A year after #BlackOutTuesday, Black business owners reflect on Canada's reckoning with race
As corporations pledge to improve systemic racism, Black-owned businesses forge their own path
It's been just over a year since the murder of George Floyd prompted a reckoning on race that spread from streets to corporate boardrooms.
The movement also sparked #BlackOutTuesday — an effort led by Black record industry executives calling for a disruption of the work week to protest the deaths of Black people in police custody.
But as 29-year-old fashion designer Tilda Ruvinga saw brands jump on the social media trend by posting black squares on their feeds, she was upset.
"My old job had said 'Black Lives Matter' and posted a black square. It was a fashion brand — it never had any models of colour and I had just found out I was getting paid less than everyone else," she said, speaking outside her home studio in Vancouver.
"So at the time it was like — do Black lives really matter, or is this just people saying stuff?"
Pushback to the social media trend saw corporations and individuals pledge to donate to Black organizations, support Black-owned businesses, and hire Black people in recognition of the systemic barriers that exist across every industry.
The profits at Ruvinga's business, TK by Tilda, grew by 300 per cent in the immediate aftermath — but dropped steadily in the months that followed. The surge in support, followed by a sharp decline, prompted many Black business owners, artists and entrepreneurs to wonder: how, one year after the birth of a global movement, to make sure the fight for racial justice is sustained?
In June 2020 Kaya Marriott, a Vancouver-based blogger, noticed web traffic spike wildly on a post she'd written to highlight Black-owned businesses in Canada.
Like Ruvinga, she remembers the week of #BlackOutTuesday as feeling "heavy" as brands posted statements of solidarity with the Black community that she felt were performative.
"They're the same brands where you go to their page and there is barely any representation in the images that they're sharing. They're not brands that are partnering with influencers that look like me — they're the brands that you try to pitch them a collaboration and they're like, 'No, you don't fit our look,' — though they won't come out and say it," she said.
Marriott said in June her blog traffic indicated that people were clicking through her posts and even spending money at Black-owned businesses.
She also found herself inundated with requests from brands as they sought to fulfil their pledges to work with more Black Canadians, though the messages began to drop off within a few weeks.
"I even posted at the end of June, 'Does anybody feel like the Blackness trend is over, or is it just me?'" she said.
Justin Tisdall, the co-owner of Juke Fried Chicken and Beetbox in Vancouver, said he long remained behind the scenes of his businesses, not wanting his background to be at the forefront of his work.
The week that black squares flooded his feeds, which coincided with the birth of his second child, was the first time he started to be more vocal.
"What I've seen so far is most of the Black community has gotten together and is pushing things forward — financially, education-wise, mentorship — that's really growing and that's great to see," he said.
"But I think that needs to break out beyond the Black community and have some people who might have louder voices or deeper pockets to spread some education and awareness."
'We need to be at the table'
A report published by the Canadian Black Chamber of Commerce in March found that banks and public policymakers need to do more to help Black-owned businesses overcome systemic obstacles, saying the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the systemic problems that previously existed.
It's a finding echoed by Nerissa Allen, founder of the Black Business Association of B.C. Allen started the non-profit in late 2019, offering workshops and mentoring to Black business owners.
She said support from the private sector and from government has the power to boost Black businesses in a more sustainable way than individual consumers can.
"We find that people are still looking for Black businesses to support ... but where I see it picking up is from the organizational perspective. We're seeing the government looking to increase supply chain diversity and they're putting their money where their mouth is," said Allen.
"I think we need to be at the table where these conversations are happening, where these strategies are happening, in order to ensure that the policies that are being created reflect the needs and the demands of the community."
Marriott said she understands why the boost in support she experienced last June was short term — adding there are so many causes to support, it can be overwhelming for even the most supportive consumers.
"For example, right now I would love to put together a highlight reel of Indigenous businesses — that's something I think deserves a lot of attention right now. All anyone can try to do is build in a long-term sustainable plan," she said.
Ruvinga said she hopes support for Black businesses won't hinge on times when acts of violence push racism into the public conversation.
"Going forward we shouldn't just do things because we're feeling guilty. We should do things because they're the right thing to do."
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.