandler Rollins is the head of public relations for skin-care brand Farmacy, where this week she has decided to cease media pitching in solidarity with the Black community. Here, she shares, in her own words, her personal experience with racism in the beauty industry — plus, what brands (and us, its consumers) need to do better. This story was told to Kelsey Castañon and has been edited for length and clarity.
The first time I experienced blatant racism in the workplace was in my first job out of college. I was on the editorial side before I transitioned to PR, working for a publication that focused on the salon business specifically. I was an associate editor. I was just exploring beauty for the first time, at the height of the natural hair revolution that was happening in 2013 or 2014. I would go back and forth between my natural hairstyles and my straight hairstyles. I was told one day when I was wearing it natural, "You look rather ethnic today." That was the word used: ethnic.
I further questioned the language and said, "What about this hairstyle? 'Ethnic' is a very interesting word to use to describe my look and my style." She was like, "Well, I've never really seen your hair look this textured before." Now, I'm someone who's particularly interested in semantics. I went to journalism school; language is incredibly important and powerful. We often see people hide behind words when the root of what they're trying to say is, "You're different; you are not like me."
These things are very divisive. Even though they're not overtly racist, they stem from a system that promotes these types of feelings.
Facing Racism in the Beauty Workplace and Beyond
To back it up, I'm a Black woman from St. Louis. I know all too well about the stories that we're seeing in the media. I've had friends that have gone through this experience. I've personally gone through these experiences. St. Louis is one of the most racist and segregated cities in America, and that's a part of my DNA; that's a part of who I am as a person. It's something that I've always just been mindful of in the workplace and how I navigate my career. During my first editorial internship at JET magazine, I was a senior in college, and the editor in chief at the time told me, "Don't go work for white people. You're always going to be pigeonholed, and you're always going to be tokenized."
I know a lot of Black publicists and journalists feel that pressure as well. That people look at you like you're the authority on Black topics because you are Black, so you can only work for Black brands or Black clients because somehow that gives you a leg up. But beauty doesn't have one face or one race. Part of the job should be that everyone is well-versed in all aspects of beauty.
My transition from editorial to PR was interesting because we both have the ability to tell narratives and shape stories. If you're not working in house for a brand, you're receiving information from the brand, and from there are able to craft a similar story.
I've been told from brands specifically that there is not a market for Black women, that this product is not made for Black consumers, but we still want you to pitch it out to Black magazines and Black publications and Black journalists.
In previous companies and agencies, I've had to do some real polishing, if you will, for certain products in the past. Particularly in the luxury beauty space, there are a lot of products that are made with either Asian consumers or Caucasian consumers in mind, and that could even be damaging to Black skin or skin that has melanin in it. In those instances, I'm speaking to lightening products that contain lightening agents, which is very common among French skin-care brands. I can also speak to this in regard to shade ranges. I've worked for a ton of beauty brands that have launched products with a dismal amount of color options available to Black women.
I've been told from brands specifically that there is not a market for Black women, that this product they want me to push is not made for Black consumers, but that they still want me to pitch it out to Black magazines and Black publications and Black journalists. I'd hear, "Chandler, you need to craft a press release and a pitch that makes it seem like our product is for everyone." It's the definition of posturing, essentially. And it's that blatant.
The Impact in Giving Black Women a Seat at the Table
I hit a wall approximately two years ago, and I said, "I can no longer continue to work for brands who operate their business in this manner. I can no longer feel comfortable being a part of organizations or repping clients that don't speak to women who are like me, and who actively create products that are completely harmful to us."
I stepped away from beauty for about nine months. Then I joined Farmacy in October of last year. The privilege of my work and the privilege I've had working at other companies is that I've always had a seat at the table, even if I was the only Black person there. I've always been a proponent of flagging and raising questions and being critical, even if I am a part of the organization. The majority response that I've received when raising these questions and concerns is, "Well, the Black woman isn't someone who buys our products, so we're just going to disregard that note completely."
In order for real change to happen, you need to give people a seat at the table, but you also need to listen to them. Hire people with different backgrounds and unique perspectives at all levels of your business. It is not OK, and it is not reflective of your customer base, to have one minority person in your entire organization, which is what I've experienced up until my role at Farmacy, where we have an extremely diverse workforce. The reason that's helpful and beneficial, and you'll be a stronger organization as a result of it, is because of the ideas and also the questioning. It's the critique from all those voices around that makes your beauty product better.
It doesn't start with just the communications team and the imagery you see on social media — that's the last step. When you're thinking about the evolution of a product, from the idea to it actually hitting the marketplace and editors and influencers and consumers talking about it, there's so much that happens before then. And so if you don't have Black chemists, Black women on the research and development team who are thinking about the concerns of all people, then everything else is null and void, at that point.
It's not an unbiased statement, but Farmacy really is the first organization where I felt 100 percent safe and my opinions valued. Women here have told me blatantly: "You were underpaid in every position that you were at previously, and we value you more than that and the work that you've done has contributed to that."
I cried after that moment because there was no one in my life, no one in my career, who has told me that I'm good enough. For someone like me, who's 29, who's been in this career since I graduated, I was fortunate enough that when I did graduate from college, I went straight into the workforce, but it's really unfortunate.
How You Can Support and Stand For Change
People need to be very critical about their consumption of products and the companies that they support
People need to be very critical about their consumption of products and the companies that they support. I challenge you: Take a look at your medicine cabinet, look at all of the brands that you use in a week or in a day, as part of your beauty regimen. Pull every brand from your cabinet that either hasn't said anything about this issue or has performatively or passively mentioned the Black Lives Matter movement. Don't use them this week.
What I think you'll see is the brands you'll be left with are probably small, indie brands. Because indie beauty is paving the way for social change and that your larger conglomerates and, again, French luxury brands will not be there. The brands that do it well, and that are on the right side of this issue, tend to be the ones with a smaller piece of this multibillion-dollar pie. For real social change to happen, we've got to get some of these larger companies on board, and I don't know if that's going to happen.
Before you buy a product, look at their LinkedIn. Google one of your favorite brands, and take a look at their executive board, their leadership team, at all levels. A lot of the stuff is public knowledge. Who are their assistants, who are the managers, who are the human resource operators, who is on their art team, their social media team? Take a look at that list. Do you see faces like yours? If you don't, then take a moment to evaluate and examine if this is a product that you want to continue using.
It's not enough to look at a brand's Instagram, because it can be very performative. It's an opportunity in which they have been able to save grace, if you will. The reposting of quotes, the reposting of videos — that is the bare minimum, but it's not enough.
I'm glad that a lot of brands are being called out and held accountable, particularly in this moment, but I want to also be aware that there's constantly room for growth. I do think there is hope.
There is a lot of work that can be done, and that's the thing that keeps me going: the fact that there are passionate people who are willing to do the work. I'm not going to send some bullsh*t email that says, "Hope all is well," and then pivot to, "Oh, and by the way, did you realize that we have a launch happening this week?" No. Publicists aren't robots; we're real people. It can be cathartic to acknowledge this is something we're all feeling, and to see just how many people are willing to step up and show that we are truly in this together.