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Don’t Let BLMwashing Become the New Greenwashing

Updated: Feb 21, 2022

Last night my husband and I were watching Episode 3 of Queer Eye’s new season. The Fab Five help 27-year-old Black writer Tyreek Wanamaker make a new, more confident reset on his life. We both gasped a little when Bobby Berk, one of my favorites, took Tyreek to Anthropologie to buy his branded wallpaper. We gasped because a few weeks ago, Anthropologie was outed by former employees for racial profiling in its stores and also for not paying Black artists, while at the same time declaring its support for Black Lives Matter on its social media pages.

Photo by Gbriela Juri (Scopio images)

Of course Anthropologie’s corporate headquarters denies using racist tactics, but I wonder who we can believe: actual former employees or corporate marketing? Take it from a corporate marketer: there’s got to be some truth in the former employees’ allegation. After all, Anthropologie and its parent company, Urban Outfitters, have a history for racism…using racist vintage items in oversized candlesticks and selling all sorts of racist/anti-Semitic/anti-Muslim/clueless items. What do its former employees have to gain by lying about this tactic?

What Is BLMwashing?

As white people finally wake up to Black Lives Matter (BLM) and the fact that Black, indigeneous, and other people of color (BIPOC) face far higher societal, economic, public safety, environmental, and physical and mental health risks as a result of structural racism, companies are issuing statements supporting BLM and racial justice. (See the footnote at the bottom if you’re wondering about why I capitalized Black and what BIPOC means.)

Photo by Nour Chamon (Scopio)

As readers know, I’ve been encouraging companies and individuals to take a stand on Black Lives Matter and take actions that make their workplaces more welcoming and affirming to all people of color. In “Ten Ways White People Can Support Black Coworkers,” I remind companies, “You’ve GOT TO BE AUTHENTIC. Don’t just do it for the PR. That is called performative. Be real and mean it.” Whether you are an individual person or a brand, words are meaningless if they’re not reinforced by real, tangible goals and actions.

“Greenwashing” is a well-known term among sustainability professionals. Greenwashing makes companies and their products appear to be more environmentally responsible than they really are. In the sustainability world, we often see companies touting their sustainability practices while not walking their talk by measuring and tracking their own company’s environmental performance.

Enter “BLMwashing.” That’s what Anthropologie and so many other companies have done.

Do not succumb to BLMwashing. It’s just going to make the situation worse, and BIPOC and those who care about them are not going to trust you.

Check out this excellent compendium of BLM Brand Responses, which explores whether they have tangible actions tied to them. You’ll see plentiful examples of BLMwashing in this list.

How to Detect BLMwashing

After I published my article, “The Weapons of White Tears” on my personal blog, a former coworker sent me a private message on LinkedIn. She said I could share her story if I kept her identity anonymous.

I’ll call her Lisa. She’s a woman of color. After three months at her previous employer (a highly regarded design firm in Portland), Lisa met with her white female leader to share some concerns about things happening in her office. For example, she heard comments about how inappropriate it is to speak Spanish in the workplace, while also fielding questions about the best Mexican restaurants. She was greeted in conference rooms with deafening silence. This leader listened and expressed concern, and then she cried and told Lisa how hurt she was. The boss completely derailed the meeting.

Now Lisa had to comfort her boss, calm her, and make her feel better about the racism she was experiencing. The boss then held a follow-up meeting and invited another white female coworker to discuss "the incidents.”

Lisa watched them cry together and hug one another, while she sat, alone. She was being called an equity specialist and asked to push out the message of racial equity, while simultaneously being told her concerns about racism at the office were unfounded.

Lisa’s white female boss weaponized her tears and made herself into the victim, rather than addressing Lisa’s concerns of equity problems in the company. Lisa decided she could no longer work there, and she found another job. Her boss probably has no idea why.

Today I went to this company's website, and sure enough, they have a statement saying they are challenging systemic racism and diversity, equity, and inclusion. They list no real goals or tangible actions. Only 1/25th of its leadership team appears to be Black. We know that BIPOC are not safe there. It’s a local, homegrown case of BLMwashing pure and simple.

Here’s the upshot: if you are not regularly listening to the BIPOC on your team (and their allies and accomplices), you have no idea whether you are walking your talk.

This particular company has no idea it is BLMwashing, because “Lisa” didn’t feel safe enough to tell them when she left the company. Are you creating safe spaces for BIPOC? Are you promoting BIPOC to executive positions? Do they have clear succession plans and champions for advancement? Do they have safe spaces to talk candidly with other people from their race?

Aiko Bethea, principal of RARE Coaching & Consulting and a senior consultant for Frontline Solutions, gives an outstanding list of 11 tangible actions companies should be making in her “Open Letter to Corporate America, Philanthropy, Academia, etc.: What Now?” If your company is hiring a consultant to develop a diversity, equity, and inclusion program, are you hiring a person of color or minority-owned business?

Bethea shares the story of being searched at one of her former employers where she served as part of the leadership team, as her white colleagues walked past wondering what she did wrong. “The security team learned that a bag was taken,” wrote Bethea. “My bag looked nothing like the one reported missing, but I was the first Black person seen coming from the direction where the bag was reported missing. After this, I never brought my sons to that campus again and increased my efforts to transition out of that organization.”

You don't have to be a company to indulge in BLMwashing. Individuals can do that as well.

Many Black folks have noticed that suddenly their white acquaintances have woken up to racism, while it's always been there. If you're posting about BLM in your social media feeds but not educating yourself about systemic racism (starter resources here) and actively working to dismantle it in your communities, you too are BLMwashing. If you're not comfortable attending a protest march, are you talking to your white friends and family about racism? Are you standing up for BIPOC when they make a racist remark?

Best Practice of Walking Your Talk

I’ve been working on website content for a new client, The Formation Lab, an

outstanding example of how to walk your talk in this work. The Formation Lab helps clients form a more equitable future by supporting disadvantaged businesses; helping organizations become more inclusive; and integrating social equity into every aspect of planning, design, and management of public infrastructure. The company is extremely clear on its mission. Not only does it donate 10 percent of its labor hours to community organizations and disadvantaged businesses dedicated to improving equity and social justice, but it also sponsors events and donates to socially supportive community organizations and commits to providing office space and advocacy for minority-owned businesses.

How Is Fertile Ground Communications Walking Its Talk?

I’ve been fortunate to learn from some great clients in my first year of business as I think about my own mission and operations. I observed how my client Leber IP Law knows the secrets of operating virtually and builds a supportive employee culture while working across the miles. Another client, Donaldson Consulting LLC, walks its talk by working only with subconsultants that are certified as disadvantaged, women-owned, or minority-owned businesses, while also volunteering with community and professional organizations that support these businesses. And I love The Formation Lab’s commitment to 10 percent pro bono work for community organizations and disadvantaged businesses.

Here’s my commitment for Fertile Ground Communications. The items below in italics are aspirations and goals, and the rest I’m already doing:

  • Write about racial justice; diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace; and creating more safe workspaces for BIPOC. I can’t keep quiet about these issues. They are a personal passion.

  • Use images and stories of BIPOC in my writing and on my website, and remind my clients of the need for representation online and in company demographics. Last year during a second job interview at a predominantly white law firm panel, I asked, “What are you doing to improve the diversity of your workforce?” I didn’t get the job, thank God. I’m grateful to have a platform where I can talk freely about diversity and commit to walking the talk.

  • Continue to advance my own anti-racism education. In the past few years, I’ve committed to reading books and watching TV and films by and about people from underrepresented communities (non-white cis men, generally). I’ve read many books and watched many films about racial justice, but I am always needing to learn more. Right now I'm listening to Me and White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad, which has a series of reflection questions at the end of each chapter. Unlearning racism is a lifelong commitment.

  • Commit to at least 10 percent of pro bono work for community organizations that work for racial, immigration, and gender justice. This is way higher for me in my first year in business, around 40 to 50 percent. This number will decrease as my business grows with more paying clients. I’ve done pro bono communication work for The Immigrant Story nonprofit, Pantsuit Nation Oregon Chapter, Portland’s first Latino mayor candidate Ozzie Gonzalez, and my progressive church, Spirit of Grace, which has a fierce commitment to racial and social justice.

  • Make regular monetary donations to and spotlight anti-racism organizations. My husband and I regularly give to social justice organizations, but lately our contributions have been to Black Lives Matter organizations. When I write about racial justice, I commit to making a monetary donation each time. This week I donated to the Black Resilience Fund, which provides immediate support for Black Portlanders, including a warm meal, groceries, and unpaid bills, and has a goal to raise $1 million by Juneteenth.

  • Give my money to BIPOC and minority-owned businesses when I need to hire vendors. I haven’t had to do much of this yet, but when I do, I will seek out BIPOC businesses as I research possibilities.

  • Seek to hire BIPOC when I expand my business. I will endeavor to hire BIPOCs when my business grows. And I commit to being open to feedback and making sure I am creating a safe workplace for BIPOC.

Olive Bukuru (photo by The Immigrant Story)
  • Feature BIPOC businesses and individuals on my new podcast. Yes! I’m going to launch a podcast next month, "Finding Fertile Ground," and I commit to hosting at least half of the guests from underrepresented groups, including BIPOC, women, LBGTQIA, non-Christians, and immigrants. Stay tuned! My first guest will be Olive Bukuru, a young Black woman who immigrated from Burundi, and she is a bright spark. Stay tuned!

Whether you are an individual or work for a company, the next time you express support for BLM, ask yourself the question: "Am I BLMwashing?"

How can you pair that statement of support with tangible actions or commitments to advocate for BLM and other BIPOC in your everyday life, from here on out? Black people are being lynched, people. We have so much work to do in this broken United States of America. What will you do to keep the movement going?

Note: We should capitalize “Black” because it indicates an ethnic group. I also consider it to be a measure of long-deserved respect. BIPOC is a relatively new acronym that promotes inclusion of all people of color who have also been mistreated, misrepresented and discriminated against for the color of their skin, their culture, or their way of life. However, it’s often preferable to use a person’s racial or ethnic designation or tribe (Black, Japanese, Chinese, Yakama Tribe) instead, depending on the situation. Writer Gabby Beckford explains these terms beautifully, and explains when to use them and the term African-American, in this blog post.

Contact me for more information about building or revamping your website or advancing your marketing communications. With over 30 years of experience in the environmental consulting industry, I am passionate about sustainability and corporate citizenship, equity & inclusion, businesses that use their power for good, and doing everything I can to create a kinder, more sustainable, and just world.

Fertile Ground Communications LLC is a certified women-owned business enterprise, disadvantaged business enterprise, and emerging small business.

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