Bonnie Morrison has been in the fashion industry for a long time like I have, and has worked for everyone from the esteemed communications company KCD to Proenza Schouler to Chris Benz. She is also one of the few black women in it. I follow her Instagram and after George Floyd’s death, she starting posting poignant, constructive ideas about how to talk about racism, black culture, and all the nuances of the current situation including books to read, playlists to listen to and the only person she will follow on Twitter, who is not at all who you might imagine. (Her posts are multi-image, and her handle @fiercegrandma is from her days clubbing in NYC in her 20s/30s when she felt like she was the older person in the crowd, the grandma, but as her friend said “a fierce grandma”. “Twitter started and I thought ‘okay, this is interesting but I would NEVER use my real name.’ And that is why I am not an internet millionaire. And the name stuck.”) I asked her if we could get on the phone and she agreed. I hope you find this conversation and Bonnie’s IG posts as helpful as I have. We all owe it to each other and to future generations to listen and learn.
Before we started this I thought we could have an uncomfortable conversation, but I want to call it a constructive conversation and it all stems from your recent Instagram posts which have been very insightful for helping someone like me–who is white, navigate the conversations and learn how to be better in talking about racism, opening my mind to different opinions and ways to approach this all in the most thoughtful manner.
I had been pretty silent, particularly I think because we’re in an interesting time. When the front page of the NY Times announced the 100,000 deaths due to COVID-19, which they called a “staggering loss” it made me think, “This is really unprecedented.” This moment [George Floyd’s death and current events] is also unprecedented.
When we look at all of these national experiences, like September 11th or Sandy Hook, you think about how there’s a national conversation and a real shared grief. And social media is this thing that just grows and grows and grows; its growth seems to be absolutely infinite and our consumption of it. So, I thought, “Well, where are the markers and what are the rules about talking about stuff?” We have all these threads of a lot of different conversations going on in our society, and what do we do about them?
I thought, “Okay, well, what are the rules?” Because nobody really knows the rules. You have people who are still posting pictures of their food during COVID. I think there isn’t anything wrong with bringing some levity into things, but then there were also people who experienced a backlash, because they had treated the time as business as usual, or just a series of days off.
But there are people who are really struggling. If you’re not experiencing it, what’s your obligation to make sure that you still see it? You don’t have to post about COVID or PPE or anything like that, if that’s not your brand. But does that mean that the space gets filled with things that are only about your lifestyle? So, that’s the conversation I’ve been having with people, and then really the thing that I first got into was, I don’t think there’s anything ever wrong with using or not using your platform, however social media also isn’t true activism.
There’s never any wrong with not dedicating that space to things that are going on. You could be using your time in other ways, and I don’t think anyone has the right to criticize you for that, but it’s striking the balance. The first post that I did was on Sunday; I had friends I was speaking to specifically in Los Angeles where there started to be some violent clashes with the cops; people were really in a state of very high alert.
Some of these friends were saying, “It’s going to be a civil war.” I don’t have the biggest platform, but the reason I posted is words spread like wildfire. Disinformation spreads like wildfire. I wanted to communicate to the world, or at least have the conversation with my friends that I’m having with them on the phone, that we know our words right now really, really matter. And it actually felt really good to talk about things that I’ve never talked about at large. Some things that I’ve never really even talked about outside my family.
How has all that’s happened affected you personally?
I haven’t watched the video [of George Floyd]. I do not plan to ever watch it. I don’t have kids, but I had friends with kids who were calling me–white friends with white kids. It wasn’t so much that this is going to affect my daughter or, more specifically, my son because usually police aggression is towards black males, but the idea that this kind of thing is out in the world, and that my children could see it. It would traumatize young children to be able to access this. This is real, and it was happening virtually in real time until the time that it was posted.
I think that freaked people out. I think people thought, “Okay, enough. How is this going to intervene in the psyche and the feeling of safety that my kids are going to have?” School shootings are obviously horrible, but you teach your children to respect authority and law enforcement, and that those people are the helpers. The Mr. Rogers’ quotation, “Look for the helpers.” So, I think that was another grain on the pile of sand that kept things in another direction.
How has it affected me? There’s a man who works in our neighborhood, a dark-skinned black man, who I know because we’ve discussed his life and times and the struggles that he’s had, some personal struggles, and his trying to turn his life around, which he’s done. He’s thoughtful and creative and enjoys poetry and philanthropy. He’s a really special person, and I have enjoyed my relationship with him, and I had a moment the other day, and I was like, “Oh, there’s probably some similarities between him and George.”
That really affected me. Many of us don’t have to live within a broken system and have no expectation of being killed by a police officer, and that’s when it really struck me and made me sad. This was a person with friends and family and people who cared about him. Hopefully, that’s what George Floyd had in his life, and that’s when it became intimately personal for me.
So, it’s been, I think, like for most people whether this was always their struggle or whether it became their struggle just on principle. I think it’s been a real roller coaster day by day. We’re learning new things about what this means and what our reaction to it is going to be going forward.
Being a white person right now, this is a time for us, obviously, to listen and to learn. At the same time, I feel like there’s a lot of conflicting messages. Some people say, “Reach out to your black friends and ask how they are.” Then some black people have said, “That outreach seems disingenuous, and when someone sends these texts with emojis, that just makes me angry.” I understand the anger. But I liked how you talked about there is no right answer, that it’s about your intention. I thought you could talk about it because I think it’s been something a lot of people are struggling with.
I think you hit the nail on the head, and I have a couple of main ideas that I’ve written about and discussed with friends. The first is, this has been the perfect case study in how we, meaning all Americans, how our communication needs a lot of work. The modes of it need a lot of work. We dash off text messages. For instance, I had a disagreement with my mother the other day, and she sent me a text message that cut off the conversation.
Then I called her because what I believe is that if you’re really pissed, unfortunately, you have to pick up the phone. Even though you might not want to, and even though you might want to have the last word. Also, it keeps you out of having a transcript; if anything, you get to cover your ass.
It also makes you to say things out loud, and to pick up on cues and to make sure to express yourself in a direct way. It’s what human beings are best at. We’re best at communicating, actually, communicating. I think that’s one of the things that COVID has made really hard for people. But FaceTime and social media, takes some of the heart and soul out of our communication, and we’re all guilty of it. Convenience is maybe not the best thing for us all the time.
I mean, this is another one of my stumps, but the fact that we order everything online. I am not talking about now in COVID, but before. If you’re only ordering online, don’t complain when all the shops in your neighborhood are closed. We need to make sure that we are investing in our environment and not just our physical environments, but our emotional environments.
So, I think that that’s part of it. If I just text someone, unless I text them all the time, it might come across as that I don’t really care. It’s the minimum accountability, but then also think about Facebook, Instagram, comments, trolling, all those other things. I had a friend who said, “I’ve been fighting with people that I don’t know on Facebook about about why George Floyd is important,” and I said, “You wouldn’t have a conversation with someone that you don’t know, so why are you spending hours writing and editing your screen against this person? Actually this person probably isn’t your type of person, and due to the fact that you don’t know each other, you’re not going to change this person’s mind.”
Whether it’s through a Facebook or whether it’s when we go home for the holidays, we have to change the discourse of arguing. We have to lead with facts, not emotions, and let the emotions follow. Leading with emotion and letting the facts follow just doesn’t work.
I think that if there’s the opportunity for conversation, say, “Well, can you explain to me why you feel that way?” And almost the downward arrow or the Socratic method where rather than pushing views, keep asking questions. Have a dialogue. It’s not a sin to disagree with people, and it’s also not a sin to be misinformed or ignorant. Most people don’t want to be in conflict with other people, and most people don’t hate other people. I’m not egotistical enough to think that I’m going to change every mind, but there are some people that I might be able to share information with that they didn’t know before.
If I say I care about the memory of these people whose lives were stolen, then I do owe it, say, if someone wants to ask me a question, to talk about race because we should talk about race. It shouldn’t be a taboo, and I think that if anything good comes from this, it’s that we are making it less of a taboo, and I think that that’s what’s so important. So, I have to make myself available, but I also know that if someone asks me a question, I can say, “That’s not how you ask that question,” or, “I’m not going to answer that question now, or “Can I think about, or can I get back to you?” Or ”Maybe you should do some more research” and then see if you want to reframe your question.
All those tools are at my disposal, and it’s an approach that I’ve gotten good results with in other areas of my life. So, why not here?
What are some conversations that because you’re black, you feel like you don’t or haven’t been able to have with some of your white friends? Are there any? Even say, hair?
When you got to be in middle age, you realize that there’s a generation behind you who are adults. And granted I live in New York City, but I now see groups of young people who are clearly in their 20s and their groups are more diverse, more racially mixed, more identify as LGBTQ, and there is more body confidence. It seems like the attitudes about what ideals are and what social capital is have changed for younger people, which is great. I hope that they bring that with them if they end up pursuing corporate jobs when they get to the part in their lives when they’re a little bit less radical.
In terms of beauty, if you think about hair and people straightening their hair and extensions, it’s still obviously a big feature of black culture, but it’s no longer just the province of black culture. Nails and nail art, that used to be a big one. I just ran into a friend yesterday, and she had these really spectacular airbrushed nails. I’m old enough to remember a time when that was really a black kind of thing. For things like that, which I don’t necessarily think is coadaptation, we all get to influence each other. That’s what America is supposed to be about, right? You look at something like Fenty Beauty and the success of Rihanna, and you think about gender—.I think those things are eroding.
I think the hardest conversation, and I think that that will continue to be is interracial marriage and relationships. Because people do online dating and that expands your peer group, I think people are more open to it. Class is also obviously a huge coefficient there. But I think that it’s still the one thing that nobody ever talks about. I am not married. I have never been married, and I also have a friend who’s not plus-sized but just doesn’t have the conventional sample-size body type, and it’s the same experience for her. You never get set up [with someone who doesn’t look like you]. When I’ve gotten set up, or when people have suggested, “Oh, I think I have a guy for you,” the guy’s either black or his last girlfriend was black. It’s never matching up by, “you guys both love Led Zeppelin”, or “you guys both are from California” or love spin class or any other thing. I mean, those are not the only features of my personality, but those things do happen to be true about me.
Right, but race comes first.
Race comes first.
Then I wanted to talk a bit about fashion. My feeling is…and you might have a completely different perspective, fashion tends to be a pretty welcoming place for all people on some level. However, there is honestly little diversity; I have seen it when you have been one of the few or even the only black woman in the room. Where you think fashion has gotten it wrong and where you think it’s getting it right? Or is it even getting it right?
This is a big one, and this is one that I think has gotten conflated with a lot of different issues, and I think we’ve gotten wrong and how we talk about it. I think we talk a lot about topics, but we don’t really talk about conditions. I think a big part of fashion issues and failures is fundamentally a class issue. I’ll just go to fashion publications for a moment.
I worked at Condé Nast off and on for a couple of years, and this is not my opinion, this is easily searchable, and this is not calling out this particular magazine for this particular argument, but the history of the Condé Nast girls is they were extremely well-heeled, “Daddy’s sending me to Vogue because he says that I need to get a job”. That obviously belongs to I think probably the ’50s, but the idea that there is a certain type of person who goes into magazine work and who is able to go into magazine work. I know magazines don’t have the cultural impact or resonance that they do now, but you can relate because we’re of the same generation.
Right, but at the same time, the people who were the most influential in the fashion industry when we started are still there now.
Right. So, in as much as a magazine is a place for what we now call content creation, it has to be that if everybody’s advocating for their own interests, does the business have a person of color to ask to make sure that that person’s voice is included? We all have a certain amount of—when we see something we think “how does this apply to me?” That’s quite normal, it’s human nature. But, if you’re a person of color, you tend to think, “Is this something that if I talk about it people will know what I’m saying? Is this something that people will want to hear?” There’s a self-censorship that sometimes happens and it depends on where you sit with these things and how much power or agency you have. If we want our society to be more representative, how do we reflect that? How do we reflect that and how do we grease the wheels so that it can happen.
It feels to me, and you may totally disagree, that it’s the same argument that I keep hearing how VC boards and boards of companies should have at least a woman among them, because women bring a different perspective and approach to things. Having a more diverse work environment brings different viewpoints, which ultimately speaks to more people, and that should be something that we should all want.
I think you’re absolutely right, and I think that if anything, you’re taking it to the absolute most extreme conclusion and if you’re just thinking dollars and cents, it [diversity in the workplace] has a much better chance of inoculating companies against these pretty serious mess-ups that happen when you can tell there’s no one who has a different viewpoint working for them. For instance, I have a trans, non-binary friend. If I were working on messaging about non-binary people, particularly for a product, I would run it by that friend. I wouldn’t just say “Well, I’m an ally, so I understand.” Check your work. Double check it.
In the most cynical, capitalist way, companies shouldn’t put all this work into creative or a campaign if they haven’t assembled enough people around the table and gotten their input. Otherwise you’re flying blind into something that now, with everyone with a platform and everyone with a camera and hashtag, you could find yourself in a real world of hurt.
I’ve worked at companies and one in particular for which the vast majority of its revenue comes from selling products to women, products that only women can use, and the internal board of directors that made all the decisions in the company had 12 people, three of them were women. Two of the women had nothing to do with the product in the business, they functioned in more legal financial matters. It never made any sense to me. All these men were talking about what this dress should look like or what the purse should look like or the heel height.
So, we’ve got the problem everywhere. And I think we are depriving ourselves of a hybrid vigor and perspective. I actually feel scared for companies who haven’t started to do this work about gender equality because I’m sure they’re terrified about getting canceled, but that’s not even their bigger problem. Their bigger problem is they’re not prepared to serve this next generation of consumers because they don’t even know what’s coming, and they have no one to ask.
We’ve also got to do a little bit of advanced planning, succession planning and mentoring, so that the people who come out of college or vocational school, are prepared and have the skills. Because I think that what we forget is particularly for low-income people, you might be the first person in your family who’s ever gone to college, which is not all people of color, but it’s certainly still a reality.
And we need to change the conversation about what qualifies someone for a job. It’s not just about hiring someone for a job that they’ve done. I think we have to be really serious or honest with ourselves, particularly in fashion about PR or marketing, that someone coming out of school, sure, they maybe have some internships on their side, but I want someone who has the right attitude. I want someone who’s diligent, who’s organized, who’s not afraid to ask questions, who’s willing to learn, who doesn’t have a lot of ego. If that person has those qualities, I can teach you everything else. In fact, I’m obligated to teach you. So rather than saying, “This person interned at these three places. Or this person did the marketing for blah… or he was the digital manager for a store in Southampton”–someone who grew up in the Bronx is not going to have that same experience. So, how do we cultivate and how do we create equivalency?
The last thing I’ll say about this is, for example, at one job I remember overhearing the CEO say, “Oh, she’s going to be great. She has a great pedigree.” I have pedigree too. I have been privileged in many ways, more privileged than some black people and some white people. But we need to we need to change our thinking about what the requisites are. Fashion’s not frivolous. Fashion’s important. It employs a lot of people, but it’s not the same as a lot of other types of work and certainly doesn’t attract most people because they want to get rich. Some people need to get rich because they have families they need to support or student loans they need to write off, but I think we need to think about how in some ways we’ve racialized our thinking about job qualifications and see if there are ways to change that without changing the product or the results.
Rather than trickling down, we need to trickle up and build a stronger foundation. We should think, “How do we get all these people to come together and how do we get all these people to make sure that we have strong links between the people who are advocating LGBT interests, women’s interests, African-American, Latinx, the far East, Pacific. Who on our team speaks Mandarin Chinese? Who on our team has worked in India for six years?” All these things; we live in a global culture.
It’s almost about inverting that pyramid and working in a really different way. You still need a CEO, a CMO, and a CFO. I’m not saying abolish those jobs, but I’m saying, “How do we make sure that the people who might be specialists in certain things have more of a say in giving the feedback and also making sure that they’re talking with each other so that we’re not blindsided by uprising?” Because who knows how long this current situation will last. But it’s going to change how people talk about things, how people talk to each other, what protest really is, and how people vote.
People vote with their pocketbook. We can see that as opportunity, or we can see it as a threat, but if we invest in changing it or being able to receive it, then it’s an opportunity.