Why Diversity Matters in the Wedding Industry

diversity, LGBTQ, Philadelphia

It’s hard to talk about inclusivity without diversity.

Diversity: “The condition of having or being composed of differing elements. Especially: the inclusion of different types of people (such as people of different races or cultures in a group or organization).”

As wedding vendors, a lot of us might feel a false sense of security that we’re already doing enough. Our portfolios are representational, or so we think.

There’s a difference between thinking you are inclusive in your brand versus actively and consistently demonstrating diversity.

Be comfortable with being uncomfortable

As a cisgender white woman, I know I need to unpack my privileges and intentionally give up power by prioritizing diversity, equity, and inclusion. I have a fear of “getting it wrong” that often holds me back from truly engaging. Feeling like I should “stay in my lane” or that I don’t have the right to speak on these things. But, it’s not the job of marginalized folks to make our businesses more diverse. 

“[People of color] are expected to educate white people as to our humanity. Women are expected to educate men. Lesbians and gay men are expected to educate the heterosexual world. The oppressors maintain their position and evade their responsibility for their own actions.” — Audre Lorde, “Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference” in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches

On the podcast Hoodrat to Headwrap in an episode called “Diversity and Inclusion is for White People: Beyond Bruno Mars and the Love of Light Skin,” Ericka Hart talks with her partner about the problem of white people wanting to remain dominant while trying to appear “diverse.”

“The only reason why we need ‘diversity and inclusion’ is because the foundation is white, and you’re not dealing with that…You’re not dealing with it in the contracts you wrote, you’re not dealing with it in the interactions and how you book people, you’re not dealing with it in your day-to-day, in your office, you’re not dealing with it at all. You’re just saying, ‘Oh, we just want the event to be inclusive.'” — Ericka Hart

We also can’t ignore that we can’t have equality without equity. Equality doesn’t mean that everyone has to be the same — it’s treating everyone equally, while recognizing and including our differences (ie: not being “colorblind,” for example).

Equity: “The quality of being fair and impartial.”
Equality: “The state of being equal, especially in status, rights, and opportunities.”

By raising equity, we’ll start to shift closer toward equality.

Learned behavior has to be unlearned

Let’s talk about implicit or unconscious bias, defined as “the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner.” If you’re a human being, you have bias. Everyone holds bias, no matter how equality-minded.

My partner recently shared a popular test for unconscious bias in the form of a riddle. Here it goes:

A father and his son are involved in a horrific car crash and the man died at the scene. But when the child arrived at the hospital and was rushed into the operating room, the surgeon pulled away and said, “I can’t operate on this boy, he’s my son.” Explain.

Despite everything I tell myself about being a good “ally,” my immediate reaction was, how could that be? His father is dead. When someone says “surgeon,” my unconscious bias says, white man. Despite hours of watching Doc McStuffins. Despite always reminding my daughter that some people have two dads. (The answer from the original study is meant to be the boy’s mother, by the way.)

To challenge bias, we have to be willing to adapt by reforming our images. If you’re interested in finding out more about your own biases (ranging from topics like weapons and race to disability, weight, and sexuality), I encourage you to take Harvard’s Implicit Association Tests. Find out what your own biases are and work to confront and dismantle them.

What does challenging our bias look like and how does it relate to the wedding industry?

  • Creating new habits. If you’re used to seeing “white brides” representing “weddings,” change your algorithm across social media platforms by following and supporting more diverse vendors. They’re out there. You’re not seeing them for a reason.
  • Following hashtags that relate to your interests. For instance, I follow #A11YPHL, which is the hashtag for The Philly Accessibility Meetup, which “exists to connect and elevate the local accessibility community.” Side note: I also learn a lot from #disabledandcute.
  • Widening our network. Network and connect with others to discuss ideas, best practices, share experiences, and work together to make change.
  • Who is in your team? Who are you hiring as second shooters, associates, stylists, planners, assistants, etc? When you step back and take a mental snapshot of your team photo, what does it look like and who is missing from the picture?
  • Ask yourself, is my own subconscious bias perpetuating a narrative that isn’t true? Am I relying on stereotypes to inform my decisions?

Bias is everywhere —  from Oscar nominees to the technology that surrounds us. If you aren’t including diversity on your team, you end up with soap dispensers that can’t recognize a variety of skin tones because they were exclusively made and tested by white people. Or “smart speakers that have trouble understanding what women want because they have been developed predominantly by men.” That last one happens to me all of the time and I find myself lowering my voice in order to be understood.

If you’re a wedding photographer, like me, you might be wondering how this relates to photography. Vox reminds us that color film was built for white people with this educational video. “Tools are only as good as the people who use them. The learned preference for lighter skin is ubiquitous in many parts of the world, and it starts early. That’s an infinitely tougher problem than improving the color range of photo technology,” reports Vox.

If you want to run an equality-minded wedding business, you have to intentionally resist your bias by pushing it aside and focusing on more inclusive services.

Like attracts like

If you find yourself saying, “But, I don’t get inquiries from X marginalized group,” re-examine why. When we project a certain aesthetic through our branding, website, marketing, language, and who our business associates with, we are giving people information as to why our business is or isn’t for them. Clients are motivated to spend with brands that hold an unapologetic stance on issues. Millennials, in particular, are spending more on businesses that will stand up for social issues.

Time for some stats

Clients are buying differently — more experience-driven. They’re not buying your wedding service, they’re buying how your service will make them feel (said in a Don Draper voice). Millennials have brought more racial and ethnic diversity to American society than any other generation — with minorities comprising 44% of the group. According to Pew, one-in-six newlyweds are married to someone of a different race or ethnicity. Furthermore, the average size of an American woman is between 16 and 18, according to a recent study by the International Journal of Fashion Design, Technology, and Education. How are you representing them?

Breaking down barriers

Philly in Love, criticism, tokenizing

Amanda Swiger on Instagram

Last year, local Philadelphia wedding blogger, Philly in Love, shared their “top 18 Philadelphia-area wedding photographers.” The images predominantly featured presumably white, cis, thin couples. Philly in Love was met with resistance from local Instagram followers, including wedding and boudoir photographer Amanda Swiger, who shared her experiences on her blog. Most of the users leaving critical comments were LGBTQIA+ and/or BIPOC. Those who spoke up were deleted and blocked, including myself.

If a BIPOC or queer person is saying “this feels tokenizing,” we need to believe them and sit with our discomfort. When we’re in a state of defense, we stop listening. Don’t center yourself as the victim. And certainly don’t silence members of these communities and call them “bigots.” Recognize the harm you’ve done, because impact is far greater than intent.

As a white, female wedding vendor, I can always use my voice, not for performative allyship, but to interrogate myself to do better by highlighting, uplifting, and elevating marginalized communities. We should be working together to create a safer space for marginalized individuals to exist in an institution that erases them every single day.

Philly in Love’s response (pictured above) could look harmless at first glance (or even encouraging), but you have to look further: “We love all kinds of people and weddings but we also don’t check boxes. If you want to see more content of that kind, encourage vendors who do that work to sign up!”

If you’re a wedding publication, it’s your job to break down your barriers and find those voices as content curators. It’s an opportunity for you to advocate for more marginalized people to be represented. Just because you’ve posted LGBTQIA+ clients, it doesn’t mean you aren’t fetishizing. Just because you had a Black model in a styled shoot, it doesn’t mean you aren’t tokenizing. We have to do better (myself very much included), especially when representing a city like Philadelphia, which is 44% Black.

Philly in Love isn’t alone in this. Style Me Pretty came under fire for similar complaints when they briefly closed in 2018, but have since been trying to better represent their readership, past the optics of diversity and inclusion. In the meantime, we should be elevating blogs and publications that are absolutely doing the work, beyond tokenism (Catalyst Wedding Co., Equally Wed, and A Practical Wedding are a few examples).

Diversifying without tokenizing

Companies can often be found jumping on the diversity bandwagon, especially during Pride and Black History Months, when profiting looks as easy as sprinkling some superficial rainbows on their branding. When marginalized people are constantly being used as props, it’s hard to know when a brand is being authentic.

Here’s an example. Notice anything strange about this image?

South Korean beauty brand Stylenanda was called out on social media because the hand on the right had been made to appear darker. The palm on the model’s hand is the same color as the rest of the hand, when in reality, almost everyone’s palms are a lighter color (because, science). Rather than hiring a Black person, they presumably applied makeup to the hand, or digitally altered it, to make it more marketable. Stylenanda issued a statement saying they were “sorry for the upset caused.”

Next time you attend a wedding expo or conference, ask yourself if the MUA offering free makeovers has prepared a kit for all skin tones (or if you’re brave enough, ask the artist directly). I’ve heard countless anecdotes where Black or POC attendants were passed along because the artist “didn’t think” to pack a wide spectrum of skin tones. What does that say about their bias and who they think will or should be attending these events?

“More often than not, photoshoots are spaces where I am alone to navigate a predominantly white space where my lips are always complimented while the foundation that’s been applied doesn’t match my skin, there’s rarely if ever anyone that knows how to do Black hair (I have spoken to lots of Black folks that will bring their own foundation and hair person to shoots, as this experience is all too familiar) and I usually just keep to myself until I am called to begin shooting.” — Ericka Hart on Instagram

In the wedding industry, we need to ask ourselves how our actions impact those around us. What real change do we want to see? If you just want to spruce up your portfolio with more LGBTQIA+ clients so you can get more LGBTQIA+ clients, that is tokenism. It’s meant to benefit you on a superficial level. If you want to see marginalized communities experiencing equal access to services and equal representation, that’s impactful.

Ask yourself, what’s your end goal? Who are you trying to benefit?

Be language conscious

One thing I see constantly in the industry is the use of appropriative or problematic language. Whether it’s AAVE (African American Vernacular English), ableist, or gendered language, it happens all of the time. I’m guilty of it as well.

“Tribe,” “lame,” “thicc,” “AF,” and “crazy” are all common examples. Please check out this Google Doc, which is co-created and heavily contributed to by Black people, non-Black people of color, disabled people, neurodivergent people, transgender, gender nonconforming, and non-binary people. It has a glossary of words/phrases, alternatives, context, and examples.

From the doc:

“If you are part of a marginalized group, feel free to reclaim and use terms targeted or applicable to you. For example, if you are neurodivergent, specifically bipolar, feel free to reclaim ‘cr*zy.’ If you are Black, feel free to learn/use Black English if you don’t already.”

Companies constantly profit off of language that doesn’t belong to them for financial gain. It’s important to focus on self-reflection when the choices we’re making can be harmful, despite our intent.

As much as I enjoy Broad City and JVN of Queer Eye, the phrase “yas, queen” is a rallying cry of encouragement among Black women and queer people of color. If you scroll far enough back in my Instagram feed, it will undoubtedly show up countless times. I didn’t think about the potential harm I was doing, I just viewed it as a playful term that was basically equivalent to saying “yay!”

“Yas, queen” and “yaaaas” has LGBTQIA+ roots in late 1980s ball culture, and was likely first used by a Black, trans woman. As with many other aspects of Black culture, white mainstream has swept it up without knowing its origin, causing frustration among many in the black and brown LGBTQIA+ communities.

Language, in particular, can leave a lot of us feeling defensive. “But, I don’t mean any harm. I’m just being fun, don’t take things so seriously. Not everything has to be political! If I stop saying everything that has roots in subculture, I won’t be able to say anything.” If those are some thoughts running through your head or if you find yourself rolling your eyes at how “sensitive people are nowadays,” dig in deeper.

It’s such a fine line and it can be difficult to define, especially when there are good intentions. But if you’re non-Black and saying “woke” or “spilling tea” (a term that dates back to 1950s African American women),  you’re inadvertently invoking a rich cultural history that has long been oppressed. Of course, no one can really lay claim to these words, but keep in mind how much the popularity of AAVE can be attributed to corporate marketing. Ask yourself, are Black people represented on the corporate level in a significant way? Are those corporate spaces Black and trans affirming? When white-driven brands use AAVE, they’re co-opting its coolness for their financial gain, while giving nothing back to the community that created it.

We should be making the language we use affirming to trans, non-binary, and gender nonconforming individuals. It’s disheartening to witness a lack of validation toward communities that have existed since the dawn of time, especially when they are so disproportionately facing violence. In America, trans women of color have a life expectancy of 35 years of age. Last year, Michelle “Tamika” Washington, a mentor and advocate in Philadelphia’s LGBTQIA+ community, was killed in North Philadelphia. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, “in Philadelphia alone, at least six transgender women of color have been killed in the last six years.”

I wrote more here and here about how language can go a long way in making safer spaces for LGBTQIA+ individuals.

Person-first language and how it affects autistic and disabled communities

A lot has been written about how person-first language is important when it comes to discussing mental health and using recovery-oriented, person-centered language. But, for autistic folks, it’s a little different. The *general consensus is that identity-first language is preferred, because person-first language implies that autism is something negative. To say “person with autism” implies that the person is separate from their autism, when it is an integral part of their experiences and how they interact with the world. Identity-first language validates and affirms people and shows you’re accepting of their identity.

*Always confirm with whoever you’re speaking with about what their preferences are, everyone is different.

“Person-first language” has a lot of issues. It pathologizes autism, for a start. It’s promoted by groups that want to use eugenics to eliminate autism. A lot of polls have been done, and the overwhelming majority of autistic people think there’s a problem if you have to use language to remind yourself that we’re people. (Also, the disabled community tends to prefer ‘disabled’ and not ‘person with a disability).

Despite autistic people overwhelmingly preferring identity-first language, we still have people telling us (loudly) that we’re referring to ourselves incorrectly.

I’m not a person with whiteness, I’m white.

I’m not a person with tallness, I’m tall.

I’m not a person with autism, I’m autistic.

If an individual prefers person-first language when they are being referred to, that’s fine. But in general, ‘autistic’ is the term to use if you want autistic people to feel safe talking to you.” — The Nonbinary Intersectionalist

The fine line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation

Let’s talk about cultural appropriation vs appreciation, along with how to respond when we see it.

Cultural appropriation “typically involves members of a dominant group exploiting the culture of less privileged groups. Quite often, this is done along racial and ethnic lines with little understanding of the latter’s history, experience, and traditions. [1]”

It “isn’t a cultural exchange, because of the power imbalance of a dominant person taking from a marginalized group. It’s also different if a marginalized group adopts parts of the dominant culture (assimilation to survive, or reclaiming power). [2]”

It makes things that are “foreign” when marginalized people do them “cool” for white people to do, even when those things are or were punishable, laughable, or otherwise deemed “wrong” for marginalized people to do. It highlights the fun, interesting, or novel parts of another culture, while leaving its people oppressed.

There are endless real-life examples of what this looks like. Gucci recently came under fire for using an article of faith, Sikh turbans, on all white models on the runway. “Many people in Indian communities still face discrimination as a result of their race and for openly expressing their culture and religion through items such as the turban,” writes Nova Reid on her site, Nu Bride. “In contrast, a person in a white majority group can wear a turban or bindi without any connection to the culture without facing discrimination and without being hurled racist slurs and instead being see as cool or trendy.”

A lot of white commenters on Twitter responded in backlash, asking “Isn’t this a good thing? Normalizing something so someone wearing it isn’t viewed differently?” Unfortunately, it’s not so simple.

Johnny Depp’s video for Dior’s “Sauvage” perfume was removed from Dior’s Instagram feed within a few hours of posting it. The ad featured the actor walking amid the red rocks of Utah, while a Native American fancy war dancer — a Rosebud Sioux member — performed on a cliff, furthering tropes and romanticizing Native Americans as relics from the past. Dr. Adrienne Keene, writer of Native Appropriations and @NativeApprops on Twitter expressed the following insight, “I always find it deeply disturbing when brands force Native people to make the choice between stereotypes and misrepresentation, or utter invisibility.”

So, how does this apply to the wedding industry and what is our responsibility in identifying and addressing appropriation?

Cinco de Mayo, cultural appropriation, photo booth, diversity

Photo via Speedy Orders

Every time there’s a photo booth at a wedding, I cautiously approach the prop table and brace myself for discomfort in the form of sombreros and mustaches being thrown on by well-meaning, white people. And that Cinco de Mayo/fiesta-themed wedding shower at a taqueria might seem like harmless fun, but if it’s all white women and they’re wearing fake mustaches, ask yourself, why? Despite how good intentions might be, it doesn’t make it harmless to the community and culture as a whole (even if there are people within that culture who aren’t offended).

So, how can we celebrate or appreciate other cultures without being appropriative? We should all try to be respectful of other cultures and celebrations. It’s awesome to have a taco bar at your wedding reception, but if you find yourself planning a Cinco de Mayo-themed wedding with fiesta cutout garland — better known as papel picado, which is often incorporated into altars during the Día de muertos —again, ask yourself, why? Is it because you like pops of color and want to “borrow” certain aspects of a culture to enhance your celebration?

If your intentions are good, shop responsibly by supporting fair trade products, which give back to the people who deserve it (not ordering from Oriental Trading because it’s cost-effective). Even if you have thoroughly educated yourself on the aspects of a certain culture or celebration and feel a connection to it, you might still attract criticism. If someone confronts you on why they think you might be appropriating, consider their words and feelings. Sit with the discomfort. There’s a fine line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation, and not everyone will agree on where that line is. Try to do better and never tire of getting curious.

We’re not all coming from the same space

Don’t drop marginalized clients into your own narrative if you’re a white, cishet, able-bodied wedding professional. Tell the stories of the people you’re depicting. If you market yourself as a visual storyteller, tell the clients’ stories by tapping into their backgrounds.

Allow people to be fat, don’t photoshop them. Assume they love their bodies. When a bride’s parent dance is with her mom, don’t waste time processing your bias of what was or wasn’t on your initial shot list, because you’re missing such important moments. Don’t judge decor when clients are working with a strict budget — classism should never get in the way of storytelling. Don’t minimize people for being different than you.

As you commit yourself to connecting with clients on a real level, your work will naturally diversify.

If you’re looking for inspiration, High Maintenance is a show that does this really well. The Atlantic recently wrote a review of the show that was dead-on: “it examines the most intriguing characters it finds, it educates and creates empathy — but also commits voyeurism, contrivance, and feel-goodism.”

This scene from Season 2 of Shrill is really important when talking about accessibility when you’re claiming to be focused on elevating communities. The fictional female empowerment conference, WAHAM, explores the complexities of corporate white feminism and what that looks like in terms of true representation. The character Annie (Aidy Bryant) asks the industry leader about the cost of WAHAM attendance (which is $300, rendering the conference inaccessible to marginalized women, leaving the audience filled with privileged, white women).

By having a surface-level approach to “women’s issues,” conferences can leave a lot of people with a bad feeling when they’re monetizing off of feminism or self-care from only one vantage point. In that scene, Shrill explored, who are you looking to empower and what does that say about your brand?  This mirrors the wedding industry, when engaged people feel undervalued, simply for not being “bridal” enough or falling into outdated roles of heteronormativity or what people should or shouldn’t look like in order to attend.

When there’s an event or masterclass within the Philadelphia wedding industry with panelists, how many of those include services such as CART (live captioning) and ASL interpretation? On a similar stream of thought, how many Instagram influencers within the wedding community caption their educational story content?

According to new research from the CDC, 1 in 4 Americans have a disability that impacts a major part of their life. That’s a lot of clients and guests you might be isolating without even realizing it, simply by making assumptions. Again, bias. Each client has different abilities and needs that may require creativity on your part to be inclusive. There’s nuance to understanding the intersecting issues and identities, but it’s something we each have to want to look into.

I’ve been photographing weddings for over ten years and not once has there been an ASL interpreter at a wedding ceremony, when I’ve undoubtedly shot weddings with deaf or hard of hearing guests in attendance. Dozens of Philadelphia wedding venues have flights of stairs leading up to their reception space, with no elevators or accessible bathrooms.

Actionable takeaways

What can wedding vendors do to be more inclusive?

  • Recognize the barriers that are preventing you from being able to represent your ideal clients and take intentional steps to try and bridge the gap and be more representational.
  • Take a critical eye at your portfolio or social media presence and look at the first five images. If they are extremely similar, shake it up. If clients don’t see themselves represented, they’ll scroll right by and find someone who values them.
  • Commit to using your platform to improve the lives of those who are marginalized. Whenever possible, think about intersectional diversity, since that’s where real inclusion (beyond tokenism), takes place.
  • Expand your network by trying to understand and empathize. To make lasting change, you have to be able to sit in discomfort, listen, and respect each other.
  • Don’t let fear drive you. Concerned you’ll make your core readership disengage by causing offense or getting it wrong? When you have the courage to do something differently, it usually ends in positivity. See diversity as an opportunity, not a risk and confront your fear and bias around inclusion.
  • Expand your knowledge. The desire to find out more and better understand comes from asking the question in the first place.

What are some tangible examples of being more inclusive and more accessible within the wedding industry?

  • Photographers + stylists: Be intentional with model calls. Put a call out to real life people and models, not models falsely representing those in the LGBTQ or disabled communities. Consider verbiage like, “priority given to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) and LGBTQ+/genderqueer/non-binary folks.” You can’t see gender, so don’t further a false narrative about what a particular gender might look like. Tell the stories of everyone, not just what’s easiest. Are the love songs you’re selecting for photo slideshows exclusively sung by presumably white people? Support artists of color and if the options are lacking, ask why?
  • Venues + shop owners: Make sure your venue or storefront is wheelchair accessible and offers gender-neutral restrooms.
  • Hair + MUAs: Your team should be educated and experienced with working with all skin tones and hair types. You can’t do this without hiring POC and Black stylists and artists. Make sure your salon chair is accessible to any body type and disabled clients. Educate your team on the cultural and historical significance of certain hairstyles (ie: braids and dreadlocks) and what they mean to the Black community.
  • Nail salons: Resist cultural appropriation and read up on how current nail trends have a deep history within the black community. Read more about that here and here.
  • Caterers + planners: Brief your staff in advance about the importance of language and inclusion. Bartenders need to be reminded that the M or F on an ID might not affirm the guest’s gender identity.
  • Calligraphers: Address invites inclusively by avoiding honorifics and instead simply addressing items to the name of the guest.
  • Officiants + planners: Consider forming a relationship with DHCC, a Philadelphia-based interpreting agency that provides interpreting services for wedding ceremonies (a fee for service).
  • DJs + bands: Avoid all gendered phrases when addressing the audience (ie: ladies and gentlemen). Examples of language alternatives can be found here.
  • All vendors: Consider inclusivity and accessibility and what that looks like. Is your website disability-inclusive by being accessible to visually-impaired or disabled web users by being screen-reader friendly and by using alt-text? Google is your friend for finding out more. Create boundaries (ie: office hours + automatic email replies outside of those hours) to manage and set expectations for neurodivergent clients. Letting people know where you stand makes for a safer space.
  • All vendors: Consider becoming LGBTQ+ inclusive certified by Equally Wed Pro, which offers a deep-dive into making your wedding business more authentically inclusive. In an effort to put education to the forefront, vendors should also consider receiving anti-racism or diversity in business training from educator Nova Reid. There’s true value in diversity, beyond tokenism or capitalizing. Both come with a complimentary 12-month vendor listing for Catalyst Wedding Co. and/or Equally Wed, which I can’t recommend enough.

Support (and more importantly, pay) Black leaders:

Volunteer

  • Look for opportunities to volunteer within marginalized communities. I volunteer with The Trevor Project as a suicide prevention counselor, providing live help to LGBTQIA+ youth. The conversations I’ve had with young people within the community have been transformational. I’ve learned so much about strength, self-love, and perseverance from my time volunteering at Trevor over the past few years. There are also practical skills I’ve learned conversationally, like the importance of validation, listening, and asking open-ended questions — which have helped me solidify my own personal and professional relationships.

This probably feels like a lot to absorb, but it’s important not to let compassion fatigue take over. Unpack, be aware, get curious, take action, center the voices and perspectives of BIPOC, and let’s be the change. I’m always here if you have any questions or want to call me in or out for any reason.

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