I've started to write this post so many times, deleted it and started over, then deleted it again. Truth be told I wrote a blog post about what I felt to be the lack of cultural and ethnic representation in the wedding industry about 2 years ago and deleted that too because I wasn't sure how it would be received. The world we live in today is full of people who are judgmental and who are always on the defense, ready to fight if offended. Why I was so concerned about offending someone with my life experiences and how I view those experiences seems ridiculous in hindsight. But the truth is, I've never felt like people really want to hear the truth. The truth makes people uncomfortable and I suppose I thought that was unfair of me, to make someone else feel uncomfortable. I've been uncomfortable my whole life. Now I'm back here again, contemplating- do I speak up or don't I?
But then it dawned on me, I've always been here. Let me explain.
I'm a wedding planner. I am a female, black wedding planner. I was born in Toronto to Beverly and Keith Guy, the eldest child of an interracial marriage. I grew up in a small town called Warkworth about 2 hours southeast of Toronto. There wasn't a day in my childhood that I wasn't reminded that I was the wrong color. Now at this point in my life, I was freshly an only child due to experiencing the trauma and devastation of losing my little brother, my best friend. In fact it had probably been close to a year later that all of this started to happen. My mother would get called to the school too often when I was in grade 1 and it was always the same story: I had been beaten up, glasses broken-again. My first experience that I can recall was at North Shore Public School in this village called Keene (before we moved to Warkworth). These two girls, Jade and Brittany beat me to a pulp while the only friend I had, Tia, watched helplessly. One held me against the school building wall outside and the other used my body like a punching bag. When my mother demanded to know what the principal was going to do about it, he looked at her and shrugged his shoulders and walked away.
On my first day of my new school at Percy Centennial, grade 2 class with Miss Heather Taylor, no one wanted to sit next me. There were 2 boys who made a point of being nasty to me, Wesley and Chris. In Mrs. Tracey Robbins grade 3 class, a group of kids backed me into the corner of the school building outside and pelted me with rocks and skipping ropes. I had to go to the bathroom so badly but I couldn't because they wouldn't let me leave that corner. The inevitable happened and once recess was over, I was left humiliated on the playground alone and crying in a puddle- no pun intended. Dave Turner's grade 4 class wasn't any better. That was when the name calling went from "Blackie" or "Coon" to "N****", I distinctly remember a boy named Jordan creating a special sort of hell for me that year. That's also when some kids realized I was smart and would ask to copy my work for their own gain in exchange for their "niceness" for maybe a day or two.
Mrs. Wendy Roddy had me for grade 5 and 6, that's when I was recognized by my music teachers Mrs. Kelly and Mrs Walker for being able to sing. That's also when I started cleaning up in sports and track and the same girls who pelted me in grade 3 would make nasty remarks about me in the bathroom while we changed. It was so cliche, I was the kid changing/hiding in the stall, listening to the "mean girls" accuse me of cheating at the 100 metre dash and high jump. Not sure how cheating was possible for an 11 year old but I guess it helped them sleep at night. My parents would try to comfort me and tell me they were jealous because I brought home all the first place ribbons. I never understood that. It's not like I went out of my way to make them feel bad, I was taught to do my best and my best brought home first place every time, how was that my fault? By the time I got to Mr. Doug Greenwood's class in grade 7 and Madame Madeline Jefferies class in grade 8- I was so used to being used or acknowledged one day, then being made fun of and ignored the next. It became normal for me to have kids use my mind, my talent for their own gain...because I was so horribly vulnerable and insecure. Bullying was my life. Half of this I never told my parents, what could they do? You know how it goes, tell Mum and Dad and next thing you know the other parents are involved and the next day at school? Round 2, 3 and 4 because you ratted on the bullies.
The last day of grade 8, I walked out of that school and vowed to myself that come high school, I would never acknowledge any of those people, ever again. It hurt to leave all my teachers who fought for me but as for the rest, I was done. I also made sure at graduation that I brought home the English Award, Highest Average Award and the Music Award.
High school was a turning point for me, there was more room to breathe, more kids to befriend and more space to hide...if needed. I felt more in control, slightly more optimistic yet terrified. My grades were mine, no more kids copying my work in exchange for a "friend" just until it was time to catch the bus home. I made real friends. Dave Noble who was (and still is) the music teacher at Campbellford District High School helped me build a confidence I never knew I could possess in my life. He helped me believe in me, showed me that I could do anything, my voice was capable of anything, it could be heard. My community heard me belt out Aretha Franklin's "Respect", heck the Canadian National Music Festival heard me too before they really saw me. Our music and vocal students were some of the best across Canada, first place every year and people showed up to see us all perform. I still have the newspaper clippings that I would look at on a bad day to remind myself that I was still worth something. I wasn't just the "black girl" anymore no, Ashley is smart, she's athletic and she has talent and she's going places. I finally had a voice.
Now don't get it twisted, by then, my parents marriage obliterated, my step father was a drunken nightmare who called me a "brain-dead teenager" daily until I moved out. By 14 I had already been sexually assaulted in my friends living room by a grown, white man (who's beautiful wife had just given him a baby girl, he showed me pictures before working his grubby hands up my shirt) a "friend" of my friend's parents. He said I had better curves than the other girls, guess I finally had something those girls didn't and look what it got me. I sit here and laugh about it right now although it's not even remotely funny but that's the joke! I still wasn't the popular girl and I still had to contend with the snarky side eyes of other girls who had pretty blonde and brunette, straight silky hair and stick figures worshiped by the boys. There were moments when I would still be reminded that I would never truly fit in and that I'd certainly never be them.
My determination by the end of my high school journey was to never ever go back and to prove to all the kids and their parents that I would make something of myself, that they had been wrong. That kept me going, the thought of deliberately doing better than them and I did. My father sat me down one day when I was around the age of 7 that I had to work three or four times harder than everyone else. Why? Well because one day I was going to grow up to be a black woman. That meant I was going to have to always be smarter, faster, more focused and driven than everyone else because nothing would get handed to me. I was always going to have to prove myself so I couldn't have a lax view of my grades and no matter what other kids did or said, all I could do was take it and ignore them. Anything else would label me a "trouble maker". At the time I was angry and hurt and I didn't get it but as I grew into that black woman, that woman of color-my Dad's lesson became more clear.
When I got accepted to go to the University of Ottawa to study Criminology- that day changed my life, that acceptance letter was my meal ticket. There was no way I would actively choose to stay where I had been forced to endure the cruelty and narrow-mindedness of the place that was supposed to be home. Ottawa became home. I remember my first night in Ottawa after my Granddad and Mum dropped me off, I called my Dad and was literally like "Dad...there are people here, that look like us, this is crazy, I love it here."
I met some incredible human beings in the world and these people wanted to be MY friends-WHAT!? Angelina, this beautiful girl from Angola, put me in my first pair of heels with a matching purse. And she and her massive family loved me. A family from Congo, taught me all things African food, introduced me to trilingualism (Lingala, French, Spanish) and so much more. And they loved me. Fathia was a lovely girl in my first year English class from Palestine who taught me how to put on a hijab and how to Dabka and belly dance. And she too, loved me. The friends I made in University, from all walks of life, all colors and shapes and backgrounds, made me feel like I belonged and could discover who I was meant to be. They freed me.
That is, until a few short years later, I was drugged and brutally raped by two men, that I knew. Violence was threatened against my family and those dearest to me if I reported a word of what happened. I'll spare everyone the details but it destroyed various aspects of me and my life for years and robbed me of my voice-again. Out of terror, I didn't report a thing, I couldn't bear the possibility of something awful happening to someone I loved. So I stayed silent for 4 years, then at the encouragement of someone who came into my life that I grew to respect and love deeply- I finally went to the Ottawa Police to report it. I was told very bluntly by the white female detective I spilled my guts too that even with whatever medical records they were able to find (that's still a mystery how a good chunk of them went missing) that "there wasn't enough evidence to convict, they both said you consented." Well, you know how the rest of that narrative goes: “I took the drugs on my own, I gave them permission to violate me, blah blah blah.”
The biggest slap in the face was when I told the man I was at the time in a relationship with what the detective told me. He said the "not enough evidence to convict" thing was garbage and that if my parents had been wealthy, white and had shown up at the station to support me and pushed the police to investigate further, they would have. (Just for some context, this man was an officer of the Ottawa Police for over 15 year at the time and is a POC). Hearing him say that instantly made me feel hollow, it blew my brain apart. “What do you mean my body isn't worth an investigation? It's not worth the time? So that's it? Case closed, they get to be free and live their lives with no PTSD, no paranoia, flashbacks, guilt...nothing? Okay. I guess I’m back here again, the wrong color-still.”
When I told my parents, they were devastated, my Mum couldn't bear to talk about it and my father's anger was beyond rage. I recall having to beg to him over the phone to turn his vehicle around and not come find these men. My concern? He would end up in jail and my sibling and I needed him out of jail. Can you imagine?
Fast forward to today, I am not a 7 year old child or a 23 year old University grad; I'm a 35 year old woman, married to an American Black man and step mom to a biracial son. I have 3 beautiful biracial nephews and soon to be 2 beautiful biracial nieces. My closest friends, who are like sisters to me are Thai, Egyptian, Ethiopian, Trini...and yet the ugly reality my parents, siblings and I lived back then, hasn't changed much today. The disease is still all around us.
Even in the wedding industry, one of the first things I noticed in Toronto was the shocking under representation of blacks and other ethnicities in bridal magazines, wedding blogs and other wedding related social media platforms. Sure you have real wedding submissions that might feature an Indian bride or mixed bride to meet the status quo so to speak but whole separate magazines for Black brides, South Asian brides, White brides...where is the publication that showcases it all in style shoots AND real weddings? Why don't submission guidelines require a certain number of diverse style shoots or real weddings? Inclusivity cannot exist when everything is presented in an exclusive manner; and that ultimately can't reflect a world that supposedly celebrates all sorts of love. The reality is, the socio-economic circumstances of BIPOC (look it up) have historically to the present day created massive barriers in every area of their lives.
I had a conversation with a former work colleague a few years ago and we got chatting about this. Now her background is Italian/Nigerian but before she moved to Canada briefly, she had lived in Australia. So, she has this lovely olive skin tone, dark hair, Aussie accent, can fluently speak Italian, a beautiful and very well educated woman. She showed me photos of her wedding and it was stunning. Naturally, I asked her where she got her inspiration from, she told me that as soon as she was engaged she excitedly bought 3 major bridal magazines. She went through all 3 of them only to throw them out in sheer frustration because she said she couldn't see herself (or her white husband) in ANY of the style shoots! She didn't feel the wedding she wanted and saw for herself was represented in the models, designs, themes, nothing. So, she went to a black bridal publication instead. This really got to me because I was familiar with all 3 magazines and she was absolutely right. From then on, I deliberately made a point to work with BIPOC models and vendors in every style shoot I put together. Filipino, Black, Eastern European, Spanish because I wanted interracial and cross-cultural couples to see themselves in any wedding publication and BIPOC wedding pros to showcase their very real talents.
Another thing I quickly snuffed out is how "cliquey" the wedding industry is in Toronto. If you're a member of a certain bridal magazine, you were instantly a part of that "inner circle". That inner circle all work together, get first dibs for booths at big networking events and bridal shows, first dibs at style shoots in the publications. Now I understand that some of it is business relationships, I will never throw water on that, relationships nurtured over time is a wonderful thing. But very rarely do you see newer wedding vendors being given the time of day unless they come with a thick wallet. Oh, and good luck getting an email response if you want to collaborate with what I like to call the "wine and cheese" vendors if you're a "rice and peas" vendor. Too bad if we want to learn from of the veteran wedding pros, broaden our network and knowledge pool, we aren't good enough, "haven't earned our stripes" it was put to me one day. I'm not picking on anyone I am speaking my truth, based on my professional yet shockingly unprofessional experiences as a wedding vendor. It's like I'm that kid again, it's uncomfortable, welcome.
The wedding industry needs to do better on all fronts. But let me be clear, don't do better because of guilt. That is a useless, manufactured emotion that helps absolutely no one, don't support black love, black wedding vendors etc to absolve your guilt. Do it because it's right and you recognize the need to step outside a very skewed bubble. I've had the privilege to have worked with interracial couples and professionals from all backgrounds, Chinese, Caucasian, Black, Indian and it's been something I am so proud of, something I cherish and I will continue to do it.
Point blank? Wedding pros and publications print or digital, social media platforms need to do better. When considering putting together a style shoot, yes of course you want a specific style or theme but start working with BIPOC models and vendors. Reach out to them, introduce yourselves, get to know each other and be real when you do (we can sniff out meaningless pleasantries vs someone actually caring btw!) When the wedding industry starts to do more of this, interracial and cross-cultural couples will really start to see themselves in your shoots. This will challenge the twisted societal standard of beauty. This will strongly encourage those same couples to be proud of their love, that its not something to keep hidden or to speak quietly about. It will support couples whose culture's may struggle to accept the idea of marrying and fusing into another. This will teach those in the wedding industry, push them to a higher standard that is their responsibility, regardless of judgement or scrutiny. If we as wedding professionals have businesses that represent love, our work has the power to help people recognize that love sees absolutely no boundaries. That's the job. That's a privilege people, one that we can all share.
I look back on that amazing little girl who was tormented during her childhood, told she was ugly and stupid, her pain was deep and minimized, the memories are vivid. But she's gained so much from those experiences, learned from the mistakes, ignorance and hatred of others. I'm thankful. Because my skin is so thick, I am so resilient, I am not a quitter, I don't follow, I lead. It all made me stronger in ways I never thought possible, it didn't make me bitter, it didn't make me hate. I recognized that you can't make someone choose love over hate if they want to hate. No policy, law, mandate, protest, petition or sensitivity training can change what's in a person's heart if they choose not too or don't want to change. I don't have some deep angry speech to write about on social media because I've been speaking, protesting and crying about this my whole life. Everything has already been said a million times for over 400 years, time for action.
The take away from this? Wedding pros, love is a perfect bond of union and that's what is most important, particularly to our clients. We need to be it, emulate it, give it, receive it, show it, rejoice and celebrate it above all things because when it's real, it doesn't have boundaries or biases. That is how my parents taught me to live my life, it's how I will teach my boy to live- I choose to pass down love. What you choose to pass down and reflect in your life and your work, your reputation and legacy is up to you.