Sherry Collins tells stylist.co.uk about her new campaign, #AssumeNothing, which aims to challenge offensive perceptions of black creative women.
Three years ago, Sherry Collins attended the Cannes Lions Festival, an annual awards festival for the creative and marketing communications industry in the south of France. She was there to promote Pitch, a then-fledgling independent magazine she’d launched about the creative industries, and got chatting with a male guest. Collins thought they were having a friendly, professional conversation – until he leaned over and whispered in her ear: “How much for the night?”
“I thought, did I just hear that right?” Collins tells stylist.co.uk. She looked him straight in the eye and re-introduced herself, determined to take back control of the situation, but the moment stuck with her. “I felt dejected, embarrassed, small and a little bit taken aback.”
This year, Collins is returning to Cannes Lions. In the years since that unpleasant encounter, Pitch has grown into something of an industry bible: published five times each year, it profiles everyone from film directors to chief creative officers to product designers and music supervisors. The magazine’s most recent issue, a Cannes special, has an insert titled 100 Superwoman highlighting the achievements of women working in creative roles of all stripes and levels. On the back cover is a full-page ad, bearing the words in stark black capitals: “We are black creative women heading to Cannes. Please do not ask us how much for the night #AssumeNothing.”
Collins says she was inspired to launch the #AssumeNothing campaign after hearing stories from other black female creatives who had endured similar experiences at the Cannes Lions Festival.
“I’ve only experienced this type of racist assumption there,” she says. “So have many other women of colour who attend the festival, but most of us have been keeping quiet about it.”
She might have only ever been mistaken for a sex worker at Cannes Lions, but it’s not the only time Collins has experienced racism while working in the creative sector. (Before launching Pitch, she worked as a producer for music videos and commercials and in publishing.) In the past, she says, she has tried to rise above it. “As a black woman you learn to ride the wave and ignore certain things or you could end up upset all the time,” she says. “I like to crack on with things, so when anyone was racist towards me in the past I’ve tended to ignore it.”
Recently, however, she has become frustrated by industry chatter about the importance of diversity. Many creatives like to think of their industry as diverse, she says, but statistics published last summer by the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) show that the UK’s creative sector is notably lacking in both racial and gender diversity. White people held 88.8% of jobs in DCMS sectors excluding tourism, and men make up 55.6% of creative employees, meaning that the sector is more male-dominated than the UK workforce in general.
“I decided to speak out now because there is a lot of talk within the creative industry about diversity and inclusion, but meanwhile casual racism and sexual harassment is happening to some women of colour when they go the Cannes Lions Festival – one of the main events in the creative industry calendar,” Collins says.
“I wanted to raise awareness of this little dirty secret, so that change can truly start happening.” (Cannes Lions’ MD, Jose Papa, has given his support to the #AssumeNothing campaign.)
#AssumeNothing comes on the heels of the #MeToo and Time’s Up initiatives, which have opened up conversations about sexual harassment and gendered racism in the film and entertainment industries and beyond. Collins is taking an assistant with her to this year’s festival, and says she initially advised her younger colleague to avoid very high heels and dress modestly. But, she says, black women shouldn’t have to take extra precautions to protect themselves from sexual harassment.
“Why should it be us who have to check ourselves?” she says. “It should be the men who make assumptions who should check themselves.”
Collins says that #MeToo and Time’s Up “set the stage for us to be able to come out and speak about sexism and racism without fear. My incident happened three years ago; I certainly didn’t feel I could speak about it then.”
She hopes #AssumeNothing will start an important conversation about the sexual harassment experienced by some black women at networking events and awards ceremonies, as well as inviting people to interrogate their own preconceptions about what a ‘creative’ looks like. While her experience might have occurred at Cannes Lions, she is keen to stress that racism and sexism are not confined to that event.
“There are plenty of stories out there from black women who travel abroad all the time for work who are treated with disrespect and are sexually harassed by men,” she says. “The Cannes Lions Festival is just a tip of the iceberg of disrespect we face on a daily basis.
“I hope that our campaign will raise awareness of what happens to some black women when they attend the Cannes Lions Festival each year and for those men who attend the festival to think about their actions,” she continues. “I also hope it will open up further debate within the creative industry about diversity and inclusion. Is it really real? Are we truly included as equals, or is it simply all talk?”
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Images: Courtesy of Sherry Collins / Pitch magazine / Getty Images