Calgary·Point of View

Black History Month: I wish marketers would stop doing this every February

It’s so frustrating to see organizations receive praise for amplifying Black voices in February only to be completely silent for the other 337 days of the year, says Tomi Ajele.

If you’re using oppressed communities to better your corporate image and increase your profits, it’s not okay

Two attendees at a protest against police violence and racism in Calgary last summer. This movement had us all drowning in a sea of black squares and corporate commitments to anti-racism, many of which were nothing but lip service, says Tomi Ajele. (Leah Hennel for CBC News)

February is Black History Month. To mark it, The Road Ahead has asked several Black Albertans to share their personal stories and their hopes for the future of this province. Today's column is by writer, editor and communications practitioner Tomi Ajele.

As a Black communications professional, I have a thing or two to say about organizations using Black History Month as a marketing opportunity. 

To be clear, when I say "Black History Month," I'm not just talking about Black History Month. I'm referring to any moment in time when a marginalized group is in focus and taking up space in public dialogue.

These "moments" create what one might call a "communications opportunity" for organizations and, for better or worse, we see these opportunities being seized a lot in the business world. 

Whether it's a special campaign in February or corporate colours being swapped out for a rainbow in June, there's one thing I can almost always count on from businesses: radio silence for the rest of the year.

This year, Black folks didn't just get one moment where we were the centre of public dialogue. The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer had us all drowning in a sea of black squares and corporate commitments to anti-racism. 

The whole "to make a corporate statement about racism or not to make a corporate statement?" question put businesses in an interesting position, and I'll be honest, at times it was hard to watch.

As a communications practitioner, I get the dilemma.

A few options

Whether it's February (Black History Month), June (Pride month), or the summer of 2020 (global Black Lives Matter revolution), we can't argue that these moments create opportunities to take a stand for organizational values or, at the very least, contribute to the conversation.

During moments like this, organizations have a few options.

One option is to remain silent; but silence is never really silent, it speaks volumes.

Another option is to engage in temporary campaigns and pay lip service. I see lots of organizations choosing the second option, most likely thinking that this option is harmless at worst and helpful at best. I would argue that these types of communication tactics are tacky at best and exploitive at worst.

But businesses are in luck, because there is a third option to pursue – actually caring.

So what does this look like, practically? What do I want to see from businesses as they aim to celebrate the Black community during Black History Month? And how do you participate in conversations about marginalized communities without being exploitive?

There are two main things I look for – collaboration and consistency. 

Collaboration

Collaboration means a couple of things, but primarily, "nothing about us without us."

It's actually really simple, and I'm not sure how organizations continue to get this wrong. Don't develop a campaign that speaks to or about a community without including that community in every stage of the campaign-building process. If you need a case study, look at Righteous Gelato

Calgary gelato company Righteous Gelato pulled mention of a chocolate mint chip gelato from their website and social media channels after receiving criticism online. Collaboration means a couple of things, but primarily, “nothing about us without us,” says Tomi Ajele. (Twitter)

Ideally, the collaboration would start long before the campaign-building even begins.

I believe that true collaboration requires humility, and I think corporate humility is taking a step back, looking around, and asking, "Who is already doing this work? Is there any way I can support them? Do they want my support?"

Don't try to be a hero. Don't try to win any awards for cutting-edge, inspiringly inclusive campaigns (I'm looking at you, Nike); that's not your award to win. Just support and amplify those who are already doing the work. 

Consistency

It's so frustrating to see organizations receive praise for amplifying Black voices in February only to be completely silent for the other 337 days of the year. 

If you're not actively employing people who have been made vulnerable by our system, people who are directly affected by the issues you claim to care about as an organization, then there's a disconnect.

If you're not allowing your organization to be governed by people with lived experiences of intersectional oppression, and you're claiming to care about systemic inequality, then there's a disconnect.

If you're not diligently working year-round to foster an anti-oppressive environment within your organization, then these campaigns truly aren't a reflection of your company values.

These campaigns are nothing but lip service, and it's not harmless. You're using oppressed communities to better your corporate image and ultimately increase your profits. It's not okay.

As a communications practitioner, I've been asked to develop campaigns like this. As a Black woman, I've been asked to model for campaigns like this, and as a Black consumer, I have felt exploited by campaigns like this.

If, as an organization, your internal practices (from written policies to living culture) don't reflect the values you're claiming to stand for, then maybe you should start there. 

If your campaigns are showing up on screen and they're not collaborative in nature and built on a foundation of consistency, then no thank you, next.

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.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tomi Ajele holds a communications degree from Mount Royal University and has been working in the marketing and communications industry for seven years. Tomi is currently an editor at Afros In Tha City, a media collective dedicated to amplifying Black voices in Mohkínstsis/Calgary.

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