Amid million-dollar commitments to racial justice and diversity hire initiatives, agencies have been hosting and participating in panels to address racism. While some of these discussions have been fronted by Black and non-Black people of color, some have not, causing controversy within the business world of who can—or should—have a voice in these conversations.
One conversation in particular, a one-on-one livestreamed interview featuring Brad Grossman, CEO and founder of Zeitguide, and Cindy Gallop, CEO and founder of IfWeRanTheWorld and MakeLoveNotPorn, attempted to address this issue head on, but without any people of color present on the Zoom session also exemplified the very issue they were seeking to tackle. The discussions by Black leaders that followed pointed to how Black people shouldn’t have to bear the burden alone of educating white colleagues on racism, but their viewpoints should be present for a meaningful discussion.
Grossman, who hosts a Culture Class series that aims to “keeps leaders smart, culturally relevant and inspired to rebuild the future,” asked Gallop to join his latest session, “How to End Racism, Sexism and Ageism in the Corporate World.” Gallop, who is one of the leading advocates in the ad industry on those topics, sparked a heated back-and-forth ahead of the session with Piers Fawkes, founder of research and events company PSF. He did not think Gallop was qualified to headline the session, even with her ample experience in brand-building and in championing social justice, because the panel lacked someone who was Black to give a first-hand view of the industry’s problems.
Addressing the criticism
Before the event, Fawkes explained in an email to Gallop and Grossman that neither of the panelists was “even remotely qualified to discuss this subject of racism alone” and that their insistence to have the discussion “smacked of white privilege.” “Please, please, bring on another person of color—or 2,” his email concluded.
Gallop addressed the criticism head-on at the beginning of the discussion and throughout her conversation with Grossman, as well as in a private email exchange with Fawkes, noting that Black people are exhausted and should not have to carry the burden of continuing to teach others about racism.
Gallop explained that Black people have said repeatedly that it’s not their role to educate white people, and they especially don’t want to have these conversations anymore for free. “Black people are, quite rightly, now demanding to be paid for diversity and racism advice, education, counseling, speaking,” Gallop wrote.
Gallop said during the session that she is not white, she is biracial (half-Chinese and half-white), and has experienced racism during her career. She called for every single white person to be talking about how to end racism and the personal role they plan to play in that process, every chance they get. “There should be no other topic right now, in any forum, both public and private, whether professional or personal.”
Gallop also outlined during the one-on-one livestreamed interview how hiring and promoting Black talent was key to driving enormous change and ending racism in the industry. Welcoming Black talent, Gallop explained, can equalize “the massive pay and wealth gap that is driven by racism” and prevent the “appalling racist assumption that the Black person is the coffee lady or the janitor.”
When Grossman observed that chief diversity officer positions tend to go to Black and brown people, Gallop answered: “I’m going to speak for those Black and brown people. They don’t want to be the CDO. They want to be the CMO, CEO, CSO. They don’t want to be the [expletive] chief diversity officer.”
Black leaders weigh in
While many Black attendees who tuned in praised Gallop, many also agreed with Fawkes’ critique. They didn’t want to be spoken for; they wanted to be heard.
Among those who appreciated Gallop’s stance was Julianna Akuamoah, chief talent officer at Arnold + Havas Media Boston, who is grateful for those who have the energy so “others can rest and recharge,” she told Adweek, expressing appreciation for the capacity that each of us, no matter our race or background, “can help tackle the diversity gap and racism in unique ways.”
Likewise, Kendra Clarke, vp of data science and product development at cultural consultancy sparks & honey, agreed with Gallop’s point that Black people are tired of having “remedial conversations” about race. “We are tired of justifying our humanity to our colleagues, bosses and leadership teams,” Clarke asserted.
However, Akuamoah and Clarke agreed with the critique that, whether it be a panel, discussion, workshop or one-on-one conversation about Black inclusivity, it needs to include Black people.
“Black people are not a monolith. Some of us may be tired, withdrawn and too hurt to express our point of view in a public forum right now, while others have the energy to demand change,” Akuamoah stated, referring to the urgent demands made by 600 Black advertising professionals in an open letter posted last week.
Clarke added that a full conversation about racism can’t exist without those who have experienced it. “It would be disingenuous for our allies to design a cure without listening to those of us who are most harmed by the disease,” Clarke said.
Gary J. Nix, an international speaker, lecturer and strategic consultant who is outspoken on social media about racism in the industry, reiterated Akuamoah and Clarke’s sentiments, acknowledging that the burden of explaining racism should not be placed on Black people. While white people can explain the findings in the myriad of articles, academic papers and books authored by Black people that explain racism, he said, it’s not a substitute for hearing the perspective of a Black person.
“Any attempt to correct a wrong, or even build a better system, cannot be done without the input of those who have been most affected,” Nix said.
Similarly, Clarke said there are some conversations that can only be had by non-Black people, recalling her experience of witnessing friends’ colleagues becoming emotional when their racist beliefs are revealed to them. But she can’t “describe what it feels like to experience that kind of fragility on the inside.”
She called for non-Black people to relay their experiences as a friend, colleague, lover and ally to Black people—how they have seen anti-Black racism in action. But Clarke clarified that those experiences are still hearsay: “It is what they have read, heard and seen, and not what they have personally experienced.”
The insights gleaned by Akuamoah, Nix and Clarke echo the discussions had by Black industry leaders during Adweek’s State of Revolt virtual event last week. While some had differing opinions on whether Black people need to educate non-Black colleagues on racism, leaders agree there’s a need for more Black talent, both in D&I conversations and, as Gallop had stressed, within workplaces in leadership roles.
“Black voices matter,” Akuoamoah said. “Invite us and let us decide if we want to join. Or better yet, sit in on the panels that we’ve created.”