In 2015, when she was a high school sophomore, Marla McLeod sat down at lunch with some friends. They were eating, chatting and enjoying free time between classes.
Then one of McLeod’s closest friends turned to her. “You know, you are so pretty for a Black girl,” the girl said. “Like, compared to all the other ones I’ve seen, you are so pretty.”
McLeod was speechless. She felt uncomfortable. “For a Black girl?” she says now, remembering the comment with disgust. “Really?”
Back then, McLeod hated her skin. She wasn’t comfortable calling out friends or others when she noticed anti-Black sentiment. She’d been dealing with negative stereotypes about being Black ever since elementary school.
“I don’t know if I just wasn’t as confident or if I was afraid of how they’d respond,” said McLeod. “Looking back, I do wish I had stood up for not just myself, but my community.”
McLeod is a fashion blogger. Until recently, her Instagram was full of stylish looks she put together and modeled herself. But as the Black Lives Matter movement has gained momentum, those photos — and her actions — have become increasingly political.
The Black Lives Matter movement arose as a response to violence against African Americans following the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman in the murder of Miami Gardens 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. It aims to end white supremacy and unjust treatment. The movement gained steam after the cop-related killing of George Floyd this past May, inspiring international protests, petitions and donation pages.
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McLeod has become an activist only recently. Her mother, Barva, moved to the United States from Jamaica during the 1980s to attend college. After graduating, she moved to a predominantly white neighborhood in Miami because it had better schools for her children.
“She wanted to ensure that I had access to the best education possible,” said McLeod. “And that meant going to schools with a very small Black population.”
Growing up, she noticed there were differences between her and her classmates. McLeod was constantly reading and working ahead so she wouldn’t fall under any negative stereotypes. She felt she constantly had to prove her intelligence to others.
She enjoyed her years at Herbert A. Ammons Middle School mostly because the school was more diverse than her more confined years at Gloria Floyd Elementary and TERRA Environmental Research Institute for high school.
“One thing about being Black and living in this society is you have to learn to adapt to certain environments so that you aren’t targeted by those negative stereotypes,” said McLeod. “It’s like a survival mechanism. High school was pretty much that for me. I mean now, I don’t necessarily believe too much in assimilating to white culture. I’m more about celebrating my Blackness and my culture.”
McLeod’s mother had survived breast cancer around 2006 when McLeod was in second grade. She said her outlook on life shifted after her father, Millard, died of lung cancer in 2017. The then 17-year-old began her voyage toward becoming a more outspoken and confident person.
“Life is too short to care anymore about how other people view you or what they will say about you,” she said. “This movement is so much bigger than just me.”
In 2019, McLeod began to pursue one of her passions: fashion. She filled her page on Instagram with colorful posts that showcased her love for design, photography, styling and modeling.
“Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve always been obsessed with the world of fashion, and I mean every aspect,” said McLeod. “My mom used to subscribe to Vogue. I would take note of how the models were posed, how the stylist put together certain pieces of clothing, the angles the photographer shot at to capture the clothes and saw how it all came together to create a work of art.”
She always planned on pursuing fashion as a career and is thankful social media has made her style accessible to others. (She has almost 2000 followers.)
It is no secret that there is a lack of representation in the industry when it comes to people of color. “There are obviously so many obstacles when it comes to making it in fashion, but the bottom line is that those obstacles are ten times harder when you aren’t white or white-passing,” said McLeod. “All I know is that it’s something I really want to do and pray that God gives opportunities to people of color.”
Many of McLeod’s posts show her styled outfits and close-ups of her favorite accessories. At least, that was what McLeod’s online profile looked like until May 29, when she posted a screenshot of a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. quote captioned “#blacklivesmatter.”
Soon McLeod began posting more photos and videos in support of the Black Lives Matter movement on her Instagram feed. She saved them under the highlight “#BLM.” Suddenly, the Miami-based fashionista transformed her account to one of a vocal activist informing her followers on the injustices and racism against the Black community.
“Ever since I knew that I wanted to be in fashion, I also knew that in some way, shape or form, I was going to use my voice through fashion to speak up about certain things,” said McLeod. “When the death of George Floyd sparked the initial wave of protests, it kinda took me out of hiding.”
McLeod said she used to be quiet on social media about politics because she was afraid she wouldn’t influence anyone. But then beginning late May, she began posting screenshots of tweets, videos, images and petitions daily.
Most of the posts McLeod shared were text posts with multiple slides listing facts that spoke out on different issues. One post was dedicated to demanding justice for George Floyd, another about the formation and evolution of the police in the United States.
McLeod captioned a thread of Black-owned luxury brands and designers “Seeing that I am a fashion enthusiast, I thought this was fitting #blacklivesmatter.” Her “#BLM” story highlight contains more information about how to protest, a video explaining systemic racism, and examples of racial microaggressions. The very first post on the highlight sets the tone for the rest of it– it is the footage of George Floyd’s killing.
She says she was soon seen as a source of honest and raw information. People were thankful.
“I thought people would just see it on their feed, like it and then continue on with their day,” said McLeod. “I ended up getting messages from several people saying my posts were really helping them understand what was going on and facilitated the conversations they would, later on, have with their families, friends or followers.”
Rebekah Abreu, a 20-year-old student from Miami, has been best friends with McLeod for eight years. She is still learning about social injustices from McLeod, even after so many years of friendship.
“She has always been a trendsetter, whether it’s in what she wears or how she conducts herself,” said Abreu. “I personally love how Marla is speaking out about the BLM movement. She is taking advantage of her following to help people stay educated and informed.”
McLeod believes that social media plays a vital role in the process of becoming an informed individual. Sharing news about the protests, arrests and murders is important, she says. Her main goal is to spread awareness and to educate as many people as possible.
Though there are fewer protests in Miami these days, McLeod continues to balance her love of fashion with the postings of Black Lives Matter. More recently, she posted a photo that says “you can’t love black culture without loving black people.” The photo is paired with questions for one to self-reflect about black culture in the entertainment field and building diversity.
Another post teaches her followers how Black Americans have been pushed into poverty by government policies. These posts, intertwined with her fashion favorites, exemplify what McLeod’s page is all about– fashion and activism.
“I definitely do not want to just stop talking about Black Lives Matter,” she said. “I still want to be able to use my page to spread awareness.”