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A drugstore makeup display. Photo: Jeff Greenberg/Getty Images

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The Insidious Racism of Drugstore Beauty

In my experience, it goes well beyond not manufacturing enough shades.

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When you visit small cities in America, the kind where the nearest mall is over an hour away and there’s no such thing as a Sephora or Ulta for 75 miles or more, you’ll notice something: the ashy brown cheeks, foreheads, and eyelids of black, multiracial, and deeper-complected indigenous and Latina women all over town. You’ll see black women with necks that, in comparison to their faces, look oddly dark. It’s the tell-tale unblended line — a dead giveaway of foundation that will never truly match.

You’ll notice something else, too, if you go anywhere to shop: the reason we look that way. In Cosmopolitan, Andrea Arterberry wrote about how every eight-foot section of foundation and setting-powder products looks exactly the same: 10 to 12 varying shades of beige, from “light” to what must be a sarcastic labeling of “deep” that usually ends right before the colors get dark enough for even a light-skinned black woman to wear comfortably. This is if you’re in a Walmart, by the way. Small towns often aren’t ever lucky enough to have a Target, Big Lots, CVS, Walgreens, or any other store that might carry a reasonably large makeup and beauty section — many feel grateful just to have that Walmart and a few different stores with the word “dollar” in the name. Even though there are a few places to shop, including actual small-town mom-and-pop drugstores, they’re all generally the same when it comes to makeup: whites only.

When I lived in Kansas, I found a job managing one of those stores with “dollar” in the name. At least twice monthly for the near-two years I was employed there, I would ask higher-ups (who, before you ask, yes, were all white) why we didn’t carry makeup meant for women of color. I was given the same answer every time: “We dealt with too much shoplifting when we carried those shades.”

The more I asked, the more I realized they weren’t aware of their racism, their belief that if they stocked colors for black women, we’d come in droves, like hordes of beautiful, blue eye-lidded insects, ready to decimate their crops of foundations labeled “Mahogany” and “Warm Cinnamon.” They simply believed this was true: Black people steal. Mexicans steal. Native Americans steal. If we don’t stock their colors, we won’t experience loss.

But in the entire time I was there, we never caught a single black shoplifter. The thing is, in stores like mine, all kinds of people shoplift and, like really bored hawks, we’d see them and catch them. But in my store? Shoplifters were mostly white teenage girls out to have a good time and pick up something they hadn’t paid for — makeup, cheap perfumes, nail polishes, whatever they could get their hands on, really. (When I remember shoplifters, I always think about the time we caught one girl, who must have been in her early 20s, with nine packages of women’s panties shoved down her pants.) But we, the minorities, were the thieves, according to management. Those were the women we needed to watch out for.

It was a journey from one racist point to another, using what seemed like justifiable reasoning to support it: Black people steal, so don’t stock black products. Black customers see products are never available, so black people stop shopping at your stores. Use the lack of customers as justification for never stocking products, and when asked about the lack of products, cite either lack of sales or shoplifting as the reason. Rinse and repeat. Do the same thing with “Mexican,” but make sure to say “Mexican” like it’s a dirty word. Repeat with indigenous women, but make sure to say “Indian.” And above all, make sure everyone knows it is the fault of the entire group that our store “cannot” stock items meant for them.

But this September, something incredible happened: Fenty Beauty (and believe me, I’m saving up for my foundation and gloss bomb). Trophy Wife happened. Match Stix happened. Rihanna happened. And all of a sudden, it seemed like people realized black women, along with darker-complected Latina and First Nations women, actually do wear makeup. It was amazing (even though darker-skinned women who purchase higher-end beauty brands know Nars, Estée Lauder, and MAC, along with countless smaller, black-owned indie beauty brands, have been producing shades that work for us).

I was basking in the glow until I started seeing posts on Instagram and Twitter from drugstore brands like Maybelline (here are a few) and CoverGirl (who not only posted on Instagram but, this month, announced two black women, Issa Rae and Ayesha Curry, as brand ambassadors) obviously wanting to get in on the action. Even high-end labels by Marc Jacobs, Kylie, and Estée Lauder tried it, but black Twitter had time that day, girl.

But what’s the point of these new shades if they’re never available? What’s the point when racist store managers that control ordering won’t stock their shelves with these shades? Young teenage girls, especially in small towns, often don’t have the money or access to Sephora, Ulta, or makeup-counter products. They don’t have the luxury of boycotting affordable drugstore brands after the brands’ own spokespeople publicly engage in blatant, violently racist words and actions. And when celebs like Kim Kardashian are busy holding hands with unapologetically racist beauty brand owners like Jeffree Star, it feels (at least sometimes) like there’s nowhere safe for us.

Walking through my own store and never seeing my shade drove me to finally invest in MAC, then onto Nars, and finally to Kat Von D (at $35 a bottle, $29 a concealer, and $35 a powder pot, respectively). Let’s be clear: To purchase my makeup from specialty stores at prices like that, I use it sparingly and save for months to afford it. I’m not alone, either. It’s been decades that mainstream beauty-product manufacturers have pretended no one but Ivory, Beige, and Delicate Porcelain-skinned women wear makeup.

So to makeup manufacturers: Put your money where your social media posts are. Put our faces on your marketing materials — and not just next to white women, either. Offer incentives to companies who will order full (or at least fuller) lines of your products until you see an actual, verifiable uptick in sales of darker foundation, powder, and other product tones. Revamp your product markers so darker colors sit at the top of the aisles and in the front of the line.

And if you want to put your darker foundations on display to compete against Fenty? If you want to gain traction with women and girls of color who might try your products? If you actually care about people of color, like your Instagram is now saying you do, then put some action where your words are and make those colors accessible — in price and availability — to us.


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