The Race Problem: Multicultural Death Traps

By Matt Van Hoven 

We’ve made a few observations about the conversations going on in private on the subject of race in the business. I want to talk about them here but for no other reason that to learn what you’re all feeling on the subjects I’m about to introduce. Since I’m a white guy and pretty much every attempt I made to get an ad job out of college was thwarted I can’t really speak from experience. Rather I’ll just ask some questions and let you do the answering.

Whenever I talk to people about what it’s like working at a multicultural shop, this thing happens where the conversation inevitably turns to how once you go black, you never go back. I’m talking about how people seem to feel that once you work in a multicultural shop, particularly if you start your career in one, you’re stuck there.

Before anyone throws in the “well, that’s true for pharma, automotive, cereal etc so this argument is moot” I contend that multicultural shops, form a theoretical standpoint should be the breeding ground for the rest of the industry.

Once You Go Multicultural
I’m probably going to sound racist here but it’s my perception that by and large, black culture drives (note: I never know if black or African American is the more appropriate usage so since I refer to myself as white and not Italian American or Dutch American, I don’t think I’m being insensitive) a lot of what’s considered culturally important here in the US. I think a lot of people agree with me &#151 and I’m no where near the first to make that point I just want to set a precedent that this is where I’m coming from. I’m not a cultural anthropologist.

Make the Logo Fresher
So now that we’ve established that black culture is at the forefront of that which is culturally new/valid/important, let’s get to the next piece: advertising as a rule is bat shit crazy for that which is new, culturally relevant, hot etc. How many times has someone said to you &#151 “I want this campaign to feel fresh?” I’ve heard it and I only marginally worked in an agency.

Another pattern I hear is that (let’s generalize with non-white here) multicultural agency people tend to get stuck in those shops and so based on this rule it’s presumable they are just chock full of black, asian, indian, iranian cultures etc.

OK enough of the setting up &#151 if black culture drives American culture and multicultural shops are filled with all manner of non-white folk, many of whom are possibly black, shouldn’t these agencies be like the farm fields of the industry &#151 ripe with the leaders of tomorrow? Are white folk really so bull-headed that they turn down good/really good applicants because they look different? What’s happening that’s preventing them from taking off? Why? Inform this dumb journo please, as to what your thoughts are on the subject. I don’t get it.

I want to reiterate that this is not a masked criticism of anything. Maybe it should be, but I’m trying to ask this in a way that people won’t get defensive. I’ve generalized quite a bit in here so I’m definitely ripe for some potshots. But someone asked me to name an Asian ECD or a female black CD and well shit I couldn’t do it and now I have to know why that is. Can you do it?

More: “Diversity in Advertising Career Day: The Winners, The Losers, The Posturing