Founder and chief executive officer of digital strategy firm Red Dot Digital and business matchmaking platform B2BeeMatch
I recently received a promotional e-mail from a meal kit company featuring an image of a Black woman and four Black boys of various ages. They all looked happy, and were enjoying the promoted products, which were advertised as being for families. You’re probably thinking: What’s the problem?
The problem is that this image told a very different story than I think the company intended. There’s a persistent and well-known stereotype that Black families don’t have fathers – that Black fathers are unreliable, irresponsible and often leave their spouses and children. So an image of a Black family with a mother but no father reiterates a harmful caricature. It was like getting a slap in the face, right there in my inbox.
And that, in turn, tells me another story. It tells me that this company may have good intentions about portraying a diverse range of families in its marketing materials, but they probably don’t have any Black people on their marketing team, or at least nobody who felt safe enough to speak up about such a misstep or had the authority to change the featured images of the campaign. It means that whoever was making the decisions about this marketing campaign felt it was okay to simply choose any picture with Black people in it without knowing how to read or understand the meaning of those visuals, and without thinking it was important to learn.
At least, that’s the background story I think this image tells. I doubt the creatives behind the campaign were being intentionally racist, but how can I know for sure? In situations like this, how can we ever know what’s deliberate compared with what’s ignorant? Where bad intentions end and systemic problems begin?
Is an insult ignorant, or is it intentional?
It’s really hard to tell from the outside. All I can say is this: It hurts. And it costs me a lot of energy to try and figure out where this kind of racism is coming from and how to respond. On a bad day, such an incident makes me feel like, despite all the talk about diversity and inclusion (D&I), the business world is not making progress. It feels like we’re getting punked – and by “we,” I mean Black people, but also people from other marginalized groups who are frequently misrepresented or stereotyped.
I often choose to ignore it. But this kind of outside evidence of poorly executed or insufficient D&I can have a discouraging impact and make people more cynical. Even when a company has good intentions, if their approach is superficial, their execution will suffer – and so will we.
Authentic D&I needs to be about empathy and human experience, not ticking boxes at the minimum possible level. I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t have those boxes. Quotas of all kinds can be useful as training wheels until people understand that the bare minimum is not enough. But ultimately, D&I has to be an authentic effort to understand and represent a wide range of people. It’s so much deeper than just slapping a picture of Black people on an e-mail campaign.
Microaggressions have macro impact
Versions of the same problem show up in places other than marketing materials, too. For instance, recently someone called me to ask for advice about hiring Black people. In our conversation, the person referred to Black people as “these people.” Again, here, we’re looking at a classic insult that, on its surface, seems innocuous. “These people” is a way of not-so-subtly emphasizing that a group of people is outside your circle or clique; it’s a way to lump a whole group together as though they were all the same, and to separate yourself and to push them away – which usually means pushing them down.
A similar turn of phrase got a lot of press when hockey commentator Don Cherry used it in a rant against immigrants a couple of years ago, but it’s not new. It’s very often directed at racialized groups, so we’re especially aware of how it gets used. It’s just one of the many microaggressions that often come up in the workplace and elsewhere – small, everyday, under-the-radar instances of ignorance and prejudice that can poison a workplace or other environment.
In this case, it told me that while the person wanted to hire Black people, they hadn’t put in the work to understand how to be respectful and truly see us as equals who deserve opportunities. It told me that anyone I referred to them would be subjected to similar microaggressions. It didn’t make me want to help because I knew I’d have to battle that ignorance at every step.
When it comes to misrepresentation, stereotyping and being treated like an outsider, I don’t know what people’s motivations are. But I do see the outcomes of their choices, and I do have to decide whether to trust them and how to manage my interactions with them. It’s extra effort that non-marginalized people don’t have to make.
I live this in the business world, but the core of this isn’t business. It’s human – like all of us. And I want my fellow humans to do better.
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