Sharon Chuter is undeniably a powerful advocate for Black voices within the beauty world. The founder of Uoma Beauty, which first launched in 2019, rallied the beauty industry behind a 2020 online initiative called Pull Up For Change, which asked brands and companies to reveal the diversity within their workforces. Then, in 2021, Chuter first debuted the Make It Black campaign tied to Black History Month to shift perceptions around what it means to be Black. In 2022, the campaign has been brought back and is bigger than ever. Launched Thursday, the campaign’s 2.0 version raises money for the Pull Up For Change Impact Fund, also started by Chuter, which provides funding to Black brand founders. Additionally, the campaign includes a range of new brands and retail partners. E.l.f. Cosmetics, MAC Cosmetics, Mented Cosmetics and Morphe among others are repackaging limited editions of their hero products in black. The products will be sold online through Ulta Beauty, Ipsy’s subscription boxes and brands’ websites.
Separately, Chuter has newly penned an open letter to the Merriam-Webster and Oxford English dictionaries surrounding their definitions of “black” and their outweighed focus on negative, menacing or unclean examples. For example, Merriam-Webster has six entries for the definition of “black,” including the basic “having [a] very dark color” and the more descriptive “dirty, soiled.” Meanwhile, the OED has 19 entries, including “having dark or deadly purposes, malignant” and “to find fault with.” As Chuter points out, “black” is also synonymous with luxury and formality, as is the case with an American Express black credit card, black tie events or an Uber Black rideshare. But such definitions and their examples are absent from two of the leading agents of record on the English language.
“It impacts every Black person on a personal level. It’s not a new conversation,” she said. “Why I’m being so public about this is because I want to keep putting this case forward, so that, over time, the whole world can turn around and ask [the dictionaries], ‘Why aren’t you [changing the definition]?’ I want them to come out and publicly tell us the reason why they feel like ‘wrong’ and ‘vial’ is more accurate than ‘luxury’ and ‘formality.'”
Chuter’s open letter is not a request for censorship, nor to push dictionaries to be progressive beyond their mandate to record how the English language is used. Instead, she would like a review and subsequent updates to definitions of “black” to elevate it out of its negative history and mirror its modern parlance. Notably, the OED has never removed a word or definition once included, while Merriam-Webster has only removed certain archaic terms from its print editions.
OPEN LETTER TO MERRIAM-WEBSTER DICTIONARY & THE OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY (OED)
I write to you today not as a leader of a human rights organization or as an entrepreneur but as a concerned Black citizen. I have the honor of serving my community through a not-for-profit organization, Pull Up For Change. We exist to advocate for economic equity and equality for Black communities worldwide by inspiring change at a Corporate, Community, and individual level. I recall fondly a 9yr old me asking for a dictionary for Christmas instead of a bicycle or the latest toys or gadgets like other kids my age would have wanted. I have always understood the power of language to shape thought, and I have studied with keen interest the evolution of words and the consequent impact on society. I’ve found that language plays a critical role in perceiving the world. The function of language goes beyond expressing ideas and concepts; it shapes thought and defines our collective consciousness. Language should be neutral, unbiased, and reflective of our current realities. In this regard, you have work to do specifically around the definitions, related words, and synonyms of the word Black.
Some of your definitions of Black, related words, and synonyms carry the tones of an era when every major societal institution offered legitimacy to racial hierarchy and hence began the demonization of all things Black. In the first publication of the American dictionary of the English language in 1828 by Noah Webster, Black (adj) is firstly defined as “Pale,” “To lighten,” “To expose to the sun or Bleach.” There were only two negative uses of the word – Wicked (A Black deed) and Dismal/Mournful (A Black Day) in that edition. Over time, this has become more antagonistic to the extent that today there are no positive definitions, related words, or synonyms of the word Black in any of your dictionaries. Some of your descriptions read, “characterized by hostility or angry discontent” “not conforming to a high moral standard; morally unacceptable”. Synonyms include bad, dark, evil, immoral, sinful, nefarious, oppressive, unethical, rotten, sinful, threatening, unlawful, unrighteous, unsavory, vicious, vile, villainous, wicked, wrong. I challenge you to respond with a sentence that uses the word Black in the context of immorality or hostility, as you have defined above, that wouldn’t sound wildly inappropriate today to any listener.
Black is synonymous with luxury (American express “Black Card” or the Black Tier is usually a luxury tier “Uber Black”) and formality ( a Black tie event). It is considered timeliness and classic (the little black dress). In business, being in the Black means profitable. These positive words and associations in modern language are absent from your dictionaries which leaves me surprised and incredibly disappointed as these associations with Black are not new.
George Orwell once wrote, “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” This message is evident in real-world experiences. In 1994 time magazine ran a cover of O.J Simpson titled “An American Tragedy.” His skin color was altered and significantly darkened in this feature to make him appear more menacing, threatening, and criminal! This demonstrates a real-world application of these definitions to humans, specifically Black People.
The choices in front of us are straightforward – Do we sit back and do nothing while we watch a new generation pick up the hateful indoctrinations of an evil past? Or Do we act now to shape the future by having a fair review of language to ensure that it is appropriate, balanced, neutral, and most of all current?
I follow in the footsteps of Martin Luther King Jr, Muhammed Ali, and other leaders before me who advocated for this change over 60yrs ago. I acknowledge the fantastic work of Kenya Dixon and the My Black is Beautiful campaign, which led to the first fundamental review in recent years. I call on you – The time to act is now! Will you Pull up, or will you Shut Up and continue to uphold this incomplete and damaging narrative?
Founder Pull up for Change Org and Founder & CEO UOMA Beauty Inc.