What does ‘doing the work’ mean? An analysis of Leandra Medine’s response to race and allyship – Screen Shot
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What does ‘doing the work’ mean? An analysis of Leandra Medine’s response to race and allyship

“I guess she didn’t do the work,” noted a friend.

“But what does ‘doing the work’ even mean?” I replied.

Earlier this month, The Cutting Room Floor released an episode that immediately went viral. Hosted by designer Recho Omondi, The Tanning of America featured the recently ‘cancelled’ former founder of Man Repeller and OG fashion blogger and influencer, Leandra Medine.

The podcast generally shares “everything they didn’t teach you in fashion school” and profiles members of the fashion industry for an intimate look behind the smoke and mirrors fashion usually depicts. In this episode with Medine, the intersection of race, privilege and working in the fashion industry was pragmatically ripped open in order to examine the carcass so many black and brown women—especially black women—have had to face in order to work in the industry.

These experiences resemble the hiring process of black and brown women in spaces that celebrate who we are in the beginning, but eventually ends up becoming a petri dish for micro and macro aggressions when we succeed past the point of expectation. Did I mention that these spaces are usually white and female owned that externally benefit from its “profit feminism” by appearing intersectional? Of course, they are.

Medine was ‘cancelled’ last summer during the peak of the Black Lives Matters protests. Just like many other white-owned media platforms, she shared her message of allyship only to gather  complaints from ex-employees (those who were black women and women of colour) about the toxic corporate environment. The company that fired a black woman out of all the employees during the demise of the New York-based media company. Is it racist to fire an ‘events producer’ during a pandemic where there are no real life events? No, but as Chrystal Anderson pointed out in the episode, she wasn’t just an events producer. She was the first senior female team member of colour who brought diversity within the SATC-inspired white repelling world. She was the key source of representation Man Repeller usually banked on.

I believe what struck a nerve with many—after hearing the interesting reflections Medine witnessed since being ‘cancelled’ (which is also debatable as she disappeared for two months off the internet while still writing her newsletter The Cereal Aisle and still maintains a stellar platform with brand endorsements and a million followers across Instagram)—is that we all know Medine is an intellectual woman. Her intuitive storytelling struck and her style captured the hearts and eyes of many. The tone-deafness, especially after being informed that this episode was recorded three times, is no longer funny. It’s just as the producer of The Cutting Room Floor, Sebastian Baptiste said, “offensive to my intelligence.”

Although I’ve followed Medine’s career and writing for nearly a decade now, I don’t wish to break down what another white woman could do in order to open up doors—hell, even create a decent work space for black and brown women. I’d argue that you can go on the same Instagram feed you visit every day and find the answers there, without even doing the bare minimum termed ‘Googling’. What I wish to explore is ‘the work’.

This is a phrase that has come up time and again—especially since the dawn of the BLM protests. So, who’s doing ‘the work’? What does ‘the work’ really constitute in order to be effective? What’s authentic and what’s performative? From listening to Medine talk about ‘the work’ she’s had to wake up to and do last summer (insane that it was just last summer too), is just another example of those who do not actually get what ‘the work’ is.

In typical diasporic fashion and like so many children of immigrants who have been made to feel othered by what’s in their lunchbox—or any other example that simply makes one feel different in America—Medine’s excuse is in parallel to the Kardashian’s response when they get called out for blackfishing. “My parents are from the Middle East” is something Medine repeats over and over again (her mother’s from Iran and her father’s from Turkey). She even goes on to compare Disney princesses and share from her perspective that she always felt “brown” in America. Without the need for comparative oppression wars, that is not the same as being black in America.

Yet what I have learned from being a brown woman of colour, who is not a black woman, is that the work it actually takes to be consciously racist is removing you and any pain—be it religious, cultural, generational—out of the conversation.

And this is exactly what listening to this episode felt like. That ‘doing the work’ had become another thing to do—be it reading books by black authors or posting a black grid post. Similar to the tasks on your to-do list that would be great for you to do, like a yoga class or mindful journaling, but that you really can’t be bothered to. It’s also dependent on which bubble you belong to that is dependent on ‘the work’ that’s good enough. For some, a black square is enough, for others, it may be being a part of a grass roots anti-racist organisation.

Therefore, it feels as though ‘doing the work’ ends up becoming a personal priority instead of a global virus we need to get rid of. And perhaps, this is why we shouldn’t be surprised people like Medine, who are idolised for their intellect and the ways in which they appear, treat ‘doing the work’. For them, it’s another ‘trendy’ thing to do, until they get called out about it again, with the cycle repeating itself, frustratingly in their favour.

That’s the problem with these conversations: it always comes back to this pageantry where white people and non-black people are always trying to show their (surface) allyship instead of simply being an actual ally. I’ve never understood why being an ‘ally’ is so difficult but then once again, Medine shows that it means offering up one’s own centre of privilege and power by giving away some space in order to share basic humanity.

What’s clear to me throughout Medine’s words on the podcast and her writing since, is that she has fallen into the category of caring about the perception of her anti-racism instead of her actually doing the anti-racist work. If you’re having to stand on the fence between performance and action, that is privilege in itself.

That’s one of the issues with ‘the work’—the showing of such efforts. When Medine ‘returned’ to the internet, she wrote in her Substack Why Did I Go Silent?. “In my absence, I haven’t shared what anti-racist work I’ve personally committed to. I’ve gone back and forth on what feels performative versus what is important to share publicly as a person with a following. It’s a conversation I want to have (and will), but it’s not in this letter.”

Yet as designer and founder of The Cutting Room Floor Recho Omondi pointed out, “I had never heard of the word anti-racism [until last year] but I also don’t need that word cause I know what it means.”

So what does ‘doing the work’ actually mean?

I believe largely it’s about decentering yourself and even writing that, I know that’s easy to say but difficult to do for many, as that means giving your pedestal away.

I read a tweet years ago that still resonates with me. It said something along the lines that arguably white people don’t live in the real world because they’re outside of the realities of everyone else. There are no real conversations happening behind the scenes, for example, the way black mothers unfortunately have to let their sons know how they have to be safe on the streets or the way I’ve constantly been reminded in my own home how being a proud Muslim will not be recieved well. White people not having this ‘real talk’ maintains this fragility and then not being the centre of attention suddenly feels fatale, or worse, as if the world is no longer your oyster. As Toni Morrison questioned, “What are you without racism?”

Are you still as much of an ‘influencer’? Will your writing still hold merit? Will you be forgiven as easily for how you behave in comparison to your black and brown contemporaries? Because that’s the thing about racism, it’s all warm and cosy until you are hit by the realities of the world. But the question for those who are actually willing to ‘do the work’ remains: do you actually want to be a part of the real world or are you comfortable living among centuries worth of racism and dystopia?

7 steps you can take to be an ally to trans people

Today is International Transgender Day of Visibility, a day dedicated to celebrating transgender people and raising awareness of the discrimination they face worldwide, as well as a celebration of their contributions to society. Today is about more than visibility—it’s about encouraging others to take part in the fight against transphobia and do as much as they can to create a trans-inclusive society. That’s why, whether you’re already working towards this goal or not, we’ve created an introductory guide to being a good ally to trans people, so you can either catch up on the steps you should have taken a while ago, or simply share it with other people who might not be there yet.

1. Listen to trans people

This one might seem obvious to some of you, but being able to listen to someone’s journey and struggles is the most important step towards understanding the unfairness they’re victims of and helping them. In order to be a good ally to trans people, make sure you’re actually centring them instead of you and the role you play in the fight for trans inclusivity.

Of course, listening in allyship means more than just hearing what a trans person says when something is wrong—it means that there is a continuous conversation happening and action being taken about things that may affect trans people, such as the language people use, having bathrooms accessible to people of all genders, and creating an environment that feels safe for trans people to vocalise their issues.

Everyone’s experience is different, and the same applies to trans people. When you listen to them, don’t take a one-size-fits-all approach. Ask them how best you can help them instead, and listen! “People come from different backgrounds and have different experiences, and therefore have different needs,” writes GLAAD.

2. We all make mistakes

As an ally, you’re bound to mess up somewhere. That’s okay, as long as you’re ready to apologise, learn from it, and move on. Constantly working towards educating yourself is key here. However, there are a few things you really need to avoid in order to be respectful and considerate. When using someone’s wrong pronouns, don’t try to justify yourself by saying something along the lines of ‘I’m just not used to using this pronoun yet’. Just listen to whoever is correcting you, apologise, and acknowledge that you’ve got the hang of it from now on. No need to make things awkward with your friend, just continue the conversation using the right pronouns this time.

3. Just because you don’t understand an identity doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist

Just because you’ve never heard about certain identities before does not mean that they’ve never existed. Resources to understand trans people and all the specific identities that are under the trans umbrella exist. It isn’t something that you will become fully aware of overnight, and that’s okay, but what matters is that, as an ally, you make sure you are putting in effort to learn and understand.

That being said, trans people don’t owe you anything, which means that they don’t necessarily have to be the ones teaching you more about queerness and transness. It’s up to you to make the effort of researching whatever questions you need answered. Having to explain your identity can be extremely emotionally and mentally laborious. If anyone takes the time to explain their identity to you, make sure to not take that for granted.

4. State your pronouns

Easy one. Introducing yourself along with your pronouns can make a more inclusive and safe environment for trans people to also share their pronouns. By normalising the practice, you not only lighten the pressure on trans people but also lower the chances for unintentional misgendering to happen.

You can also add your pronouns on your social media bios or in your email signature to help foster a more trans-friendly social media environment.

5. Use gender inclusive language

Society has taught us to use some gender-exclusive terms such as ‘guys’, ‘bro’ or even ‘sis’. Changing some of the words that you use can make a better, more trans-inclusive environment. Saying ‘Hey y’all’ or ‘Welcome everyone’ is a good start.

Same applies to topics like reproductive health. For example, “take the ‘feminine’ out of ‘feminine hygiene products’,” writes GLAAD. You can also just say pads and tampons. This distinction is a reminder that many trans men and non-binary people also have periods and use these products, implying that there is nothing feminine about these objects.

6. Don’t make assumptions about a transgender person’s sexual orientation

Gender identity and sexual orientation are two different things. Sexual orientation is about who we’re attracted to, and gender identity is about our own personal sense of being a man or a woman, or neither of those binary genders.

7. Show up for the trans community and champion trans voices

Finally, it’s important to understand that allyship doesn’t end there. Showing up for the trans community by going to rallies and protests for trans people is crucial. Use your own privilege to uplift trans voices and bring awareness to their issues. Donate to various non-profits centring trans people if you can.

You can check out GLAAD’s list of resources for transgender people and their allies. If you work in the media industry, check GLAAD’s list of resources for covering transgender people in the media. Furthermore, if you see defamation of trans people in the media, report it! You can also find more ways to be a good ally here.

Happy International Transgender Day of Visibility 2021!