My name is Majok Deng and I am a Canadian model originally from South Sudan. I am telling my story to talk about how anti-black racism has been a barrier in my career and life. I want to help readers, especially those involved in the fashion industry, to open their eyes to the challenges that black models experience in this industry and to push change.
To begin with, I think it’s important for aspiring black models to see how racism in the fashion industry affected me even before I signed my first contract. I was on a wrestling scholarship when I was offered my first modeling contract. I didn’t consider signing the contract because I didn’t think there was a way for me to be successful as a black male model in the industry. I would scroll through Models.com and see if I could find any black male supermodels. At the time, there was one black male model on the website. Furthermore, when I viewed the list of the sexiest male models there were no black models. I became discouraged because I was about to leave school to pursue this career.
It was disheartening to discover that because of my skin color the likelihood of me having a successful career would be very low. I’m very inspired by Naomi Campbell and Tyra Banks. I have often wondered when they started their modeling careers if they saw that there were few black female supermodels and were tempted to quit. Despite my doubts, I signed my first contract. At the time only three other dark skin models in Canada were signed and actively working in the market.
I can remember the first thing my agency asked me to do was to cut off my dreadlocks which I had been growing for two years. They said hair styles “like that” were not trending in fashion. I ended up cutting them and then two years later in Europe, a lot of models of color who had similar hairstyles were beginning to gain attention. After this trend started, European agencies began grabbing at least one black model for their lineup. When I left my first agency, it was hard for me to find a new one even though multiple scouts had been reaching out to me. They would bring me in to meet the rest of the agency team who would repeatedly say that they already had somebody on their roster with my look – which basically meant they already had their token black model.
In May 2018, I travelled to New York City to meet with agencies and to do photo shoots. The third day I was there, I got a phone call from a detective in Canada telling me that I had a warrant for my arrest and that I had to fly back to Canada. I was confused and asked them why they had a warrant for my arrest. He told that he had received a video of me being involved in an assault at a club in Windsor and that I was being charged for assault with bodily harm. I was confused because I did not even know I was at the club that evening – it turned out that the people in that video were Sudanese friends of mine and the detective assumed I was one of them. I asked the detective if I would need to get a lawyer to prove my innocence which would cost me thousands of dollars. The detective responded by giving me a number to call, which I later found out was for a lawyer of a program in which I would be forced to admit guilt in exchange for a lighter sentence – luckily, I was suspicious enough not to let this lawyer represent me. I was forced to return to Canada and when I arrived at the police station to inform them of the warrant for my arrest, the officers were confused because they could not find an actual warrant for my arrest. They called the detective and even after a debate on the validity of the detective’s report, they still arrested me and put me in holding for four hours before my lawyer got me out. For the next six months, I was subjected to investigations and court meetings in which I had to fight to prove that I was innocent. During this period I was unable to pursue my modeling career which held me back from my goals significantly. In the end, I was found to be innocent and it was discovered that the detective had marked me because he saw me in pictures on social media with another Sudanese model who was involved in the case. Furthermore, I had been mistaken for another Sudanese man in the video. It was obvious to me in this situation that I had been targeted based on the color of my skin.
Over the past two years, I have experienced the same situation over and over again – getting scouted, meeting the team, then getting turned down because they have someone with my look. I was frustrated because I felt I was being underestimated for my potential. I did very well at my first agency as a new face. Moreover, even after I had left the agency and was no longer on their model board, they were still getting emails from clients who wanted to work with me. I was even getting scouted for work on my Instagram..
My worst experience happened after I got offered a contract from an agency, the physical copy of which they gave to me. I took the contract home, looked it over and switched up my work schedule so it would work better with my modeling. When I came back later to sign the contract, the agency turned me down. They told me that they had signed another black male model with my look. This frustrated me a lot. After this happened, I stopped working with agencies in the Canadian market and signed a contract in the UK.
From this point forward, I decided I would build my portfolio on my own and get enough tear sheets to get a work visa. This is something else I struggle with because it’s very hard as a black male model to get into magazines. For example, over the past year I have been working with a Canadian photographer who has been helping me to build my portfolio and get published – he feels it is unfair that I have to work so much harder than a white model to get even a fraction of their opportunities. Recently, he submitted a photo shoot of me to an online magazine and they rejected it. They had an opportunity to feature a black model in their magazine…and instead I found a photo shoot that they had posted showing a model in black face. They had passed me over and were more willing to feature a non-black model in black face rather than to present an actual black model. Out of the 340 posts on their Instagram only 30 featured black models. This was very upsetting to me.
Unfortunately, this is a very common theme in the industry. Getting published in magazines is very important for a model to get a work visa in many countries and when black models like me do not get published, it is harder for us to get work visas. For example, I was once supposed to walk New York fashion week but legally I could not get paid because I did not have a visa. I become frustrated because I believe I have the potential to book more work. However, I am repeatedly denied opportunities and slowed down in my career because I have to work to hop over hurdles to reach the same success as a white model. However, I won’t give up because I want to change this industry so that models of color following me on a similar path will be able to enter an industry that will have become more inclusive to models of color. By succeeding myself, I hope to be an inspiration to other models of color and open doors for them in this industry.
The world of fashion needs to change. Fashion magazine editors, designers, photographers, make-up artists….everyone needs to reflect on their biases against models of color and create an environment that is more conducive to our succeeding. This can be done by magazines making an effort to feature more editorials with models of color, brands including more models of color in their campaigns, model agencies changing their representation by increasing the percentages of non-white models on their rosters and much more. These steps will help make the future brighter for me and other models of color.
PORTRAIT OF MAJOK DENG- KODD MAGAZINE EXCLUSIVITY
Written by Majok Deng (@official.majokdeng)
Photography by Justin Anantawan (@justin_anantawan)