What you are about to read here is not revolutionary. It’s probably a version of a hundred different opinion pieces, and if I’m honest that sometimes makes me wonder whether I should bother.
Especially when I write about race.
I am white, I am learning, I am no expert, and I definitely make mistakes at times. I obsess over whether my voice is valid; should I leave the discourse to people who are actually living the issues I write about; is my presence patronising; or even worse am I acting like some kind of white saviour – step aside, they’ll listen to me, for I am white?
But while this might not be perfect or original, maybe it will be the first time one of you has read about these ideas. Maybe there is space for this because it might just encourage one more person to start learning (and unlearning) too.
This blog post has been in the thinking for a few weeks because while diversity and inclusion seeming to be very much “on trend” in the advertising world at the moment – hello John Lewis, Debenhams, McCain, Ikea, River Island advertising campaigns just to name a few – it is concerning how often brands are getting it wrong.
I fear that brands are literally treating inclusion and diversity as a trend. Perhaps they want the zeitgeist light that shines on them as a result of engaging with popular opinion, the problem being it will ultimately be replaced by something else?
Or is that unfair?
Are these brands truly investing in inclusion and diversity, not as part of some patronising pity parade, nor as a PR exercise to make themselves look good, but because they believe inclusivity to be right, as well as recognising the importance of it to the long-term health and wealth of their businesses, organisations and industries?
Two days ago Lupita Nyong’o took to social media to criticise Grazia’s treatment of her hair.
In response she was called ungrateful, over-sensitive and rude. In a fairly typical example of white privilege at play the argument was that no cover stars are given approval on their pictures, while all cover stars are subject to editorial decisions. This is the case regardless of race and Lupita shouldn’t expect special treatment.
What they were all missing however, is the implication of editing black hair.
You don’t have to Google too deep to find accounts of many black women who have already explained that their hair is political, and touching it symbolic of a wider hurt. There is a reason #dtmh – don’t touch my hair – exists on social media.
In (extreme) brief, black hair was forcibly cut and covered up during slave times, so to touch a black woman’s hair either physically, or via the impersonal stroke of a Photoshop cursor, is to echo the acts of violence perpetrated against them over the centuries.
But also, many black women today will talk about how they endure invasions of their personal space as white people ask to touch their hair, play with it, pet it, and call it “difficult”; they will tell you how natural hair is considered unprofessional, and how Eurocentric standards of beauty tell them that afro hair is unattractive.
It’s impossible for me to really understand how this feels, but I do know I have no right to tell someone else how they should feel about it. So tell me again why a black woman shouldn’t complain when part of her hair is edited out of a picture, and the natural texture is removed from the rest?
And while you’re at it, perhaps you can tell me why an apology that amounts to nothing more than ducking blame and playground finger-pointing should be treated with anything other than derision?
Having already got it wrong, Grazia’s apology then compounded the insult by failing to demonstrate a willingness to listen and learn. They had an opportunity to embrace what Lupita called out, and to influence the attitudes of thousands of white women more effectively than endless silent covers of voiceless black faces.
And they fucked it.
The statement lacked any acknowledgement of the hurt the cover caused. There was no attempt to engage with the explanation that Lupita provided as to why she found the cover insulting. There was no attempt to learn.
So while the question Whose fault is this? is important, the bigger question becomes How inclusive are you really, Grazia? Who is in charge? Who is on the editorial staff? Whose voices are being listened to behind the scenes when decisions are being made? Who is on the PR team that put together that apology?
94% of journalists in Britain are white, compared to 87% of the general workforce; 3% of the UK population is black, compared to only 0.2% of working journalists; 7% of the general population are Asian, compared to just 2.5% of working journalists*. The more senior the position the worse the imbalance gets, the irony being that publications only suffer as a result of their thudding uniformity.
I’d like to think that most white people do not believe that POC are less able than we are, so why the resistance? Surely we have to be ready to accept there is something underhand at play here?
Because let’s not pretend this is an issue that only faces journalism. On this occasion Grazia got it wrong but we only have to look back at the last few months to know that a lack of representation in The Room, stretches much further: Pepsi created an advert that took a life and death issue and turned it into a commercial opportunity, while delivering the double blow of a white saviour coming to the rescue; Dove recently declared a product was for use on Normal to Dark Skin; Boden designed a skirt for children full of mermaids with only white skin and long European hair, and then posted proudly about it on Instagram; and L’Oreal sacked black, trans model Munroe Bergdorf after it revealed she had previously spoken out against white supremacy.
We all know these examples are only a fraction of what is really going on in businesses, institutions and industries up and down our country, so while increasing the visibility of POC is important, we also have to turn up the volume at which we hear their voices.
It is not good enough for brands to promote themselves using images of POC, while failing to engage with the issues POC face. It is not good enough to apologise after the event when it could have been avoided entirely if your workforce was more diverse. Responsibility has to be owned and actions have to be taken because representation everywhere matters.