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Here's the Real Frustration Behind That Photo of a 'Black People' Panel With No Black People

Sometimes anger makes us hurt those trying to help

An 'Advertising for Good' panel at The One Club's multicultural career fair sparked backlash out of context. Photo: @GreyNewYork on Twitter

Traecy Smith, director of diversity, The One Club

Earlier this week, a picture of the first panel at "Here Are All the Black People" ignited a social media uproar.

The perception of that image: There were no black people on a panel at an event for black people. The reality of that image: A panel of top creatives discussed "Advertising for Good" at a multicultural career fair.

The following is what that image does not show: Three African-American speakers preceded that panel, including L. Londell McMillan, publisher of The Source and our keynote speaker; Jimmy Smith, CEO of Amusement Park Entertainment, who announced during his speech that he would fly out at least two attendees to Los Angeles for paid internships; and me, the organizer of the event.

You can better understand the context of the photo by watching this video of the introduction:

The image that so many people shared in anger doesn't show that many of the speakers on the event's other panel were African-American, that many of the mentors that day were African-American, that many portfolio reviewers were African-American, and that the largest group of attendees were African-American.

You know what else that image doesn't show? That the people on that panel, some of whom had to travel across the country, went out of their way to review portfolios, lead mentoring sessions and offer opportunities to students and young professionals of diverse backgrounds.

The agencies they work for, which I would be remiss not to name (Grey Advertising, GSD&M, DDB, Droga5 and BBDO) sponsored the career fair, donating time and money to advancing the cause of a nonprofit organization that runs an event dedicated solely to connecting students and young professionals of diverse backgrounds to potential employers.

It doesn't show that in the past five years, our event has created job opportunities for hundreds, if not thousands, of African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans and many others.

But let's talk about what that image does show: An ironic juxtaposition of the event name, "Here Are All the Black People," and a conspicuous lack of black people underneath those big letters (although I must point out that all the chatter about an "all-white panel" is insensitive to the Asian-American in the group).

The furor over that irony shows us something else: Deep resentment remains about the persisting lack of diversity, specifically the scarcity of African-American representation, in our industry and many others. While I regret that our sponsors had to face some of this backlash and I feel personally hurt over our event being the target of said backlash, I can appreciate the passion exhibited.

The outrage was misplaced, however, motivated by an out-of-context image and directed at an event whose mission is to rail against the perceived homogeneity of the image in question, but it is symptomatic of a real issue: Much lip service is paid to promoting diversity, but not enough is done. For those offended, the image of the panel was emblematic of that "Talks the talk, but doesn't walk the walk" grievance.

There were two types of people who took issue with the image of the panel: People piling on just to pile on, and people genuinely concerned. It is often difficult, if not impossible, to disentangle the latter from the former, which prompted a realization: Progress is messy. It doesn't move forward seamlessly; it stumbles, sometimes veering off in the wrong direction before righting itself.

I don't agree with the social media conversation around this image, but I am happy that this conversation is taking place, however imperfectly.

Traecy Smith is director of diversity at The One Club and coordinator of the annual Here Are All the Black People multicultural career fair that takes place during Advertising Week.

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