The tragic death of George Floyd has erupted a volcano that has been simmering for a very long time. This time feels different, and hopefully it will be. It’s the first time I have seen non-POC vocally acknowledging and understanding their privilege (or at least trying to). Some are finally as outraged with bias, prejudice, and racism as we have been for so long. The culture, so influential in fashion, sports, food, and music, cannot simply be separated from the reality of black culture. Yet, those proclaiming to love the culture, cannot not understand the anti-racist work that needs to be done.
Within brands and companies, unconscious bias and prejudice are some of the most dangerous forms of racism. They manifest themselves in many ways — it’s a lack of thought and empathy for black colleagues and their race-based struggles resulting in us experiencing and internalizing micro-aggressions on a daily basis.
It’s the old world policies on hiring, agency procurement, and campaign production. It’s a perception about us being “difficult or aggressive,” or “not being a team player” if we challenge the status quo or an invalid view if we have different reference points. And so on.
These things may seem small, but they accumulate and add to race-based trauma. It’s deep and complex, and part of the process in becoming a true ally is asking yourself the hard questions, and facing and addressing the uncomfortable truths about yourself and your business. And while there isn’t a set checklist for brands to be checked off when it comes to being an inclusive organization, the following points and questions need to be considered.
Know Your Privilege, Educate Yourself
Your privilege isn’t left at the door when you go to work; it impacts your professional life and those around you. It’s not the job of POC to teach you how to be anti-racist — there are countless tools, books, podcasts, and lists available to self-educate on how to practice anti-racism in your everyday actions.
Ask yourself: Are you actively seeking to educate yourself and your network on the importance of anti-racism? Are you aware of offensive (especially “casually” offensive) terms, phrases, or questions? Are you aware of your history? Are you listening to black people in your life, friends, family, or people that you look up to and follow on social media? Are you calling out transgressions and questioning friends and colleagues on words and actions that are casually and overtly racist?
Commit Beyond the Feed
We need to move past the solidarity statements on the feed and take action. Yes, it can be difficult to know what to say, but empty messaging or silence is worse. Reading and analyzing shifts in how people are feeling and being human-centric is a big part of cultural communication. Your audience is watching how you act at this time. Be honest, and acknowledge your failings as a brand. Your initial message is important, however, transparency would resonate more. After this, create a credible task-force and listen to those impacted to audit your company. Collectively come together with similar brands for industry-wide change and create sustainable and long-term tangible and actionable solutions from your findings.
Ask yourself: What is the motivation and intention of the post? What is the tangible action behind the statement? How will this statement be actioned beyond marketing — and instead become part of long-term sustainable change and transformation? Is your brand or organization organizing internal anti-racist education? What are the areas within your brand and industry that you and your brand can impact in the short- and long-term?
Clean Up Your House
It’s not the job of POC in your business to end systemic racism in the company — it starts with holding a mirror up to the decision makers. In the workplace, it takes the C-Suite and senior leaders to champion a horizontal, top-down proactive, vocal, and practical approach to anti-racism. It’s not as simple as putting a POC in charge of a vertical Diversity and Inclusivity department, even if they are on the board.
Ask yourself: Is the executive board diverse and balanced? If not, why not? What and how can you change that? Are there enough black people in key leadership roles throughout the business, with decision-making powers? And for the few POC in these seats of power, are their opinions listened to and actioned? What are the specific areas (HR, supply chain, marketing, etc) that need to transform to make the overall workplace more inclusive?
HR and Procurement
Look at who and, importantly, how you work with people from black communities. If you are hiring, they may not have what your existing bias defines as the “ideal” profile — they may not have the same education or the same contacts, but the talent is there. Same goes for your partner agencies — challenge them on their black representation and activity. The more inclusive the input, the more inclusive the output. This could also prevent the likelihood of cancelling callout culture, usually instigated through tone deaf campaigns that can cause additional pain to the community and also be damaging to your brand.
Ask yourself: Are your teams diverse enough? If not, why? Challenge HR and recruiters. Are POC paid equally? Where and how do they recruit their talent? How can we attract more black talent to the business? Have I put that CV on the “maybe” pile because of the name or education? Is one “bad” or “not ideal” experience tarnishing my decision? Am I looking for the safest option? Am I looking for someone who I can relate to and mirrors my experience or background? When interviewing or meeting new agencies, is my unconscious bias impacting my hiring decisions? Are your agency personnel diverse enough? If not, why? Ask them about their policies.
Within the Teams
Within big brands and companies, POC make up the minority — understand that this in itself is difficult. We look different, we dress different, we talk different. Also, being the only one on a team may make us feel like the token POC, which comes with a lot of pressure. Ask questions and listen to your black colleagues. Our experiences and points of view are valid, even if you don’t agree with it or you have not experienced it. Diversity is proven to breed success.
Ask yourself: Do I use ‘“funny” or “jokey” yet casually racist terms, phrases, or stereotypes? Does anyone else, and have I challenged or reported them? Are POC team members comfortable enough to speak up? If they do speak up, is it actioned? Do they feel like their opinions are valid? Are they struggling with world affairs related to racism and expected to show up and deliver that presentation? How can I help take the pressure off?
Assess Your Brand, Action Change
Brands have the weight and influence to make impact at scale. Be self-reflective and considered. Consumers want and expect brands to be more than the product or service being sold — it needs to make sense, to add value, earning their place in the culture or community they want to be part of. For us, positive impact comes in many forms. But it does mean respectful collaboration with the people who represent, create, and shape culture from grassroots all the way up.
Ask yourself: Where is your inspiration from? Has your brand profited from POC culture and the community? How can I collaborate with that community? How can I contribute to that culture? How can they become part of gaining the benefit, financially?
Change the Narrative, Invest in Progress
The role of brands has never been more important to play a crucial role in trying to solve global issues and help their consumers navigate the world they live in. Use your brand channels to educate and amplify inclusive campaigns, messages, and actions to your broad audience. It may seem like a risk, but risks are necessary to champion change and progress. And follow through with tangible actions to push things forward with intent and purpose, with courage and empathy.
Ask yourself: Are the brand actions opportunistic and damaging rather than mutually beneficial? Are we using our channels to make people think about racism, educate, or change opinion? Why not? Are my brand partners inclusive or do they support racism in any form? Is my brand driving innovation with sustained contribution to change and the restructuring of oppressive systems?
Open Up the Pipeline
The only way to transform the industry to the ideal place is to open up the talent pipeline and pool, and ensure non-token, balanced, and multicultural people on all levels. This must not be measured by a target quota or statistic, this needs to be a permanent and sustainable increase in lack talent. Consider what biases or changes you and your brand need to address to ensure POC are not looked over for a promotion. Having a different “communication style” and “behavior” should not be reasons.
Ask yourself: How can I and my company be part of career days and career guidance at school level? Is my unconscious bias impacting my decisions on promotion of POC? How can I recognize those? How can my company support an internship financially? How can we instantly increase accessibility for black talent: fairly paid internships, mentoring, graduate schemes, funding, interview/CV skills workshops, and fairly paid work experience?
Leila Fataar is the founder of Platform13, a London-based independent full service creative marketing and communications company building cultural value for big brands by working hand-in-hand with cultural voices around the world.
- Writer: Leila Fataar