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Leon Kaye headshot

Black Influencers Push Back Against Working for Free

The tone-deafness is baffling: Black infuencers say they're being underpaid or asked to work for free as companies seek to "diversify" their promotional campaigns during Black History Month.
By Leon Kaye
Black Influencers

No one should have to work for free, but some are asked to do it more often than others. One thing even the most clueless among us should have learned over the past year is that people of color are sick of spending extra time educating people on how to treat each other with respect and dignity in the workplace, often with no compensation. Now, count in Black influencers as the latest group of people to push back against working for free.

Swag still isn’t compensation

The story about Pink Lily, an online women’s clothing boutique, is a textbook case. As Buzzfeed’s Stephanie McNeal reported this week, one influencer became rightfully miffed when she was ready to work with the online retailer — only to be told that she wouldn’t be paid directly for any content as she was below a certain threshold of followers.

Instead, she was promised free products, “exposure” and a link to earn a commission on anything her followers might buy should they swipe up on an Instagram story. The promise is not all that different from multilevel marketing companies like Amway, Avon or Herbalife: Just tell your friends and family, and watch the dollars add up, right?

Black influencers aren’t having it. Many may not have the number of followers about which their white counterparts can boast, much less an Olivia Jade or a Kardashian. But that doesn’t mean their time, efforts and voices are any less valuable or persuasive. Furthermore, the Pink Lily episode shows an ugly side of corporate behavior during Black History Month, as companies step over each other trying to find Black voices, influencers and faces in the quest to look more “diverse.”

Black influencers are tired of being exploited

The promise of “exposure” is one of the worst perks to promise any influencer, writer or artist. After all, if someone found you, it’s clear you’re already exposed. As another Black influencer, Kimberly Renee, explained to Buzzfeed, companies seeking Black faces for their public relations needs is at the very least insulting.

“This is particularly problematic, as it reads as if we’re being used as a prop to appease your temporary guilt or address customer complaints without taking real action,” she said in an interview with McNeal. “The lack of fair payment (or any payment for that matter) says that you still see us as people to be used up, drained and exploited.”

The problem is hardly new. The Instagram account @influencerpaygap is brimming with stories about social media influencers who are grossly underpaid, many of them Black. Some were even compelled to shell out money to attend and participate in live or online events. In between the horror stories and cautionary tales, the feed also offers a clear idea of what influencers can and should be paid for their work. 

A problem of both fairness and access

Adesuwa Ajayi, who works for a talent agency, launched the @influencerpaygap Instagram account after seeing that Black influencers didn’t have the same opportunities as whites.  “I think sometimes when you’re unaware of what other people are earning or what the potential of your space is, it’s so easy for you to be low-balled, and it’s so easy for you to lack confidence when it comes to negotiating your worth,” Ajayi told Verge last summer. “And I really wanted to create somewhere people were able to just feel a sense of confidence.”

There are success stories, such as the 35 or so Black influencers who live between two mansions in Atlanta and are able to rack up billions of views in part due to the critical mass made possible by their ability to work together. But for many people of color cutting their teeth in this still very new medium, it’s an uphill fight that's not made any easier by brands looking to fleece them for free labor.

Not everyone can be an influencer, and not every influencer should be one. For those who are smirking at the very concept, the response to that is if you think it’s so easy to be an influencer, try being one. On that point, as brands struggle to gain traction with their current and potential customers, they can take one huge step: Set a social media influencer marketing policy that’s fair and transparent for everyone — after all, if you’ve committed to fair hiring practices, the same should go for your promotional efforts, too.

Image credit: Dami Adebayo/Unsplash

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye