Dear Corporations – It’s time to actually be anti-racist with actions

An opinion piece on how corporations in different industries need to be anti-racist with actions and not just words.

A few weeks ago, I attended a virtual webinar hosted by the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade (GVBOT) called “Bringing anti-racism and allyship to the business forefront”.  Cold Tea Collective’s founder and executive producer Natasha Jung was one of the panelists.

Towards the end, one of the other panelists — Dr. June Francis, Associate Professor at Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business — pointed out the all white Board of Directors with a slide to visually represent this. 

Out of 36 members, there were only four persons of colour.

According to Statistics Canada (as of October 2017), persons of colour make up 52% of the city of Vancouver. Yet, only 12% are underwhelmingly represented in leadership roles. 

“You don’t choose the best people,” Dr. Francis said, calling out the lack of diversity among corporations. “You choose people who look like you… It’s meritocracy for very few people and the rest of us, it’s absolute exclusion.”

It was a powerful moment that made me think about #BlackoutTuesday and the ongoing trend among prominent organizations who attempt to prove they’re anti-racist, by acknowledging their privilege, committing “to do better”, and including a laundry list of action items that only scratch the surface.

Apologies are a starting point. 

But how corporations follow-up on that apology is more important than the apology itself. So far,  the results have been disappointing across industries. 

Racism in the fashion industry needs to go out of style

The fashion industry — notorious for marginalizing Black people while continuously engaging in cultural appropriation to sell trends — came under rapid fire during #BlackoutTuesday, when numerous brands and publications posted their solidarity towards anti-Black racism. 

This didn’t sit well with former employees who were quick to point out the hypocrisy of companies like Anthropologie or Reformation for their racist attitudes and toxic work cultures.

Elle Santiago, a former assistant manager at Reformation, was constantly overlooked for a senior role and revealed that the organization consistently promoted White employees over Black or POC employees. The lack of growth at the company was evidently frustrating as Santiago noted, “To this day you have POC workers working important titles you refuse to let them actually have.” 

This racist attitude was furthered by how Reformation’s CEO Yael Aflalo treated Santiago with “disgust.” According to Santiago, Aflalo “would purposely not answer if I called her name.” Instead, Santiago would have to defer to a district manager to relay anything she wanted to say if they were in the same room together.

These revelations point to the industry’s continuous capitalization on the experiences of Black people to appear progressive, while simultaneously mistreating their Black employees behind-the-scenes. 

In the past, brands often shrugged off similar racial transgressions through half-hearted apologies, leaving little room for real change — until #BlackoutTuesday ironically exposed a number of well-known brands and publications for being racist. 

Photo Credit: Luxury Launches

While Gucci apologized for its blackface sweater (launched during Black History Month) and vowed to turn the incident “into a learning moment”, H&M also noted their stance towards “diversity and inclusion” following their “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle” t-shirt controversy. 

But behind every apology for every racist ad or trend is the lack of action to ensure space and opportunity for Black people.

As stylist and editor Mecca James-Williams said, “If these brands are going to say that Black Lives Matter, they need to ensure that the Black lives within their institutions matter. Franchise them. Have them in leadership roles.”

Blatant ignorance and racism is the crux of the fashion industry’s problem, whether they’re willing to admit it or not.

Starbucks: Brewing solidarity or performative allyship?

Photo credit: Adage

Starbucks was one of the many corporations to publicly echo the #BLM chorus, only to backtrack on their supposed allyship. 

Behind-the-scenes, Starbucks’ commitment to change didn’t extend to their company’s dress code policy. In a widely circulated internal memo, the franchise prohibited employees from wearing t-shirts or pins that “advocate a political, religious, or personal issue.” 

Customers and employees were quick to point out the hypocrisy, especially when Starbucks allows workers to wear accessories supporting LGBTQ+ rights and Pride month.

While Starbucks later reversed their decision, their message was clear — support of the Black Lives Matter movement wasn’t welcome in their stores. 

Saying it’s okay to support the movement but refusing to let employees showcase their support for fear of “amplifying divisiveness” is enabling a culture of complicity and silence at a time when the fight against anti-Black racism is gaining real momentum and creating opportunity for change. 

When Starbucks once again backpedaled to affirm that it’s “critical to support the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement” and “show up in a positive way for its communities”, their contradictory messages indicate the problem with performative allyship. 

As Ibram X. Kendi said in How to Be an Antiracist, “…racist and anti-racist are not fixed identities. We can be a racist one minute and an anti-racist the next. What we say about race, what we do about race, in each moment, determines what — not who — we are.”

The problem with Starbucks is how quickly they flip flopped from being anti-racist to racist throughout their public declarations. 

Whether Starbucks is truly genuine in its latest message moving forward is hard to tell. Their recent actions aren’t surprising among a long line of corporations who have been called out for performative allyship.

It isn’t enough to apologize with a statement committing to do better.

Without genuine action happening behind-the-scenes, these empty gestures of solidarity become virtue signalling.

Moving forward 

If corporations have shown their solidarity towards anti-racism, they also need to illustrate how they’ll follow-up on their commitment towards diversity and inclusion. 

There’s a need to step back and re-evaluate how they have operated in the past.

“We want to change conversations, but we don’t change who leads” — Dr. June Francis indicated during the GVBOT webinar.

It’s an important reminder that anti-racism goes beyond writing long letters of apologies acknowledging privilege. Business leaders in a position of power need to begin creating systemic change by addressing the structure from which it operates.

An opinion piece on how corporations in different industries need to be anti-racist with actions and not just words.
Photo credit: Philippe Lazaro

Since June, former Black employees have built collective solidarity on social media to denounce the racist behaviours of their former white bosses, which led to the resignation of high-profile editor-in-chiefs and CEOs who have displayed such behaviors — a domino effect that wouldn’t have happened a year ago.

With such leaders stepping down and being held accountable, this can create real opportunity for diverse and inclusive leadership.

It’s a step in the right direction. 

But there’s a lot of questions that corporations still need to address and implement . 

What types of action will corporations enact within their company to ensure that they dismantle systemic racism? How do corporations remove barriers to create equal opportunities and allow Black people to progress in their careers?

As Brickson Diamond pointed out, “I appreciate your Black Lives Matter post. Now follow that up with a picture of your senior management team and your board.” 

Featured image by Vicky Leta from Mashable

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