Former Refinery29 employee Ashley C. Ford described her former workplace as “a toxic company culture where white women’s egos ruled the near non-existent editorial processes,” in a tweet. But Ford’s experience, which included being confused repeatedly with another black employee, seems to have been just the tip of the continent-sized racist iceberg at the women’s media outlet. Though the site’s editor-in-chief, Christine Barberich, stepped out of the role on Monday, a lengthy investigation by CNN describes a culture of racism throughout the organization that persisted despite the continued performance of intersectional feminism and allyship with the Black Lives Matter movement.
Former employees, who spoke with CNN, described a workplace that didn’t match R29's outward-facing message of empowerment and inclusivity, a recurring theme in companies branded along with the “trend” of women’s empowerment. While R29 published pages and pages encouraging women to make themselves more visible in the workplace, ask for more money, and have conversations around race, its employees were reportedly encouraged to refrain from such actions. “Walking around that office when I worked there, it was very white, very straight,” a former producer told CNN.
A former executive photography director spoke to CNN about her time working at R29, describing a “running and grim, unfunny joke” among her colleagues that Barberich would consistently reject coverage of black or plus-size celebrities, citing the coverage as being “off-brand.” The former director says she filed several HR complaints against Barberich but was met with no support. HR reportedly claimed that any discipline lay with Barberich’s manager, chief content officer Amy Emmerich, another white woman.
Black employees, who comprised 10.7% of R29's staff in 2020, and other employees of color were subjected to “tone policing, pay disparity, and open verbal abuse,” Alessandra Hickson told CNN. Hickson was one of the founders of sub-brand, Unbothered which centered the stories of black women. Hickson said the process to get Unbothered up and running was one that left her “emotionally drained” and was one of the hardest years of her life. “In addition to being segregated, we were told that we wouldn’t be given resources to create,” former producer Ryen Williams told CNN about the vertical. Once the vertical became successful, “the company realized that Unbothered could be monetized and that’s when they started to care.” Despite the pride that the staff of Unbothered felt by bringing black women’s stories to a wider audience, another founding member, Sesali Bowen said, “I thought I was uniquely valued. In hindsight, I believe I was being tokenized as a fat Black woman and underpaid for my work.”
Bowen also claimed that Barberich once ran her fingers through her hair, an act made even more offensive by the fact that, according to another former editor, “Barberich loved Solange Knowles.” (Knowles has a song titled Don’t Touch My Hair. Perhaps Barberich skipped that album.)
Barberich and Emmerich have both since apologized for “allowing [white] privilege” to blind them to their own actions. But it appears as if such toxicity was widespread throughout the company, with pay discrepancies and verbal abuse thriving at many departments. “If I wasn’t at my desk looking like I was producing, I had to have a damn good excuse. It was terrifying,” one former producer told CNN. The demand to constantly churn out content was so over the top that any staff member who wanted to take a vacation day was expected to have a minimum of one story prepared to publish per day they were going to be out. One former employee was reportedly asked to double her output after taking a single day off due to an infection.
As company, after company, after company, continues to cosplay at intersectionality and anti-racism, the reality of how terribly these values were practiced in their own workplaces is becoming painfully apparent. It’s a shame they couldn’t have been honest all along.