I Experienced Systemic Racism at One of America’s Most Prestigious Magazines
The historic magazine has publicly committed to racial equity but, writes Verneda Adele White, “in the company’s offices and hiring practices, a very different story emerges.”
As a magazine, Town & Country has been in circulation longer than the institution of slavery has been abolished in America. In the past few years, the 174-year-old Hearst publication has made it a point to assert itself as an important voice in our country’s national reckoning with race, equity, and social justice.
The “advancing conversations” featured at the affluent heritage brand’s annual event, the Town & Country Philanthropy Summit, for example, have tackled issues from mass incarceration to police violence, and have featured a who’s who of Black powerhouses from Valerie Jarrett, Darren Walker, John Legend, and Ava DuVernay, to Michael B. Jordan, Robert F. Smith, Yara Shahidi, and the Exonerated Five.
Behind the scenes, however, in the company’s offices and hiring practices, a very different story emerges—one that has all the hallmarks of deep-seated systemic racism and bias.
Despite an outward commitment to “upholding a diverse and inclusive point of view,” as outlined in a recent company statement, there are exactly zero people of color, including no Black/African Americans, on the Town & Country top executive team. Under that team, the virtually all-white full-time staff, contractors, and suppliers are perpetuated by biased recruitment, hiring, and procurement processes that suppress opportunities for Black/African American people.
I know this first-hand, as a Black woman, because I was denied opportunities for advancement at Town & Country. (“While there are current full-time Town & Country staffers with diverse underrepresented identities on both the editorial and sales and marketing teams, we are actively working to have more proportionate race and ethnic representatives supporting our brands,” a Hearst Magazines spokesperson said in a statement.)
I first walked into the Town & Country office in 2016. My company, production by HUMAN INTONATION, was contracted as an event supplier, and I took on a support role to manage guest relations for the magazine’s Philanthropy Summit. Stellene Volandes had just been appointed as T&C’s new editor-in-chief.
I was immediately and acutely aware that I was the only visible Black person contracted on the project. Not only that—I then realized I was the only visible person of color contracted on the project, and I saw no other contractors or suppliers of color over the next four years.
During this period, each time I became aware of newly filled positions at Town & Country—whether full-time or contractors—I observed the magazine had consistently hired a white candidate (frequently, but not exclusively, female and blond), with few exceptions. When the magazine’s publisher Jennifer Levene-Bruno was in need of a new executive assistant, a blonde white woman was hired. A new senior marketing coordinator: blonde white woman. A new brand marketing director: blonde white woman. And so on.
Following the 2017 Philanthropy Summit, the full-time staff member who led the event’s annual production—with whom I worked over the previous two years—prepared to leave Town & Country that September. The magazine decided to transition that vacant lead producer role from an on-staff position to a contract-based one. Knowing the job would become outsourced, before leaving the magazine, the departing staff member directly recommended my company to Town & Country’s branding executive Jennifer Orr and her team for the contracted role. With over a decade of event production experience as the executive producer of conferences, panels, and large-scale fundraising galas, I was qualified to lead the charge, and gladly accepted her recommendation. I was excited to explore the opportunity with Orr and her team.
Over the next five months, however, my emails and calls to inquire about the guidelines to submit a formal proposal, or to schedule a meeting regarding my business leading the production of the Philanthropy Summit, were met with vague, coldly corporate emails like: “…[We] aren’t clear yet about activations.” Each time I reached out, I was asked to follow-up again in a few months. By January 2018, I received an offer to continue in the same support role for guest relations. When I inquired once again about the lead producer opportunity, it was expressed to me, “We already have a plan in place for the workload for the rest of the Summit but if anything changes, we will let you know.” That plan? The full-time staff producer role previously filled by a blonde, white woman—who recommended my company—was replaced with a contracted producer, who you may have guessed is… a blonde, white woman.
Let’s take a pause. The incident described here is not only about me being passed over without consideration and not getting the business. Instead, what it illustrates is something that many heritage media brands like Town & Country are now forced to reckon with: systemic recruitment and procurement practices that routinely exclude or ignore qualified Black applicants, while effectively prioritizing the maintenance of a homogenous, white-centric organizational culture.
Too often Black/African American candidates or suppliers are denied the opportunity to apply, or to even submit a proposal, for jobs. While the New York State Human Rights Law protects contractors from unlawful discrimination, and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission states that “An employer may not refuse to give employment applications to people of a certain race,” such practices continue today under many guises including closed referral networks, discriminatory “preferred vendor” programs, and other forms of institutional biases.
The Partnership for New York City released a June 2020 open letter calling for united efforts to achieve racial equity, including “helping racially diverse entrepreneurs and small businesses survive.” The letter was signed by 191 of the city’s top business leaders from all sectors of the economy. While Hearst President & CEO Steven R. Swartz, co-chair of the Partnership for New York City, supported the letter as a signatory, I question how many other qualified suppliers and contractors of color have been passed over without full consideration throughout Town & Country’s 174 years (Swartz did not respond to a request for an interview when I reached out in August).
Not receiving full or serious consideration for a project is a scenario faced by many Black-owned event suppliers and contractors. In a June 2020 article for BizBash, seasoned events producer and chief experience officer Yvonne McNair wrote: “The meeting and events industry accounts for over $325 billion of direct spending, yet Black event professionals are often overlooked. We are not seeing representation when it comes to the leadership positions at top brands or when it comes to hiring event agencies or freelancers. Additionally, when hired, we are often provided lower event budgets and tasked with creating the same level or better experiences as our white peers.”
This last line rings particularly true.
Prior to the current movement for racial equity and economic justice, marked by the police killing of George Floyd, I remained quiet when pressured by Town & Country to perform my services a solid $5,000 below my standard consulting rate, whereas I was paid my full rate for similar projects I produced at peer publications and comparable media organizations in New York City. As recent as 2019, I was told by Town & Country’s brand marketing director, Sarah Ryan Clausen, that there are ”so many people interested in taking your spot who would be happy to do it for less.”
Systemic racism in this country has taught me and many others to swallow discriminatory slights—including pay inequity—and that I am supposed to feel lucky that a brand like Town & Country would even entertain working with me at all. I often worked outside of my contracted hours throughout my four-year experience with the magazine; I did so as a courtesy, including several hours of my time that I gave pro bono when called upon to assist Clausen with guest-relations details in the final weeks leading up to the 2020 Philanthropy Summit, for which my company was not contracted this year. When I originally reached out regarding the summit this past February, I was told by Clausen that my services were not needed.
As I watched all four days of the virtual 2020 Town & Country Philanthropy Summit from July 7 to 10, I listened to the likes of Ava DuVernay and Ford Foundation President Darren Walker call on each of us, attendee and host, particularly those in positions of privilege, “to engage in the concrete work of reconciliation.”
After hearing this, I finally woke up. Recognizing the depth of the disparity between what I was hearing and the reality of my experience with Town & Country, I found myself searching throughout the event for some form of proactive dialogue about the internal changes and actions the magazine would undertake to address its internal racial inequity and biases, whether conscious or unconscious. I heard none.
Feeling moved not only to write about my experience, but also to explore the challenges of achieving reconciliation, I reached out to the magazine’s current Editor-in-Chief Stellene Volandes on July 22 with the opportunity for us to collaborate on my unpacking—in article form—the chasm between Town & Country’s outward commitment to racial equality and the brand’s actual, internal racial disparities. I sought to understand what material action the brand was taking.
Our first (and only) follow-up phone call took place the next day, which shockingly was the same day The New York Times reported on allegations of a culture of sexual harassment and a toxic workplace under Troy Young, then-president of Hearst Magazines, T&C’s parent company—in addition to accusations of racial discrimination at publications under his watch, specifically Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire.
During our call, my idea was initially met with enthusiasm from Volandes, who seemed to exude a willingness for her and the Town & Country team to self-examine in ways that would perhaps be unprecedented for the brand, and for the larger media industry. Volandes suggested I write the article for Town & Country.
Our conversation ended with Volandes putting me in touch with the Town & Country PR team, Randi Friedman, executive director of public relations, and Gabriel Ford, then the senior PR director for Hearst Magazines, to schedule interviews for my article with various executives at the magazine while she was on vacation. I had a call with Ford where I reiterated my intention to produce an article about the disparities in Town & Country’s commitment to racial equity. Ultimately, the PR team gave little attention or priority to the task. Instead, upon the top editor’s return, I received several vague corporate statements reaffirming the magazine’s “commitment” to racial equity, with Volandes expressing, “I am proud of the ways in which we have examined and evolved conversations around the urgent topics our nation faces in the magazine and at our events as well as within the editorial team I have built and continue to build.”
Our interviews went unscheduled. I was eventually given a final corporate statement, attributed to a Hearst Magazines spokesperson, reading: “As a company, we are examining our culture, practices and products, with a focus on respecting, protecting and representing diversity and inclusion, and improving the pipeline for diverse talent through augmented recruiting initiatives, more accountability during the hiring process and partnerships with organizations including YearUp, AdCOLOR and the T. Howard Foundation. Town & Country advances important conversations around philanthropy and its staff is deeply committed to the social causes the brand champions. Through allyship, education and action, the team is always working to represent the values they believe in so strongly.”
I was—for all intents and purposes—blown off.
The presence of white privilege and white supremacy delusion are seemingly so insidious and ingrained in Town & Country, one cannot forget its multi-century success is built on the generational wealth of white American families in the landed aristocracy. Descendants of slave traders and plantation owners with recurring appearances on the Social Register, have long been the subject of society-news-turned-philanthropic-pageantry predating the early 1900s. Former President of Hearst Magazines, David Carey, referred to it as Town & Country’s “illustrious history.” Meanwhile, Town & Country’s exploitation of Black celebrities, contributors, and influencers, has long been a strategy to bring new life to the outdated, white-centric, heritage brand.
Black people are the definitive hot sauce on an otherwise bland white America. In the 1990s and early 2000s, former Editor in Chief Pamela Fiori turned to increasing diversity to revitalize Town & Country’s waning circulation and stale societal commentary. On diversity, Fiori stated in a 2003 interview, “I don’t want to change the world, but I would like to change the magazine. And change the universe that our readers live in. I think it’s a much more interesting world. I think it’s a lot more fun. I think it’s certainly a lot more fascinating.”
This fascination without interest in real, substantive action for change is still being exploited by Town & Country today. As proof of the magazine’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, Volandes referenced to me in our email exchange that “this commitment is one I hope is evident in our September issue,” an issue featuring stunning images of actress Kerry Washington as its cover story, and a number of Black/African American-focused editorials.
What I found evident in the September 2020 issue, however, is a history of exploitation much like the one depicted by Washington’s 2012 role in Django Unchained. Town & Country preyed on the artistic feat that Washington, stylist Law Roach, and photographers AB + DM achieved with their creative genius, like puppeteers pulling the strings of marionettes for the entertainment of the Town & Country reader, not much unlike the white oppressors exposing Broomhilda von Shaft’s whipped-keloid back at the dinner table. Without the eradication of its systemic practices internally, Town & Country’s outward championing of racial equity—and the public promotion of Black talent, contributors, and influencers—is nothing more than a well-crafted, exploitive marketing strategy with no commitment or actionable investment in the Black/African American community.
The “advancing conversations” over the last five years of the Philanthropy Summit have made no impact in Town & Country’s own contribution to ending the racial injustice that requires these conversations in the first place. It gives all others in white media a green light to gloss over difficult conversations and substantive, systemic change with curated images of Black/African American talent, contributors, and influencers across their pages. This is not anti-racism.
From the outset of my time contracted with Town & Country, I received a familiar unspoken message. Like many predominantly white corporate offices in America, Town & Country is a place where I, as a Black person—particularly the only Black contractor—can stay, as long as I make everyone else feel comfortable with my being there. Whether I belonged at Town & Country would be determined by how I presented myself, and whether I dressed and spoke in ways that the virtually all-white team deemed a “cultural fit.” There was no space for me to simply be myself. It was my responsibility to assimilate, and I obliged.
For the first two years I consulted on the Philanthropy Summit, I felt invisible. By year three, Levene-Bruno, the magazine’s publisher, was still re-introducing herself to me as if it was the first time we had ever met regardless of the number of one-on-one meetings she and I had had over the previous two years. Bias revealed itself in the form of condescending tones from team members and the other consultants on the project. I felt it when I was being overly scrutinized or it was suggested that I was not capable of doing the work, continuously having to prove myself year after year. Almost immediately, the contracted lead producer who had been brought in began to address me, both verbally and in email, with a condescending tone, demanding information outside of my contracted scope, as if I was her personal assistant. I watched as the team interacted with the freelance graphic artist who had replaced the in-house creative director (both blond, white women) very differently and in a much gentler manner than they did towards me.
At this point, it became evident I could not possibly be the only one who had these types of experiences.
There were no Black/African American-owned production partners publicly listed for the 2020 Philanthropy Summit. In my last year as a contractor, I met one lone Black male editorial assistant on Town & Country’s full-time staff. I immediately wondered: What investment is Town & Country making to ensure this young professional has an equitable opportunity for mentorship and growth that levels the playing field for advancement in his career? As it turned out, the answer to this question is none.
For seven of the eight-and-a-half years of his tenure, the former editorial assistant—who spoke on the condition of anonymity—was the one and only full-time Black employee at Town & Country. A graduate of Howard University, he expressed an understanding of the importance of a strong work ethic, often coming in early, doing more work than he was being paid for, receiving positive performance reviews, and continuing to take on more responsibilities including tasks and markets that would normally comprise the role of an associate, full-time, or senior editor. The former editorial assistant expressed that part of him really loved working at the magazine, particularly at the beginning of his career. In fact, from 2011 to 2015, he found there were editors who supported his ideas and talked about his growth. He recalled developing positive relationships with former Editor-in-Chief Jay Fielden and former Creative Director Alexandra Kotur. However, as the leadership of both Town & Country and Hearst Magazines changed in the latter half of the 2010s, there was an insidious energy shift, the ex-staffer expressed.
He recalled watching white team members who started jobs at the magazine after him be promoted before him; hearing from colleagues that he was being paid less than his white counterparts; and feeling the pressure of representing the entire Black race—both in the office and with external T&C partners. With the exception of a lateral move as a fashion assistant, he never once received a promotion himself over the near-decade he spent at the magazine. When he inquired about being promoted or receiving a pay raise, he recalled being consistently told “just wait a few more issues” or “we’re already planning to bring someone [else] in.” He said he was never given concrete reasons for why he was not being promoted. During his time, the former editorial assistant never saw any Black editors at Town & Country. In his role, he pushed for Black/African American fashion and jewelry designers to be shown in the magazine—while knowing they often would not be picked, he was doing his part to give exposure to Black brands.
Over time, the demoralization took its toll. The Black ex-staffer recalled coming to terms with having been conditioned to the inherently racist construct of “at least I am in the room” and “at least Black stories are being told” at the virtually all-white magazine. He knew something was holding him back from advancement other than the quality of his work or his experience, reflecting that “because I wasn’t a white woman, I didn’t get the same opportunities.” Once he saw no upward trajectory for himself at the company, he resigned in 2019. “It just wasn’t fair, and you could not show me or prove to me how it was,” he said of his experience at Town & Country.
Perhaps some will conclude that this former staffer should have done more to make his case known, voicing his concerns about bias to his supervisor or to Hearst’s human-resources team. But that more than likely would not have helped.
Another Black ex-Hearst staffer, who spoke with me on the condition of anonymity, recalled how raising issues of bias to their supervisor was met with indifference, and inappropriate responses from Hearst’s HR team. The ex-employee, once an associate director of events at the mass-media giant, expressed how they too found the expectation to adjust—as the only Black person on an otherwise all-white Hearst strategic marketing team—was placed solely on them. Even as their supervisor acknowledged the examples they provided of racial bias and a lack of inclusivity, they recalled being told, “you seem intimidated by us” and “I was hoping to hire someone just like me.” They too received dismissive, demoralizing emails including one that bluntly read: “I disagree with your assessment that our team is not inclusive, collaborative, efficient.”
Further exemplifying the organizational culture operating not only at Town & Country, but Hearst at large, this ex-staffer felt judged not by whether they did the job well, but by how great was their ability to assure their white team members that they as a Black person would uphold the department’s status quo—to not interrupt its culture of white privilege.
Ultimately, after multiple attempts to find resolution with Hearst human-resources about their increasingly challenged experience at the company, the HR team concluded there was, “no evidence of unconscious bias or that [you are] being treated unfairly or differently because of [your] race, gender, or any other reason.”
And so this Black staffer, too, resigned from the company in order to—as they expressed—maintain their mental health and overall wellbeing. “I had to identify very early on (within 6 months) that I needed to move on and that I would be ok,” the ex-Hearst employee said.
The challenges of reconciliation are not unique or singular to Town & Country. Even when an organization believes itself to be well-intentioned, the resistance to the work required to achieve reconciliation is first and foremost rooted in systemic racism. While the opportunity for my collaborative work with the magazine has been deferred, perhaps not all is lost.
There is opportunity for the Town & Country team and countless other media leaders to begin the process of reconciliation to achieve racial equity now. As the Black Lives Matter movement continues, I am calling on Town & Country to truly become anti-racist. As Darren Walker called out at the 2020 Town & Country Philanthropy Summit: “This is no longer time for amelioration, or token approaches at systemic challenges.” I am calling for Town & Country’s internal leadership, editors, staff, contractors and suppliers to become a reflection of the Black talent placed on its covers, the Black figures that dominate the speakers roster selected for their events, and the messages of racial equity the magazine consistently uplifts on its platforms.
One concrete step would be for Town & Country to be transparent about its specific employee demographics, and to publicly share the magazine’s action plan to address its racial inequities as other Hearst publications have done, such as Cosmopolitan’s “Cosmo Can Do Better—Here’s Our Action Plan” published in June 2020. We are calling for Town & Country to make a true, accountable investment in Black/African Americans and level the playing field with equitable compensation and spending; a redistribution of decision-making power through leadership roles; and opportunities for advancement in hiring and promotions. This is a level of public accountability that not only requires brands like Town & Country and others to hold themselves accountable, but each of us—white, Black, indigenous, and all people of color—to understand and recognize our empowerment and responsibility going forward to end the exploitation of Black/African Americans in the media and events industries.
I thought long and hard about the risk I would be taking by putting pen to paper to share my experience at Town & Country. It is with a fear for my safety, wellbeing, and career sustainability that more than one of my mentors, primarily Black, cautioned: “You can’t speak your truth, they won’t hire you again.”
In the end, I am taking the risk of speaking up not for myself but for all the editorial staffers, suppliers, consultants, and serially untapped, underutilized team members who look like me to have a different experience going forward.
My only choice was to press on with the fortitude of the Black suffragettes, the inspiration of Kamala Harris’ unprecedented run, and John Lewis’ iconic final words held tightly to my chest. I am answering the highest calling of my heart and standing up for what I truly believe, Mr. Lewis—let’s get in good trouble.