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On Refinery29’s “Girlboss” Leadership, White Feminism, and Performative Activism

On Refinery29’s “Girlboss” Leadership, White Feminism, and Performative Activism

I grew up in an era where Buzzfeed was my go-to media outlet, and as a teenager, I thought of Refinery29 as Buzzfeed’s women-focused counterpart. Founded in 2005, Refinery29 is one of the many female-focussed magazines that gained traction when feminism began trending in the early 2010s, alongside the likes of PopsugarBustle, and many others. In 2019, Vice acquired Refinery29 for a $400 million deal, allowing Vice to expand their mostly male-directed audience.

Today, Refinery29 is known as a major lifestyle magazine that emphasizes inclusivity and progressive values. With 2.67 million followers on Youtube and 2.7 million followers on Instagram, Refinery29 is a well-established millennial woman’s magazine. For many young women such as myself, Refinery29, with their coverage of culture and beauty, is an essential source of news and media.

The recent George Floyd protests occurring amidst the COVID-19 pandemic have sparked increased scrutiny, not only in political systems but also within companies and corporations.

Many companies are witnessing a cultural reckoning as they grapple with the hypocrisy of releasing performative statements in support of Black Lives Matter without acknowledging the issues within their own company culture, and Refinery29 is no exception.

Though Refinery29’s demographic is relatively diverse, the leadership is overwhelmingly white, with the majority of Black and brown writers occupying lower positions within the company.

 

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Image: CNN

On an episode of the Unladylike Podcast, Caroline Ervin said, “When money and power are at stake, white girlboss leadership can be just as adept at making work life a tokenistic hellscape as any bad male bosses out there.”

White feminism is often part of this “girlboss” leadership. White feminism can be defined as “advocacy for gender equality that ignores the unique experiences of women of color.” White feminism often manifests in workplace environments as casual micro-aggressions from white women in power, which often aren’t intentionally harmful, but, as former employee Sesali Bowen puts it: “well meaning, but violently clueless about race.”

When Refinery29 blacked-out their homepage to show their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, a former employee posted the following tweet:

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Image: Twitter

Following the tweet, both current and former Black employees began coming forward with their experiences working in what outwardly appeared to be a feminist utopia. Employees began recounting their experiences of pay inequality, micro-aggressions, and toxic company culture. 6 days after Edwards’ tweet, editor-in-chief Christene Barberich stepped down to “to help diversify leadership in editorial.”

As with any media workplace, there is significant pressure to put out content that will create the most internet traffic. When the people making these decisions are all white and unaware of the racial connotations of their actions, problems can arise. Despite the site’s inclusive appearance, editor-in-chief Barberich repeatedly made decisions that did not align with its progressive image.

Ashley C. Ford and Ashley Alese Edwards were two of the most outspoken former writers for Refinery29, observing that Baberich often chose to display photos of lighter-skinned women on the website over those who were Black or plus-sized, deeming them “off-brand.” On another occasion, when Edwards brought up concerns about publishing a piece about immgration by a white actress from Texas, she was tone-policed by Barberich for challenging her authority, even though her concerns proved to be valid when the article received backlash.

Contributing to the toxic company culture were editors who, according to Khalea Underwood on Twitter, were often white and would poke fun at writers who didn’t write fast enough, critique their writing skills behind their back. The writers they criticized were often Black writers.

The company harbored many toxic practices, often disproportionately impacting women of color. Refinery29 also kept a “shame board,” where articles without the author’s names removed would be posted during meetings if they didn’t reach their traffic goals.

When comparing salaries, it was discovered that many employees of color were being paid significantly less for doing the same jobs as their white counterparts, and were frequently denied raise requests. Ironically enough, Refinery29 has published multitudes of articles that encourage women to negotiate their salaries and ask them to demand what they are worth.

The company also tokenized many of its writers of color. Tokenism is the idea that companies will hire people of a certain identity to give the outward image of inclusivity and diversity while exploiting them as “tokens” of diversity. It’s a form of performative activism that values Black writers for what their race symbolizes rather than their work.

Underwood was hired to be a Beauty writer in 2017, specifically a “natural hair writer” and when she tried to venture outside of writing about Black hair, she was discouraged. Tokenism, in this case, shows how Black writers are not seen fully as writers, but rather as “tokens” to symbolize how Refinery29 is “supportive” of the Black experience.

Another incident of tokenization occurred with one of Refinery29’s most popular sub-brands, Unbothered, which focuses on the Black millennial woman experience. Former senior entertainment writer Sesali Bowen, a founding member of Unbothered, recounts bringing Unbothered to existence without any resources from the company.

Bowen and social media editor Ally Hickson were told that they would have to “explain to the rest of the company” why Unbothered was necessary. They weren’t paid for their extra work or supported through the process because people weren’t sure if a Black-focused sub-brand would be lucrative.

Yet, Unbothered proved to be a huge success, creating a space in Refinery29’s content that directly appealed to a demographic Refinery29 hadn’t appealed to before. While Refinery29 benefitted from Unbothered’s success and used it to further emphasize Refinery29’s “diverse” image, its rough inception demonstrates the hypocrisy of Refinery29’s performative activism.

The allegations against Refinery29 demonstrate the flaws in women-centered workplaces, where “girlboss” culture from white leadership fuels an unhealthy work environment, all the while projecting a public image that contradicts the internal reality. 

When I first found out about Refinery29’s issues, I felt betrayed. As a young Asian-American feminist, writer, and beauty enthusiast, I love Refinery29 for their progressive articles, high-quality video content, and dedication to equality. Their label “Not Your Token Asian” covered stories about the Asian-American experience that validated my advocacy for representation in the media.

The fact that Refinery29’s brand and the great content they create are at odds with their work-culture shocked and frustrated me. As someone who can testify to the damage of racial unawareness from leaders such as Barberich, I know how terrible working under such pressures can be.

Refinery29 doesn’t exist in a bubble; the issues they grapple with are symptoms of greater societal issues. Though Barberich is just one white feminist “girlboss” out there, her resignation represents a shift in what we are willing to tolerate.

I have hope that Refinery29 and the many others companies who are dealing with these types of internal problems that stem from non-diverse leadership will learn to grow from their mistakes. Time’s up, and it’s time for these companies to walk their talk. We need to stop using “wokeness” as a selling point and make it a reality.