“To be born Black in America is to be born into a world that makes you feel inferior before you can even take your first step. It is to be under constant spritual and mental attack.”
These are the words of Ebonee Davis, a model who made headlines in 2016 when she wrote an open letter to the fashion industry, asking others to join the fight against racial injustice.
This week, the 23 year old Seattle, Wash., native continued her crusade in a must-see TED Talk, where she detailed her journey toward self acceptance.
Raised by a single father and dependent on media for a sense of identity and confidence, Davis recalled walking into a beauty supply store as a child, and pining for the straight hair worn by “Just For Me” relaxer models.
”Despite the burn of chemical on my scalp and smell of sulfur that filled the room, I was entranced at the prospect of having straight hair. It was beautiful. It was celebrated. And I with my kinky coils felt inadequate….I didn’t realize it then, but I was gripped by insecurity at the tender age of 4 and it stayed with me into adulthood.”
At just 19 years old, Davis relocated to New York City, where she was swiftly reminded of the resistance she would face as a model of color.
“I wasn’t disalluisioned by some romantic image of the industry,” she continued. “I did my research and almost every agency had no more than four or five Black girls on their board. The odds were against me, but I was determined.”
And even after signing with an agency, she was constantly reminded of fashion’s preexisting phobia of brown skin.
“I had white agents with no knowledge of Black hair care, run their fingers through my hair and tell me things like, ‘We already have a girl with your look.’ Translation: all Black girls look the same. Or ‘we don’t think there’s room for you on our board.’ Translation: We’re at the capacity for Black models we’d like to represent. But the most excrutiatingly painful? ‘We just don’t know what to do with you.'”
Those critiques were only amplified when Davis decided to forgo weaves and extensions for her natural coils. In addition to being told that “clients would never book her,” others would attempt to rationalize her beauty by assuming she’s mixed or pigeonhole her into subsidiary work.
“I was told not to work for publications like ESSENCE and Ebony Magazine, because if I got labeled an ‘urban model,’ the fashion industry would close its doors to me,” she added. (Editor’s Note: Davis looks drop dead gorgeous in the March 2017 print issue of ESSENCE.)
The catwalker goes on to chronicle her viral Calvin Klein ad, where she posed with “nostrils wide” and “gravity defying hair in all its natural glory.” Now that she’s creating such a powerful platform, the model is dedicated to bring about real change on and off the runway.
“Change in the fashion industry isn’t just about making it easier for models of color,” she concludes. “It’s using our collective voice to rethink the way we think about ourselves, and the way we think about one another. We must examine the historical pretenses that lead us to this place and make conscious efforts to counteract them.”
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Press play (above) and watch Davis’ powerful TED Talk in its entirety. Black girl magic, indeed!