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

By Tahmina Begum

Aug 5, 2021

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“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?