It’s hard to ignore what is happening in the world right now. Aside from fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, we are now confronting a pandemic that has plagued Black people, Indigenous people and people of colour for centuries: racism. With the #BlackLivesMatter movement taking over the media and people’s lives for the last week, brands have been announcing their support for actual systemic changes. The question is, do they mean it?
From Nike to Pokemon, many brands have released statements recognizing the importance of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. They have also donated to organizations such as the NAACP, provided greater access to experiencing Black stories and reflected on the inclusivity of their own hiring efforts.
Of the many brands that have posted black squares or declared their support and understanding, only a few that have gone above and beyond. Meanwhile, others could benefit from an internal review of their organization in relation to their values and messages of support.
It is important to speak and voice your support for Black lives. But what comes after? When #BlackLivesMatter isn’t trending on social media anymore, what will organizations do to combat anti-Black racism in their own offices and at large?
Which brands did it right
Ben & Jerry’s is one of the major brands that has set an important example of how to make a meaningful and valuable statement. In 2016, Ben & Jerry’s announced their support for the BLM movement through a statement outlining how systematic racism is an issue in the United States. Fast forward to 2020 and Ben & Jerry’s released one of the boldest statements in responses to recent events.
They called for the dismantling of ‘white supremacy’ and included a list of demands directed at U.S. leaders that would aid in doing just that. Organizations are releasing statements in support of the movement, many of which not acknowledging Black people, and pledging to donate to Black organizations. Ben & Jerry’s acknowledged that change doesn’t happen with just money, to address systemic racism means to pressure governing bodies into making legislative changes.
LEGO announced their support for BLM and committed to donating $4 million to organizations that support Black children as well as towards educating all children on racial equality. By supporting these organizations, LEGO is providing resources for children to learn and understand what is happening right now.
— LEGO (@LEGO_Group) June 3, 2020
Jumping on the PR bandwagon
It’s one thing to publicly announce support calling for the dismantling of systemic racism. It’s another to announce your support calling for the dismantling of systemic racism and not take the time to acknowledge that your company engages in it. There are so many brands that had their PR and social media teams release statements without thinking through the consequences of supporting a movement your brand has publicly overlooked in the past.
A blunderous example of this would be the NFL who released a statement that mentioned their “commitment” and “ongoing efforts” for action but did not directly mention BLM or Black people. In 2016, NFL player Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the American national anthem to silently and peacefully protest the injustices faced by Black people in America.
Now, if the NFL’s statement was true, Kaepernick would still be playing in the NFL today. Instead, he was blacklisted from the league and villainized by the industry. The NFL’s statement showed more proof of their hypocrisy and that their “commitment” to action falls embarrassingly short.
For BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of colour) communications professionals, these surface-level statements and shows of support are just that, surface-level. We know what really goes on within these organizations and how many BIPOC are currently working there. We know how many of these BIPOC employees are in leadership positions and nowadays, we’re hearing a lot about how they’ve been treated by their employers.
The need for inclusive workplaces
In many organizations, not enough has been done up until this point. Employees were not being trained in regard to discrimination and inclusiveness and productive efforts were not made to hire diverse individuals for senior positions.
Those of us who are some kind of colour are left with a sense of imposter syndrome. We often question if we got the job because we are qualified or because the organization needed to fulfill a diversity quota. But BIPOC who have been disrespected, underpaid and sabotaged by past employers are now speaking up in droves. Former employees may not be with a company anymore, but that doesn’t mean their experiences no longer exist.
A thread of BIPOC bringing to light glossed over racism they experienced in their places of work
— Arefeh Ghane (@ArefehAG) June 10, 2020
I have my own story as well. On #BlackOutTuesday a company I used to work for posted a black square and announced they were muting their feed for the day. Among the praise in their comment section was a comment calling them out for not featuring Black creators and industry specialists in their daily posts. Another comment called them out for not using this break to instead amplify Black professionals in their industry.
During my time at this company, I experienced many microaggressions regarding race directed towards me or other coworkers of colour. These were some of them:
- a department head grabbed my braids, saying, “I love your dreads, they’re so neat”
- a fellow associate referred to non-English/white names as “weird ethnic names”, and
- another fellow associate referred to a coworker’s home country as a “dirty country.”
Each of these events were brought up to management and pushed aside as insignificant. Each time I thought about requesting diversity and discrimination training be held for employees, but decided against bringing it up due to my position in the company and the lack of support it would receive.
Lack of diversity in the Canadian PR industry
The obvious whiteness of the PR industry in Canada is worth bringing up. The lack of Black voices is an ongoing issue and this movement has finally made it an industry-wide issue and not just a Black problem. Look up the roster of senior executives at the biggest PR agencies in Canada and you will see the problem. Look up the individuals who hold the title of communications director at major companies in Canada… and you will see the problem.
Organizations that do have BIPOC employees usually don’t employ many, which means racist environments remain the same and their voices go unheard. Having only one, or a few, BIPOC employees often makes them feel isolated, as well as guilty when they point out racism in their work environments.
Check out social media accounts like @PullUpForChange and @Diet_Prada. They are putting pressure on organizations to share what their employee roster looks like and calling out performative activism or allyship.
Not to mention, without Black voices in communications and PR spaces, brands make mistakes that are damaging to their reputation in the long run. We have seen this happen again and again and it will continue to happen if diverse voices are not at the decision-making table.
What needs to happen next
There is a great deal of pressure on organizations to speak out on #BlackLivesMatter. Their consumers and audiences expect it of them—and so do their employees.
Meanwhile, Black people are being asked to craft these statements and social media posts or give their blessing. Imagine writing out a statement in support of anti-racism and anti-blackness when such support has never been given to you at the organization.
It is not enough to speak if your words are not educational and not amplifying Black voices. And posting a black square is not enough to show you care about Black lives and it won’t be enough to end racism.
BIPOC have been putting in the work to show industries that change needs to happen to create inclusivity and equality in the world. The #BlackLivesMatter movement has already proven to be one of the most effective social movements in American history. We must keep going.
Systemic racism exists. To dismantle it, all organizations must pledge to recognize and work to undo it internally in order for real change to occur for generations to come.