Travelling as a black woman can be an enlightening experience, sometimes in the worst possible ways. Bearing the brunt of both racist and sexist abuse, continued harassment from the public doesn’t simply end at racial slurs but also, at times, being pestered by locals who have assumed you are attempting to sell sex, simply because you are black and abroad. If you trawl the internet with the right search terms, endless blogposts from black women bemoan the continued sexual harassment of black women at the hands of men who assumed they were only in the country to seek out clients.
My own love of travel means I have a handful of my own anecdotes – most recently, when I was in Madrid, my all-black, female travelling posse and I were stopped by groups of men who, after a stint on Google translate, we realised were trying to pay us for sex. We had all been dressed in jeans and long-sleeved T-shirts at the time – but we were also wearing black skin, which is often seen as an invitation in and of itself. This behaviour is usually put down to a population bereft of black people and overrun with racism. But what happens when the derogatory comments come directly from your peers?
This is what happened to Sherry Collins, founder and editor of Pitch – an independent creative-industry publication – when she visited Cannes for the first time. She was there to promote an issue of her then-recently launched magazine at the Cannes Lions Festival and was solicited for sex not by a stranger on the street, but instead by a man at the event who had assumed she was there selling sex, not a businesswoman there for the same reasons he was. Now, three years after it first happened to her, she has decided to take out an advert in her latest issue (which is distributed to industry influencers) to call out the behaviour.
When Collins attended in 2015, she was initially excited. But that soon turned to dread when a man approached her at the bar and she was made immediately aware that he assumed she was attending Cannes for something else entirely. “He complimented my dress and I thought, 'Oh, OK, that’s fine,'” she tells me. “Then we were chatting and next thing I know he’s leaning in and asking, ‘How much for the night?’”
“I just felt really embarrassed. I thought, ‘Oh, my goodness, I’m a businesswoman, I’ve turned up to Cannes and the first impression that this person has of me is that I’m selling sex.’ I’m not trying to say I’m better than those that are, but my take on it is this: in an industry that promotes inclusion, diversity, when [black women] in the environment are networking, how are we viewed? Are we viewed as equals?”
It is the explicit bias that bothers Collins. She clarifies that what irked her most wasn’t simply the assumption, but rather who it came from – a peer in the advertising industry who she had come to meet and work with. “These are people in my own industry,” she sighs. “Not necessarily that I work with them, but they’re in our world and it’s almost like they change when they go abroad.
“When you go to foreign countries as a black woman, you always experience that kind of thing anyway, but for me, the main thing is we’re at a festival event.”
He complimented my dress and I thought, 'Oh, OK that’s fine.' … Then the next thing I know, he’s leaning in and asking, ‘How much for the night?’
When Collins returned, she told some friends about the incident and was surprised to find several others had had similar experiences when they had gone to Cannes, too, and that it was a well-known problem for some black women who went. For the next two years she attended, she says she started dressing more and more modestly in order to avoid the same thing happening – but when she found herself also advising her 22-year-old publishing assistant going for the first time "not to dress too glam” in case she was approached for the wrong reasons, she decided enough was enough. “Why should I be the one who's checking myself? Why should it be me?” she says. “It should be the other way around! The men in the industry should be checking themselves.”
It was then that she decided to use the backpage normally reserved for external advertising to publish her own advert addressing the issue. The message is short and simple: “We are black creative women heading to Cannes,” it reads. “Please do not ask us how much for the night. #assumenothing.”
Collins tells me she was initially going to put it on the third page of her magazine, so it was more subtle and less likely to ruffle feathers, but then, when she realised just how prevalent the issue was, she decided to put it on the back cover to make a stronger statement to the scene. Her publication, which is published five times a year, is distributed among a carefully curated list of industry leaders and has a circulation of around 10,000, made up of the “who’s who of the creative world”. It’s not just any issue she has used to highlight this – it’s what she refers to as her “standout issue”, a Cannes special that the festival have partnered with her on and that they will distribute at the festival hall.
“I’m in a privileged position where I publish a publication,” she says. “Instead of charging the £4k from an advertiser to take the spot, I’ve decided to take [it for myself] and put that out there. I wanted it to be taken seriously, not be something you could brush under the carpet like a tweet – it’s there and its permanent.”
In an encouraging move, Cannes Lions has backed the campaign, with the managing director, Jose Papa, expressing his support when she shared the cause with him. "It is very unfortunate you had to go through such an abominable experience,” he told her over email. “Congratulations on making your voice heard, which will help to further silence the acts of absurd disrespect many have to endure. We have reiterated our code of conduct to all our delegates."
Despite these incidences, Sherry remains positive about Cannes Lions overall – she says that, thanks to contacts she has made there, her business has substantially grown – but her priority is to ensure that her, and other black women’s, experience mirrors that of their white male peers. While she is wary about potential backlash, she hopes it creates a much-needed conversation.
“This could cost me my business,” Collins says solemnly. “My magazine could go under by the end of this issue. I love Cannes Lions. I love the festival and I want to go. But I don’t want to be harassed when I go and I don’t want any other black woman within the industry to be harassed when they go. If it means I lose my advertisers, then so be it.”