How Not to Pander During Black History Month*

(A Lesson for BLMWashers)


In an article I wrote last June after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, “Don’t Let BLMwashing Become the New Greenwashing,” I coined this new term to describe how companies talk about Black Lives Matter without backing it up with tangible actions. Just as greenwashing makes companies and their products appear to be more environmentally responsible than they really are, BLMwashing makes companies appear to be more diverse, integrated, and safe spaces for people of color than they actually are.


So here we are at our first Black History Month after a lot of white companies and individuals have woken up to the rampant racism in every structure of our world. Companies want to show the world that they’re on the right side of history, and they often do so by incorporating Black History Month into their communications and social media.


While these companies’ intentions might be noble, Black people can see right through these fake, performative words, and platitudes can actually do more harm for your brand than good.


Philadelphia-based journalist Ernest Owens wrote in the Washington Post,

“Just like Pride Month, Black History Month has become a routine time of year when corporations say the absolute most while doing the least for marginalized communities. As a Black queer millennial, I’ve grown tired of both June and February because I find myself feeling more insulted than inspired by the way the same companies who deny both of my identities any other time of the year find it suddenly mandatory to suggest otherwise.”

Hey…I’m a marketer. I know how to make things look better than they actually are. I know how the system works and what powers companies' messaging.


But this is the time when companies (and individuals) have no right to celebrate Black history and culture unless they are walking their talk every day of the week. I outline ten general ways organizations can do this in “Ten Ways White People Can Support Black Coworkers.” I've included a brief snapshot below. To find specific ways your company can create a more welcoming and affirming place for Black coworkers, ask them yourself. But do that in a safe way where they feel comfortable sharing what’s really going on behind the scenes, either in a Black employee network group, one-on-one conversation, or ideally, anonymously.



And if any of the following statements apply to your organization, you should not be publicly celebrating Black History Month. Instead, you should be focusing on the work you have yet to do.


Listening

If you are not regularly listening to the Black and other people of color on your team (and their allies and accomplices), you have no idea whether you are walking your talk.


Supporting

If you do not have SAFE employee affinity groups to support your employees of color, you have no right to talk about how much you value diversity in the workplace.

Promoting

If you haven’t outlined clear succession plans for women of color to take their seat around the boardroom table, you should not talk about how you offer opportunities to women.


Demonstrating

If you haven’t replaced key leaders who depart with highly qualified people of color, you should not share videos of your CEO discussing Black history.


Protecting

If you don’t have easy, anonymous ways for people of color and women to report harassment or unsafe workplaces, you cannot talk about strong employee culture.


Reflecting and improving

If you haven’t examined your organization’s racism and biases on a deep level and made a plan with a professional on how to fix these issues, you should not celebrate Black History Month.


Amber Ruffin makes the excellent point in this video that we need a White History Month to truly understand the truth behind our glossed-over history. Instead of just sharing quotes by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or photos of Ruby Bridges, we who are white need to take the time to learn the history that is crucial to understanding our own country.


Ernest Owens continues,

“Until corporations find concrete ways to address the ongoing ways they directly hurt Black communities, they should stop their farcical marketing campaigns celebrating Black History Month. Right now, Black History Month is more about corporations telling us how they appreciate Black culture instead of showing us.”

And if you truly want to celebrate, how about reparations?


Give your Black employees time off, a bonus, a raise, or a promotion to show much you appreciate them.


They deserve it.


And don’t publicize it.


*Read about how Black History Month got started in this article about my interview with Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of Real American: A Memoir.


Contact me for more information about how to communicate effectively in the workplace. 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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