In the past week, the Commonwealth of Virginia was the focus of many heated discussions across the nation. Of course, the attention this ongoing discourse has attracted has been a source of significant embarrassment and shame. However, the use of blackface is not new to Virginia, the South or even our country as a whole. Almost certainly, yearbooks have featured folks in blackface and Klan robes both above and below the Mason–Dixon line, but I don’t want to attribute geographic blame here. I believe this collision of insensitivity has presented us with an unexpected chance to improve (at least in part) this situation.
It has not been lost on me and many others that the revelations in Virginia are occurring in February, which marks Black History Month. In 1926, Carter G. Woodson established the first-ever Negro History Week to celebrate Black Americans for their achievements and contributions to U.S. culture and the financial accomplishments of the nation. This week was chosen because it coincided with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln on February 12 and Frederick Douglass on February 14. This week should be a week of celebration.
Anyone can perform a quick Google search to glean the basic historical context of blackface. As such, I will refrain from attempting to educate you on the topic or explain why some people think it isn’t worthy of national concern.
This issue isn’t confined to the past. Today, racial bias remains embedded in the landscape of the marketplace and the homogeneity of upper management and other leadership factions. It underscores the fact that we consistently fail to heed the timeless warning of “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.”
Think about it. We once supported brand characters like the Lever Brothers’ (now Unilever) Gold Dust Twins and continue to have Aunt Jemima (now owned by Quaker Oats), Uncle Ben’s (Mars Food) and Cream of Wheat’s Rastus (B&G Foods). It is clear that race continues to be infused in many of today’s business practices and can lead to the success or failure of brands. Even the most cynical, who care only about the bottom line, should acknowledge that it’s smart business to recognize the importance of diversity and the need to develop well-trained, diverse teams.
I am simply shocked by Gucci’s blackface sweater and Adidas’s all-white sneakers to “Celebrate Black Culture.” Let me clarify: I am shocked by our inability to understand that brands and agencies need to have diverse decision-making teams to prevent this from happening. It’s not enough to have people of color “in the room.”
Diversity isn’t about headcount; it’s about heads that count. When people of color and other underrepresented groups hold positions of power, they can prevent this type of horrifying decision from ever impacting the marketplace.
I don’t mean that this task should fall on the shoulders of one or a few, but we need to establish a new workplace norm that embraces a culture of diversity. Diversity shouldn’t enter the conversation only after a brand or an advertising campaign offends people; brands should make an active commitment to diversity for the sake of positive change. We create this diversity—not to the exclusion of anyone, but the acceptance of everyone. Until the demographics of our business leaders resemble the demographics of our marketplace, we will be doomed to repeat history’s mistakes.
Just last year, H&M put a young black boy in a “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle” T-shirt, Prada displayed unabashedly racist imagery in their storefront window and Dove released an ad in which a black woman became white. Clearly, we have yet to grasp the idea that our talk about change isn’t enough. Some changes happen through revolution and others through evolution, but both processes require more than lip service.
This country is so fortunate to be characterized by a beautiful patchwork of people from different backgrounds, cultures and communities. When treated with the respect and honor it deserves, this gift of diversity can help us avoid repeating past mistakes and reflect more proactively on our present and future. We must be committed to creating, nurturing and sustaining diversity in the workplace, not only because it’s good for business but because it’s the right thing to do. Period.