Jennifer Atilémile on life in the US and tokenism in the fashion industry
I am the daughter of an immigrant, who worked incredibly hard to get where he is today. He always told me to “dream, believe, achieve”: dream it was possible, believe I could do it, and achieve - if I worked hard enough.
I’m sure most immigrant parents have told their children the same thing, work hard and you can achieve success.
I suppose, in a way, the granddaughter of an illiterate Black woman and daughter of a father who only finished high school, I am living proof of his mantra. I worked two jobs to get myself through university, all while modelling. I am now one of Australia’s most successful plus-sized models, currently working in New York City and the first of my generation to hold a graduate degree.
This idea of ‘the dream’ stems from the famous notion of ‘the American Dream’, which appeared around the time of the Great Depression. In his novel, Epic of America, James Truslow Adams describes the American dream as ‘the dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement’.
It’s a beautiful sentiment, oftentimes romanticised as totally attainable. In theory, it should be, and to some it is. We should all be equal and have the same access to resources and tools to help us achieve whatever our hopes and dreams are. But we all know that’s not the case.
Last year really illuminated for me the deep inequalities in the country I now call home. For some in America, the mantra ‘dream, believe, achieve’ just doesn’t hold up. Working hard is what so many people have to do here to simply survive. If you are not white, you work twice as hard to be equal and I’m sure that sentence rings true, no matter where you were born in the world.
James Baldwin delivered a stirring speech as part of a debate at Cambridge University in 1965 declaring that "The American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro." He continued, "even the poorest white man has been raised to believe that no matter how terrible some of their lives may be and no matter what disaster overtakes them, there is one consolation like a heavenly revelation--at least they are not black." 56 years on, his words continue to be a true and poignant reminder of the inequality in this country.
If last year taught us anything, it’s that everybody is still not free. Unemployment due to the pandemic reached an all-time high, with lower-wage industries being hit the hardest. Black and Latino workers are over-represented among those recorded job losses. Workers with the least education have suffered the most, and workers of colour are more likely to be paid poverty-level wages than white workers.
The pandemic has shown us what a lot of people already knew – there were cracks in the American dream. Widening inequalities based on class, gender and race have forced some industries to re-evaluate their practices.
"This tokenism has no other purpose than to keep us in competition, to make us work against each other to uphold the current system of exclusion. The only beneficiary is white supremacy." - Jennifer Atilémile
In the fashion industry, models, designers and consumers spoke about the lack of Black representation and visibility within the industry, both in-house and externally in advertising campaigns. Casting one model of colour in a campaign and calling it diversity isn’t equality. I’ve seen it happen all the time in Australia, where there’s a spot for the ‘token’ ethnic model. This tokenism has no other purpose than to keep us in competition, to make us work against each other to uphold the current system of exclusion. The only beneficiary is white supremacy.
Racist micro-aggressions played out in real-time at castings (often to our faces), our beautiful, unique features picked apart and fetishised. We have all been told at some point we are either too Black or not Black enough.
I know at the beginning of my career, I ended up believing I was in competition with the other models of colour in Australia – mainly because there was this notion that the Australian industry was racist, and there wasn’t enough work for everyone. This sense of competition and animosity comes as a by-product of tokenism, the notion of “one of each” when it comes to diversity. This is dangerous because it sets a precedent that it’s enough. They’re missing the point of true diversity and the beauty of Blackness: that our beauty comes in many forms.
Why is it that there is always room for multiple white people, but only room for one person of colour? You don’t want a seat at the table of someone who doesn’t really want you there. I have learned that there is power in numbers, there is beauty in diversity, and there is room for all of us.
As I write about my experiences within the industry in Australia, I cannot discount the experiences of my colleagues who have told me that they cannot get work in Australia because of the colour of their skin – that ‘Australia isn’t ready for (dark-skinned) Black plus-sized models’, so they went to America instead.
I am so very grateful for the opportunities in Australia, but I must also recognise the privilege of these opportunities as a direct result of colourism – that I received those opportunities, but my colleagues didn’t – and that colourism is a by-product of white supremacy.
If we look at the fashion industry now in America, some of my friends are only just getting the recognition they deserve from an industry that consistently overlooked them – not because they weren’t deserving, not because they didn’t work hard enough, but because the system was against them. We must change that system.
When you talk about a dream, in whatever shape or form, it has to be one of equal opportunity. Some people can’t flourish at the expense of others’ oppression. The American dream must now be a hope- a hope becomes accessible. A dream will always be an illusion. 🔥
Jennifer Atilémile is a Franco-Australian model who has worked internationally for the past five years and is now based in New York.
With her mixed heritage, her mother having Irish and Danish ancestry, and her father from Reunion Island, her goal has always been to challenge traditional standards of beauty, and push for greater racial representation in advertising and media.
Holding a double Masters degree in International Relations and Journalism, it’s very clear she is more than just a model, and has been using her voice to advocate for racial equality and body diversity through her writing, and modelling career.
She knows how important representation is - having grown up not seeing anyone that looked like her, she set out to be that representation she never had growing up. Jennifer wants to inspire the next generation to believe in their power, to see themselves in spaces that they’ve never thought possible, while also challenging her generation to think about how they can be more inclusive.