Don’t call Sasha Exeter an influencer. Sure, she’s got 148,000 Instagram followers, her feed is saturated with carefully curated aspirational images, and her brand collaborations sell out in minutes, but she’s hyper-aware of the negative connotations that now come with the millennial-era moniker. “I have a very, very tough time with that word and I never use it to describe myself,” Exeter tells Refinery29 over Zoom from her back patio on a windy day in Toronto. Her hair is blowing just slightly, like there’s a Beyoncé-approved wind machine off-camera. “I often find that those who use the word actually aren't influencing anything. I love to tell stories. I'm a brand storyteller. And as a byproduct of doing those things, I influence people, but I don't like that term at all.”
Despite her hesitation with the label, Exeter’s influence is undeniable. For almost a decade, the 41-year-old single mom has been sharing intimate personal details on her lifestyle site, and in recent years, Exeter has become one of Canada’s most well-known, and notably, one of the few Black content creators brands call on for big campaigns.
And yet, Exeter’s Blackness wasn’t something she posted about often — until June 2020. After sharing a courageous, viral, Internet-shaking, 11-minute IGTV video called “My ‘Amy Cooper’ experience,” Exeter went from a content creator with a sizable audience to an Insta-famous beacon of Black retribution with triple the following. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, and as the world reckoned with its rampant white supremacy, Black women across the country were speaking up about the ways our co-workers, workplaces, and Canada’s whitest institutions continually wronged us.
Exeter’s platform became a go-to for white people committed to “listening and learning.” While her peers were muting themselves to elevate Black creators, Exeter was thrust into a position of not only being a voice for her community, but also as an educator for her followers. It’s a role she takes on as a responsibility and with reluctance. After all, Exeter is not an activist. In the era of hashtag advocacy and politically focused Instagram infographics, it may be hard to know the difference. Exeter is still figuring out how to navigate the new expectations of her platform, as well as the opportunities that have come from years of hard work, and culminated in a year of ups and downs, exhaustion and joy.
With a new Joe Fresh activewear collaboration and fresh outlook on how to wield her influence, Exeter is reflecting on the past year.
Refinery29: Hi! How are you?
Sasha Exeter: Okay. All things considered. Busy times. Scary times. Sad times. But exciting times. It's like all of feels, you know?
I think a lot of Black women have been experiencing some of that in the past year. Professionally, there are opportunities coming that maybe we weren't getting before. And then personally, we’re reckoning with everything going on in the world and how exhausting that's been.
SE: I find it very challenging as a Black woman with all that's gone on. I feel very grateful and thankful for the platform that I have and the community that I have grown, but then [I also ] feel guilty about my joy sometimes. I’m constantly feeling like I can't celebrate certain wins. So, even when it comes to launches, if something is happening, I don't want to be boasting about a launch or a collab or an exciting embargoed project. I want to be very respectful. That said, nothing that I have has been handed to me. I've worked my butt off to have it. So I also want to be happy about that too and pat myself and my team on the back.
When you fall into those strange feelings of guilt, do you think, but this isn't fair. It's not fair that you're feeling guilty about celebrating your wins and other white creators in your position are not.
SE: Exactly, and for the first time as a 41-year-old adult, I'm doing therapy. I'm really trying to learn how to navigate all of this, lose that feeling of guilt, and find somewhat of a middle ground.
The catalyst for going to therapy was the “racial reckoning” of this past year and feeling the weight of what's going on in the world as well as juggling the successes?
SE: Yeah. I'm usually in control of everything. I've always been in control of everything and my destiny and just really felt that I got put into a situation [where] I was not able to handle it all. I did not have the infrastructure. I did not have the mental capacity to deal with it. I didn't have the tools.
For the first time as a 41-year-old adult, I'm doing therapy. I'm really trying to learn how to navigate all of this, lose that feeling of guilt, and find somewhat of a middle ground.
This was specifically in June 2020, when your following blew up and you were thrust into this international conversation. Tell me what you mean by not having the infrastructure.
SE: Infrastructure in terms of having proper heightened security on email, on my website, not being verified on Instagram, and having certain things in place on social media channels so I'm not having to deal with 300 to 500 attacks online for hacking. How to deal with being a public figure, putting my life out there, continuing to do so in the way that I used to with a smaller audience, but also not absorbing everything and taking criticism or the hate coming my way personally.
I had 40,000 followers last May, early June, and that community was all people that have really been on this journey with me from the beginning. It felt like a very safe space. And I felt very free to post and be my authentic and organic self and never had to worry. Then it was literally overnight that a massive following amassed and I did not know who I was speaking to anymore. Some of those people are hate-following me. That was something that I didn't even know about before. Because I sure as hell don't follow people that I am not aligned with or interested in in any way.
Last summer, there were suddenly a lot of people who were looking to you as a voice in the middle of this racial reckoning. And up until then, talking about race or talking about the realities of anti-Black racism was not something that you were focused on doing. So, what was it like to then get put in this position where people are looking to you to be that voice?
SE: I'm not an activist. I kind of put myself in that position because I wanted to share my stories and my perspective. Unbeknownst to a lot of people, the majority of my following is Canadian, like over 70%. I lived in the United States for almost six years so I have very strong ties to that country, too. But I kept hearing over and over again, "Well, this is a problem that's happening in the U.S." And I was like, "No, this is a problem that's happening right here on our doorsteps." And I think if I didn't have a daughter, if I wasn't a mother, I may not have felt inclined or felt the need to take this role of speaking up on my platform so seriously.
Just days after George Floyd was murdered, I had an altercation on the street where I was called the N word. And I think that it was that moment when I just spoke from a very honest place, just to share my experience as a Black Canadian woman and what I encountered on the road with my daughter and my mother. June 2020 was eye-opening for a lot of people.
You're not an activist, but is there pressure that comes with knowing that people are expecting you to speak on issues related to race? Have there been times where you felt like you didn't have the right words or you weren't educated on a certain topic enough to be that voice and people were still looking to you?
SE: That 100% happened in the last couple of weeks [when I posted about Israel and Palestine]. I had no idea what the ramifications were going to be about being open, honest, and vulnerable and saying that I didn't have all the information or I needed to further educate myself, so I can have an informed discussion amongst family, amongst friends, amongst my online community.
There were people that were understanding and supportive, and then there were other people that were very upset and very angry with my lack of understanding and knowledge on the situation that we all know had been going on for hundreds of years. I was shocked because deep down I really feel that nobody should be embarrassed to not be an expert on something. Period. Nobody's perfect. Do I want to use my platform to educate, to inspire, to uplift? Sure. And I try to do that to the best of my ability, but I'm not going to be an expert on and have deep knowledge and understanding on every single topic. It's just not possible.
And my intention for those stories was to be vulnerable, share where I was at, the work that I still needed to do, and that I would be doing in hopes to inspire other people that didn't have a deep understanding to do the same. Not really sure I understand how that went left.
Everything that happened last year made me see that for the first time, for me to finally say, “No, you can't just use my face as a token person. What's happening behind the scenes? Are you guys really walking the walk?”
Do you understand why people look to you, though? And why they think that if you and other creators are posting online, you should also know these issues?
SE: I do think that it's flattering that people want to know what our viewpoints are, but quite frankly on certain matters, specifically the Palestine/Israel matter, we're not scholars. We're not journalists. We're not the news. There are people that have dedicated their life to critical race studies that have a very deep understanding of the complex layers of this situation. Those are the people that you should be listening to and reading.
You are clearly someone with really strong morals and values that you try to bring to your work. How do you reconcile those values with the brands you work with?
SE: Most of the brand partners that I have, I've been working with them for three, four, five plus years. I've gotten to know the people that work with these agencies on a very intimate and deep level. I had some very challenging conversations with a few companies wanting to make sure that they aligned with my thinking. I'll be completely transparent — five years ago I wasn’t looking at brands to see what their hiring practices were and how diverse they were in their corporate offices and who the decision-makers were. Before, when I was younger and newer in the industry, I was just happy to be in the room. That mentality is gone. I am being a lot more vocal about the company that I keep on certain campaigns and programs.
Have you ended a partnership now that you've started inquiring about hiring practices and what their teams look like?
SE: I was this close. And you know what, I believe that that partner believed I was such a valuable asset to the company and to what they were doing, that they were actually able to step back and take in what I was saying and re-strategize. And there've been situations where I've actually said, "I'm happy to take a step down to give my money and my space to somebody else that's coming up, specifically another woman of colour." I get chosen for a lot of things and I'm grateful for that, but other people need a chance too. It's been nice to see that brands have been willing to switch strategies and switch directions and be open to making the necessary change in their industries.
It’s also about realizing the power that you have. I think that a lot of us have gone through this where you wake up and understand, Oh wait, I'm the powerful one in this scenario.
SE: Yes, and it's crazy because I didn't see it. Everything that happened last year made me see that for the first time, for me to finally say, “No, you can't just use my face as a token person. What's happening behind the scenes? Are you guys really walking the walk?”
For a while, if you were looking at the Canadian influencer space, it did feel like, "Oh, they need a Black person, they're going to call Sasha Exeter." That's partly because you're incredible at what you do, but also I wondered if you felt like you were being tokenized at any point and if you ever looked around at those events and thought, "How am I the only Black person in this room?"
SE: I actually remember specifically about two years ago, way before this racial reckoning started, where I was with a brand partner who I've worked with for a very long time and we were on a press trip. I'm ashamed to say this but there were a couple of followers that brought it to my attention. They were like, "Why are you the only Black female there? This is looking very vanilla." And I looked around and I started looking at all the content that I was documenting from the weekend from this trip, and I just felt like I was sinking, sinking, sinking, sinking. I remember going back to my hotel room and looking at my timeline on Instagram and seeing the people that I follow and other amazing Black content creators and writing their names down. There was a considerable number of names. And so I thought, why? Why aren't any of these people in the room, in the boardroom, on this trip, on these campaigns, in this commercial?
I had an opportunity to circle back with this brand last summer and say, "Enough. I cannot move forward working with you guys as much as I'm aligned with the brand. We need to do better.” I think it's also because it's a numbers game. We're not the U.S., we don't have a large number of Black or women of colour in this space. If you want them, sometimes you have to do the work to find them.
We talk a lot about, "Oh, it's so bad in America," but specifically in Canada, when you talk about those brand partnerships and content creators, it was very white for a very long time and still is.
SE: Still is. I felt alone for ages. Yeah. I felt alone for a very, very long time.
Tell me about the new Joe Fresh collab and why this is a partnership that works.
This is a partnership that works because they trust me 110%. I think that trust shows in the content that we do. It also works because I was a consumer before I started working with them. [My daughter] Maxwell was wearing it as a newborn. This was only supposed to be a one-season collaboration and it just continues to grow each year. It's set the benchmark for all my other partnerships. My followers and people in general on social media are smart now. They can read between the lines. They know what's real and what's not. And the longer I partner with people, the more trust that I gain from my audience.
What is the one piece you went in thinking] just had to be in the collab?
The crop. It's so functional. It's so comfortable. It aesthetically looks pleasing and it also supports me in the right way to do whatever type of workout that I wanted to do. And I knew the shape and the silhouette of it would work for all sizes, from extra small all the way up to 3X. It was really important that we were inclusive and diverse with the sizing. And I still love a biker tight and a 7/8 full tight as well, but the crop is the one piece that I knew that I had to have in there. And of course, a matching outfit for Maxwell.
I've literally been on the fence about having children my whole life, but then I see you and Max in your matching fits and I'm like, "OKAY FINE."
SE: [laughs] I probably have maybe five more years of doing that and then she's going to tell me I'm lame. I know my time is running out.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.