Dear white people, my body is not for you to take and profit from

Nyome Nicholas-Williams
·5-min read
Photo credit: Alexandra Cameron
Photo credit: Alexandra Cameron

From Harper's BAZAAR

On 2 June 2020, social media took part in a #BlackOutTuesday in solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement. It soon became clear that all the little black squares that filled our feeds that day were largely a performative act, with no substance or real follow-up action. There were even media reports of white influencers dressing up and posing with signs at global BLM protests, just for the photo opportunities, but they haven’t posted in support since.

The novelty of caring about Black people seemingly fizzled out as quickly as it blew up; social media feeds returned to normal within the week and the ongoing mistreatment of Black people resumed.

The viral nature of how Black Lives Matter rose and fell from social consciousness is indicative of the true feeling about the civil rights movement that Black people have struggled to keep alight since its inception in the 20th century. I myself fell victim to this just a week ago.

Not long after Black Lives Matter stopped trending, I was alerted to the fact that my work had been stolen and profited from by a white woman. A 'feminist' illustrator had traced my photo, included it in her art, made merchandise with it and sold it without my consent or the consent of the photographer who took the photo.

This artist has not only profited off my likeness, even going to the lengths of making phone cases with my body on (again without permission), she has done this to other Black women too, many of whom have taken to social media to share their stories in disbelief.

When I confronted her, the artist continued to show her disregard for me as a Black woman by offering very little compensation out of the profits made - this was until a white illustrator friend of mine emailed her on my behalf. Even then, she misled me about the profits made from the merchandise that featured my likeness, a fact that emerged after she was asked for proof.

As a white woman, profiting off images of people of colour, she should have been called out a lot sooner. But she managed to hide behind the guise of 'ally' to go undetected in the community, while using the bodies of Black women to make over $16,000 a month, as she bragged about on her TikTok account.

Photo credit:  Alexandra Cameron
Photo credit: Alexandra Cameron

When posting her apology video on the same account, she seemed agitated at having to do so, using white fragility as a crutch for her statement and deflecting her actions onto other people - telling others not to do the same as she did, but I highly doubt anybody would.

After numerous attempts to resolve the situation when it first came to light, I was left with no choice but to use my platform to gain her attention and was made to feel as though I was the one in the wrong for doing so.

I was incredibly conscious of appearing to be the aggressor - people are quick to think this about Black people; I was desperate to show both ‘strength’ and ‘kindness’ in a situation that left me mentally and emotionally drained.

I wanted her to think about all the women that she had violated in this way and how she had treated us in response to our anguish; not just the models, but the photographers, editors, stylists, beauty teams, everybody involved in bringing the images that she stole to life. I wanted her to consider the true meaning of the word feminist.

Everybody makes mistakes, we’re only human, but it’s how you work to correct these mistakes, how you learn from them and how you apply the lessons to your life in the future that really makes a difference.

Judging by the actions of this artist in the days following our encounter, she had no intention of practicing what she so publicly preached in her conceited apology video, or in the statement on her Instagram account. I never received a direct apology.

This isn’t the only case of white people profiting off of Black people or Black culture that I have come across. My example isn't in isolation.

Photo credit:  Alexandra Cameron
Photo credit: Alexandra Cameron

In 2013, Rihanna sued Topshop for using an image of her taken on a music video and printing it on T-shirts without her consent. Her lawyers told the court that the fashion chain may have misled fans into thinking that she had endorsed it and the star won the case.

White recording artists have been profiting from Black music for decades, even openly using the N-word; we’ve also seen non-black celebrities appropriating Black culture by wearing their hair in cornrows or braids, without considering the painful history behind these styles. Newsflash: It’s not “just hair”.

We’ve also read countless reports of Black models being turned down by white-owned agencies because they have “another Black model on their books” - then there’s blackfishing. It seems that brands would rather hire a white model wearing fake tan and edit her skin, than pay a Black woman - taking work away from the countless talented black creatives around the world.

Blackfishing doesn’t just mean donning fake tan and black hairstyles either, it goes as far as appropriating black features too. The Kardashians have made billions from emulating black bodies, with their curvaceous frames and famous pouts - they wear black culture like its expensive clothing from their wardrobes.

To the white people that continually profit or benefit from Black culture, but remain silent when we are targeted in our day-to-day lives, you are a huge part of the problem. It shouldn’t be up to Black people to call out racist or harmful actions. After all, we weren’t the ones who created the construct of systematic racism.

In the words of Desmond Tutu: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

My experience left me feeling cheated, robbed, unsafe in a space that is meant to be mine; my body isn’t anybody else’s to profit from. Black culture isn’t just there for you to take; we are not your meal tickets.

Follow Nyome Nicholas - Williams on Instagram at @curbynyome, and photographer Alexandra Cameron at @alex_cameron.

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