The Cost of Progress Beyond Performance

The exorbitant price Black professionals pay for change, and why it must be paid

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As this series comes to a close, the desire to be aspirational—inspirational, even—rings hollow. For many, Black History Month is little more than an opportunity to misappropriate and exploit Black culture for financial or reputational benefit—often both. It’s a performative gesture for people, companies and institutions who otherwise ignore Black people, and our cries for our lives to matter, the other 337 days out of the year.

It is a struggle to conclude this series without the minefield that is a symbolic call for more allyship when radical action is needed. A worthy aim? Sure. But it felt more like a wishful conclusion than a galvanizing rallying cry.

As February gives way, we look to another milestone—the upcoming commemoration of George Floyd’s murder. On that day, Instagram accounts will go dark. Companies will exclaim that they are listening. And Black marketers will be reminded that millions of dollars were donated to Black causes and non-Black colleagues promised to do better. But progress is imperceptible. The silence is deafening.

We need not look any further than recent headlines as a barometer of how far we have not come. For example, Brian Flores, a recently fired Black head football coach, is suing the New York Giants, Miami Dolphins and Denver Broncos for racial discrimination. And the brave women of the UCLA gymnastics team are weathering incessant ridicule to spotlight the fact that Black lives still matter. They are not doing it for personal gain but to take a stand against racism for the benefit of those coming after them. They understand they are jeopardizing their careers and reputations to make a more salient point.

And there is a myriad of courageous professionals we know (and do not know) standing up and, in many cases, standing alone every day.

However, Flores and the athletes in the UCLA gymnastics team, like many Black professionals, know all too well there is a price to pay for progress. That for advancement, not only in sports but in all industries, risk and sacrifice are required.

The price Black marketers in particular pay for speaking up comes in many forms, such as career curtailment, ostracism or being labeled “angry,” suffering revisionist history portraying justice-seekers as troublemakers and an indelible impact on one’s mental health. And for those who carry the weight of generational advancement in their families, such a cost can be especially gut-wrenching. Often, we are forced to choose between actionably supporting our community’s progress and the freedom of choice and opportunity stemming from our own economic and educational attainment.

There is an ancestral saying: “Look up to the hills from whence cometh your help.” The hills cannot solely be our companies or colleagues nor our titles or money. The hill must include us—Black professionals vehemently championing for one another and, in all spaces, speaking truth to power.

Yes. We absolutely need more non-Black allies and co-conspirators in the work, advocating and dismantling a system that is working precisely as intended. A system that thrives on consolidating power into the hands of the few by exploiting the contributions of the many—often the poorest, most invisible and powerless.

Black professionals cannot, and should not, be made solely responsible for fixing a system we did not create—but are forced to master and often redefine—to get ahead. But what responsibility do we have? Is it incumbent upon us to be a catalyst for the seismic shift we desire to see?

Black History Month is not just a time to remember social justice giants and hidden heroes of the past. It is also a time to make history, now and all year long.

There are many ways to advance issues specific to Black people, especially in corporate America. For some, it is writing a check, taking to the streets or advocating for equity and inclusion in majority-white spaces. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. While everyone’s protest may look different, here are some ways Black marketers are paying the price in a way that is authentic to them.

Check your privilege

“Amid the racial reckoning of 2020, the most vulnerable and historically disenfranchised among us put their bodies and livelihoods on the line so we could have more freedom, access and equity. One form of protest can be asking yourself: Is the size of my paycheck (or anything you risk losing) limiting the size of my protest? If the answer is ‘Yes,’ then perhaps a re-evaluation is warranted.” —Veronica Marshall, founder of The Humanity Lab

Determine your why

“Threats of retaliation or the weighty impact of generational obligations may keep many Black professionals on the sidelines. But I always come back to my motivation, which is to speak up and be a voice for change for the improvement of the Black community, especially in corporate spaces. My ancestors struggled, fought and died to give me the opportunities I have today.” —Ronell Hugh, former marketing lead for brands such as Microsoft and Walmart

Speak up

“If your employer is truly doing the work, they want to hear from their talent to correct where they are missing the mark. Utilize your DEI and talent teams, or any opportunity where your voice can be heard. We have spent decades avoiding the topic of race in the workplace. Feel empowered to state what’s being missed and to be part of the change.” —Aisha Losche, svp, equity, diversity and inclusion at Hill Holliday

Build your own table

“Black advertising professionals such as Trisch Smith, Renetta McCann, Marc Strachan and Sandra Sims-Williams, among others, created space for me to become a leader in the communications industry. They built what did not exist because they needed it. Now is the time to take the baton, honoring the work that has come before through actions that further dismantle injustice and uplift our communities.” —Dani Jackson Smith, vp, influencer and multicultural marketing at Edelman

This article is part of The Black History Month Voice Series, intended to educate marketers and advertisers and spotlight issues, nuances and challenges the industry should be aware of when marketing to the Black community. Check out more articles here.