In the three years since #BlackLivesMatter began, the hashtag and movement have become synonymous with protests against numerous incidents of racially motivated police brutality in the United States. And it has been trending online once again, following the fatal shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, just one day apart.
In the wake of these most recent tragedies, a number of tech companies have stated their support for the #BlackLivesMatter movement and provided spaces for black voices, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google and Spotify. But brands and corporations have remained worryingly quiet, even when they all presumably have customers and employees who are affected by what is happening.
Brands have a part to play in BLM
“Brands are the face of companies that ultimately drive what we wear, what we drive, what we consume,” says Tamara Keller, COO of Sax, an ad agency based in the States. “They are, in fact, the influencers of the world.”
And is there a bigger brand than Beyoncé? Earlier this year, Bey’s ‘Formation’ marked the first time a mainstream star overtly incorporated #BlackLivesMatter into her art. The video featured scenes of a post-Katrina New Orleans and police violence, prompting #BlackLivesMatter founder Alicia Garza to say: “Beyoncé joins only a handful of celebrities courageous enough not just to reference a growing movement happening around her, but to proudly place herself within it.”
The ‘Formation’ video won the Grand Prix at the inaugural Cannes Lions Entertainment for Music awards last month. “This is a mainstream pop artist pushing the limits on the way we perceive things of race in culture,” said Grey Group EVP and jury president Josh Rabinowiz at the time. Such a pity, then, that the rest of the festival was overwhelmingly white, and conspicuously silent on the matter of inequality.
You only need look at the growing willingness of brands to engage in LGBT causes to see the disconnect. The legalisation of same-sex marriage has meant that for the first time, homosexual relationships had been put into a heteronormative box which brands could understand, package and sell. But the issue of race is a complex one, especially in the US, with no tidy #LoveWins-esque resolution in sight.
Still, at least one agency has made an effort. Following the deaths of Sterling and Castile, Wieden+Kennedy published an internal email from a black employee on their website:
“Why your black co-worker seems especially bitter today…
Why your black co-worker seems especially sad today…
Why your black co-worker seems especially quiet today…
We are processing.
We are asking ourselves what to do.
We are hurt because it feels like watching our own selves get gunned down.
We are telling ourselves, ‘do not let this make you live in fear. do not let this make you hate.’
But we’re scared for our lives, our family’s lives, our friend’s lives.
We’re mad that the protests aren’t working. Why the video recordings aren’t working.
We’re conflicted, in a place between crippling empathy [and] contempt at a world that seems not to care enough.
We are disgusted at police but telling ourselves, ‘you can’t hate all police.’
We are wondering the point of a moment of silence.
We are wondering if we ourselves will make it back home today.
We are wondering what to do, what to do, what to do.
Just an FYI, not for sympathy. Just acknowledging this because it should be acknowledged.
While the decision to centre the words of a black employee was clearly motivated by the best of intentions, ad man Brandon Burns has criticised the agency for claiming to support #BlackLivesMatter while failing to prioritise diversity in its own ranks: “As a black man with more than a decade of experience in the ad industry — most recently at Wieden+Kennedy — I have seen small men hide behind big words,” he writes in a Medium post.
“Will Wieden+Kennedy’s #BlackLivesMatter home page change the fact that the agency’s management team is exclusively white?” He asks. “Will it change the fact that—according to my own analysis of the company’s Portland office—28 of its 30 creative directors are not just white, but white and male? Or that roughly 80% of the copywriters, art directors, and technologists who create the agency’s output are also white males?”
Burns acknowledges that while Wieden+Kennedy have made more of a visible effort than other agencies to implement diverse hiring practices, the sad reality is that when it comes down to it, unconscious bias tends to take over.
What it takes to be an ally
Why have so many non-black individuals and companies stayed silent? Fear of criticism, for one thing. Just as some straight people came under fire for misguided comments in the aftermath of the LGBT massacre in Orlando, it seems that many brands don’t want to proclaim themselves allies of the #BlackLivesMatter movement out of concern that they will be accused of empty virtue signalling or cynical pandering.
“Many brands seem to have done the math and concluded that risking offense or tone deafness may not be worth it,” says Digiday’s Shareen Pathak.
And that’s before we even get into the pouty rebuttal known as #AllLivesMatter. It’s the #NotAllMen of race relations, the kind of insistence from people who describe themselves as “egalitarian” on Twitter that they’re not racist, and how dare you imply otherwise. It draws focus from the issue at hand (namely, that it’s specifically black people being profiled and killed by law enforcement in the US) and instead refocuses the argument around bruised white feelings.
“Don’t take it personally,” says Burns to people who find themselves confronted on their own unconscious biases. “Don’t flip out. Don’t go into the ‘Wait, you think I’m a racist?!’ line of defense… You don’t even have to truly understand. Just listen, acknowledge, and try to do better.”