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Karla Quiñonez Leon
Former MAC make-up artist Karla Quiñonez Leon in the Brussels, Belgium branchKarla Quiñonez Leon

A Black make-up artist speaks out on the racism she faced working for MAC

Karla Quiñonez Leon says the treatment she experienced while employed at a MAC Cosmetics store in Belgium shows the brand is not as diverse as they preach

When Karla Quiñonez Leon, an Afro-Latina make-up artist, saw that her former employer MAC Cosmetics had posted a statement in support of the Black community and Black Lives Matter, it brought back all the memories of the racism she says she experienced while working for the brand. She knew it was finally time to speak up.

In a post to her Instagram account, Karla details her time spent working at a MAC store in Brussels, Belgium from 2017. “I was so naive to think that I was going to work at a place where equality existed and Black lives really matter,” she wrote. “The way they treat Black people at MAC is disgusting.” Dazed Beauty reached out to her to hear the full story.

Starting her job in 2017, Karla says she was excited to work for MAC, a brand she had been a fan of since she was a teenager when it was the only foundation range to offer a shade for her skin tone. “Everything about make-up for me started with MAC,” she tells Dazed Beauty. “My first lipstick was a MAC one. I still have that lipstick because it's sentimental. I don't want to throw it away.”

Originally positioned at a store in another city, she asked to move to the more diverse capital of Brussels, where she hoped to be able to help a greater number of Black people with their make-up. Karla alleges that the Brussels store propagated a widespread culture of racism, detailing racist incidents, with colleagues, managers, and the headquarters office.  

Karla tells Dazed Beauty that she was “instructed to follow Black customers” around the store by her white manager, who would tell her off for spending too much time with Black customers, while being encouraged to give white customers more space and attention “because they know (those customers) are going to buy a lot,” she reports. Karla alleges that she was chastised by the manager for being “too careful” with her Black customers, being told that she shouldn’t be afraid to “be more rough with them as they were used to pain and they can take it.” “I was in shock,” she says. “I didn’t expect that coming from somebody higher than me in the store, especially where they say everybody's equal.”

Karla says she was bullied by her colleagues, including external trainers brought in to educate staff members, who would tell her she was only employed as a “diversity hire”. She was moved temporarily to a different store due to the bullying. “It was a really heavy experience,” she says, adding that she did not feel comfortable voicing her experiences with racism because of the workplace culture, and the lack of Black people in management positions within the entire Benelux (Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg) MAC team. “I never felt safe enough to share my story, I couldn’t even try as the manager who said those racist things was already known in the company as a ‘bad’ manager but they just chose to send her to another city instead of dealing with it,” she says.

A former employee, an Arab woman, described how the manager would call the POC employees the pejorative slang term ‘kaira’ behind their backs.

“They are allowed to do this, nobody says anything because everybody is white,” she says. “(Staff working on the floor) know they are going to be backed up because it comes from the top.” After posting about her experiences to Instagram, Karla says she broke down. “I wrote everything down and after I just started crying,” she says. “You don't realise how hurt you are until you have to relive it again.”

The alleged racism continued even after she left MAC, Karla says. Another Black make-up artist was brought in to replace her, but then fired, allegedly due to the manager deciding that four Black employees in a team of 15 “was too many”. Karla showed Dazed Beauty screenshots of a conversation describing an incident in which the manager reportedly said the team was too “gangster” and white customers were afraid to come into the store.

When Dazed Beauty reached out to MAC Cosmetics for a comment, a spokesperson gave the following statement: “The experience Karla shared on social media is disheartening and not in line with the values of MAC. We’ve reached out to Karla on her platforms so that we can listen and understand more.”

“We absolutely condemn any form of discriminatory behaviour. We are committed to fostering an inclusive culture with high standards of conduct and compassion. We value our employees’ experiences and we take matters such as these very seriously. Since its founding in 1984 MAC has been advocating for All Ages. All Races. All Genders. and continues to stand with, take action and support the Black community in its ongoing fight for justice and equality.”

“They had the time to apologise back then and now they want to do it because it’s bad for their image and for their Instagram. The only thing I ask of them is just to acknowledge the wrong because it's not only me.” – Karla

While some beauty brands have been stepping up to offer monetary support and using their platforms to spread awareness, many have drawn ire from people who believe their statements to be empty and hypocritical. L’Oreal Paris, for example, has come under fire for its statement that “speaking out is worth it” which many people found to be insincere since the brand ended its professional relationship with model Munroe Bergdorf in 2017, when she spoke out publicly against racism and white supremacy.

Since posting her story, other former MAC employees have begun to share their own experiences which are very similar, not just in Belgium but in the UK as well. Make-up artist Hélène has stood behind Karla, confirming what she said is the truth. “They hire us for our skin colour without even denying it,” she writes. “They make openly fun of our community when they enter the store. And once they feel like there are too many black employees in the stores they get rid of us.”

British make-up artist Kayla also shared her experiences of working at a MAC store in London in 2012, where she says fellow staff members said she had only got the position because the brand needed ‘diversity’. “I can’t say that this was the only factor to my declining mental health at this time but it definitely majorly impacted me. I doubted myself, my skill level or if I even deserved to be there,” she says. Kayla was eventually fired after she was accused by her manager of stealing with, she says, no evidence and no CCTV footage of this accusation.

Another former employee, an Arab woman who worked in the same MAC store in Brussels as Karla, reported that she was laughed at when she expressed interest in working at the head office and described how the manager would call the POC employees the pejorative slang term “kaira” behind their backs including during a meeting with managers from around the country. This same make-up artist also described being told during an interview for the Dior counter that she was “too brown” to represent the brand, while at Bobbi Brown, she was told she was “too dark” and that they only hire white, blonde women.

“This is a big issue that they need to fix,” Karla says. “A lot of people are so scared to talk. I don't have anything to lose, I don't work for them. I live in London now so it's fine, they cannot do anything to me. But a lot of people are still scared.”

MAC, as a brand, has always positioned itself as inclusive and diverse. Since being founded in 1984, MAC’s motto has been ‘All ages. All races. All sexes’. In 1994, MAC’s Viva Glam Fund, its philanthropic arm, was set up to help those affected by AIDS, raising over $500 million to support vulnerable communities to this day. In March, the company pledged a donation of $10 million to 250 organisations around the world to support vulnerable communities affected by COVID-19.

“Maybe my expectations were too high from them, because I expected more diversity,” Karla says. “I don't know how it is in America, maybe there they have this diversity and inclusivity of everyone but that's not everywhere. And if you are promoting this, you have to do it everywhere.”

A day after posting her initial statement, Karla says she received a DM from MAC, although only after many people had been calling on the brand to reply in its comments and public social pages. The response, which she reposted on her Instagram account in full, asks for further information and hopes that the team can continue the “important conversation” with her directly. No explicit apology was offered. “They had the time to apologise back then and now they want to do it because it’s bad for their image and for their Instagram,” she says. “The only thing I ask of them is just to acknowledge the wrong because it's not only me.”

“I want them to change their ways from the top,” she continues. “If I'm so wrong, please show me that I'm wrong. Please show me that you have Black people at the top, show me that you are inclusive also at the office.” 

As of writing, neither MAC or parent company Estée Lauder Co. have responded to Sharon Chuter’s #pulluporshutup challenge, calling on beauty brands to be transparent on the number of Black people they currently have employed in managerial and executive roles. Other major beauty companies including Unilever, Shiseido, P&G, and L’Oréal have all released their data as have independent brands such as Glossier, Huda Beauty, Kylie Cosmetics, and Anastasia Beverly Hills. 

Karla wants MAC staff to be given lessons on racism, bullying, and diversity. She also calls on the brand to give Black make-up artists opportunities to rise up through the company, which she says at the moment they are not being given. “We're not asking for that much,” she says. “They make so much money from Black people, the least they can do is respect them.”