Why Swatch Diversity Matters:
If you’re previously aware with my Instagram page, you will most likely be familiar with a story highlight entitled ‘Diversity’ on which I have saved my numerous posts about how racial issues have affected indie nail polish and swatches. The height of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement over the summer of 2020 can definitely be pin-pointed as the start of these discourses, with brands, customers, makers and swatchers alike all discussing how these issues affect us and what can be done in our own communities to combat these issues. On my own Instagram stories I have been quite outspoken and would like for my personal passion to be prominent and openly displayed on this blog.
I would like to issue a few disclaimers and make some clarifications before diving into the depth of my argument. This essay will be solely focused on indie nail polish and the surrounding community. The intention of this essay is not to speak over any other members of marginalised communities or to assert that my argument is the only correct argument. My only intention is to have a more linear and comprehensive written account of my initial argument. Alongside this, I would like to clarify the acronyms I will be using in this essay; BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) is commonly used in the USA, BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) is most commonly used in the UK and the acronym I am most accompanied to using, however due to the often exclusionary and confusing nature of acronyms I will mainly be using POC (people of colour) to be more inclusive.
Issues surrounding diversity and representation are incredibly important to me. I have spent considerable time reading, researching and even writing a dissertation on these issues. In my teenage years and even to this day my bookshelves are lined with books on racial discourses. Reading these as a teenager greatly influenced the way I view the world; throughout my teenage years and my love of indie nail polish, I could tell even then that everything was incredibly white and pale. All my life, as a woman of South Asian descent, I have struggled with hairdressers being unable to handle my thick hair; I struggled to see girls who look like me represented in theatre, film and television and only very recently have begun to see my skin tone represented in beauty and cosmetics. Despite only starting my nail page in 2020, I have followed the indie nail polish world enough to know that at the height of the BLM movements over the spring and summer of this year, countless brands pledged to include more people of colour in their swatches and promised to diversify their PR lists. I will admit, it was exciting to know I was launching my own nail page, something I had wanted for so many years, at a time when discussions surrounding diversity and representation were at their height, I was hopeful and motivated. The result, on the other hand, has been disappointing. I have found myself having the same conversations with other POC swatchers countless times and it often revolves around the same question:
Where is this new diversity and equal representation that we were all promised?
I will admit, in the months between when my initial thoughts were posted on Instagram and me writing this essay, there have been valuable changes made, but, still, ethnic minority communities of various skin tone and shades are wilfully underrepresented. American Civil Rights activist Marian Wright Edelman famously said ‘You cannot be what you cannot see’ and this statement bears truth even in something as seemingly small as indie nail polish. When I scroll through my daily feed or when I browse through a brand’s own page, the majority of the hands I see are pale, likewise when I shop on a brand’s website the first display photo is always pale. The new Instagram algorithm has only pushed more pale hands onto my feed but there is very little excuse, in my opinion, for the most recent 15 posts to only have 3 visibly POC swatches on a brand’s own page. Particularly from swatchers brands have made the effort to send PR to instead of reposting from a person of colour who purchased from them. It is important for me to note that I am not a particularly ‘established’ Instagram account, I do not have many brand relations and I highly doubt many brands will even read this essay. But I must point out that many brands who are guilty of the aforementioned erasure were most likely posting Black out Squares, have most likely re-shared graphics which champion inclusivity and equal opportunities and called for followers to mention their favourite POC swatchers. However, unless there is no visible changes made to your brand’s page and swatches, or there is no other direct, legitimate actions taken to ensure all POC consumers are represented, and consumers of any marginalised community can feel safe and contented with your allyship and may continue supporting your brand, then empty gestures mean nothing. People of ethnic minority, and all other marginalised communities should never have to be reliant on brands whose maker is also of the same background as them in order to feel represented and comfortable supporting them.
I know this can be overwhelming and exhaustive if you are someone who has not had to spend hours, days or even years of your life criticising and contemplating your ethnic background or the colour of your skin but please recognise that as a privilege. To continuously never have to have the repetitive conversations, to not have to spend hours digging up resources to prove your argument, to not have your voice drowned out by people who may never understand the depth and nuance of these issues. To never have to feel as though you are banging your head against a wall or exhausting yourself by jumping through every single metaphorical hoop placed in front of you. That is a privilege. So many of us wish these discussions never needed to be had, that diversity guides and essays didn’t need to be shared in rotation every few months but unfortunately this needs to be done. Especially when there are first-hand accounts of POC swatchers, particularly those of Indigenous background, who have been outspoken about these issues and have been villainized for their efforts and have ultimately withdrawn from a community they joined to share their love and passion for nail art, in order to avoid being doxed or harassed for daring to speak up on their own experiences.
Until racism and colourism are rooted out of our community, these discussions will never end. I know those sound like very strong terms but in order to fully understand the depth of these issues, such terms need to be used in full fruition. Racism and colourism are all global issues and in order for them to be sustained they must penetrate every aspect of society. Denying POC swatchers opportunities is quite literally an allegory for the multiple ways in which people of ethnic minority, in real life, are consistently withheld opportunities for success, which allows for the current, inherently racist, status-quo to remain unchallenged and unchanged. Social media, and especially Instagram as a platform, works to make us all feel insecure and that we are not enough, and to partner this feeling with the consistent overexposure of white and pale hands, which some have argue display the polish more realistically and beautifully as whiteness has come to be held as the ideal or simply the norm in beauty, it can and has festered into even more insecurity in members of ethnic minorities; most of whom have likely battled with this most of their life. As a larger system, racism is inherently rooted in ensuring all ethnic minorities, and often all minority groups, believe that white people are integrally superior. Colourism works as an asset of racism to uphold that belief, even in the smallest and most unexpected places like indie nail polish.
At this point, it feels important to include a favourite quote of mine from Robin DiAngelo: ‘By definition, racism is a deeply embedded… system of institutional power, and does not change directions simply because a few individuals of colour manage to succeed’ (Page 24). In this context, what this means is that even though you see a number of visibly POC swatchers across your feed, this does not mean that any of the issues I have aforementioned do not exist and the struggle many POC swatchers have faced for so long are nullified.
As mentioned above, there are changes being made. Someone who is new to indie nail polish and our communities may discover far more diversity than this essay may give the impression of and this is a brilliant step in the right direction! However, there is still a very long path to ideal swatcher diversity and in fact a new wave of issues that arise with more diversity. These mainly include premature celebrations of a brand’s diversity when there is still a long way to go. Of course, it is incredibly refreshing to see everyone recognising the importance of diversity and championing the movement, but my advice would be to take a moment, and listen to what the POC swatchers around you have to say as, often, we have a different perspective to offer and it is in these conversations and dialogues that real changes can begin to happen.
If you can forgive a brand or give them the benefit of the doubt than that is fine for you, but when you speak over marginalised groups who are trying to enunciate the issues at hand and why more needs to be done these can feel like a metaphorical punch in the stomach to marginalised communities; as though our issues and our arguments do not actually matter as long as you don’t have to feel guilty about getting pretty nail polish. And it’s disappointing.
I am not writing this essay to ‘spill the tea’ and I certainly won’t be naming and shaming anyone in particular but I feel the need to truly enunciate how important this is to myself. I loved painting my nails, I’ve loved doing nail art for so many years and I love supporting small businesses. Having my Instagram, achieving the milestones and setting up this blog have been some of the few moments throughout this year purely dedicated to joy and celebration. Which is why this hurts so much. To have to revisit difficult conversation or to see brands and swatchers undermine the contributions and progress made thus far. It disheartens me to know that a place I come to for peace and happiness is also infected with such awfulness.
This is not for sympathy or attention but instead an insight. An insight into why these issues always resurface and just how important this is to us, and me. I have thought long and hard about these issues, rewritten this essay numerous times and consistently questioned where my own thoughts and experiences as a British woman of South Asian decent fit into these discussions. My experiences as a woman of colour, and possibly some of the opinions I’ve mentioned in this essay are not universal to all people of colour. But I believe my central argument stands; brands cannot continue to try and sell people of colour their products without putting enough PR into the hands of our swatchers. Moreover, brands cannot expect our support if you do not show sincere efforts to ensure that you value our support, not only for the sake of your business, but because you truly value us as people and want us to be seen, heard and represented. Because even if the continuous essays, articles and information packs don’t mean anything to you, our monetary support does. I know that I have white or pale followers and friends who agree with what I am saying; you know that racism and colourism have no place in our community and you know that everyone deserves to feel welcomed and joyful and represented here and you want to see the change happen. But that change can only happen if everyone makes the commitment to do so. If you do want to be part of that change, be you a consumer, swatcher or brand, I will leave a short list of books, articles and Instagram accounts which are incredibly well-written and I very much admire and I hope are a useful starting point in your own continuous exploration and effort to be a clear anti-racist ally. Please do not let the momentum of swatcher diversity die down; support POC-owned brands and celebrate your favourite swatchers of colour, follow their pages, re-share their manicures, bring them to everyone’s attention, ask brands about their measures to become more inclusive and put your money where you black square of solidarity was.
Because at the end of the day, my skin tone is not a box to tick, my ethnic background is not a quota to fill and as a long-time lover and consumer of indie nail polish, I would like to know how a nail polish will look on my skin tone before purchasing and for it to be from a swatcher who is of the same ethnic background as I am.
Thank you for reading.
‘White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism’ – Robin DiAngelo
‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race’ – Reni Eddo-Lodge
‘Where Are All the Brown Hands’ (article) – Jessica DeFino
‘Dark is Beautiful: The battle to end the world’s obsession with Darker Skin’ – Mary-Rose Abraham
‘The Beauty Myth’ – Naomi Wolf – particularly if you are of the belief that nail polish is not that deep or serious.
‘Mixed Feelings’ – Naomi Shimada and Sarah Raphael – for more information on social media
‘The Good Immigrant’ – A collection of essays edited by Nikesh Shukla.
@abarpolishcoop – Instagram