It takes more than a hash­tag to tackle racism

The National - News - - FRONT PAGE - SHELINA JANMOHAMED Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Head­scarf and Gen­er­a­tion M: Young Mus­lims Chang­ing the World

When George Floyd was killed in po­lice cus­tody, it felt as though the world had fi­nally be­gun to pay at­ten­tion to racism and its dev­as­tat­ing con­se­quences. Brands and busi­nesses saw this too. In the weeks of protests and state­ments that en­sued, brands spoke up, var­i­ously con­demn­ing the killing, as­sert­ing their po­si­tions against racism and sup­port­ing the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment.

This might have been un­usual even a decade ear­lier when com­pa­nies could stay neu­tral. To­day, brands are ex­pected to take a stand on what is hap­pen­ing in the world. Some con­sumers want the prod­ucts they buy to toe an eth­i­cal line and for busi­nesses to have a point of view, as do the em­ploy­ees of those brands. This is all well and good but now that so­cial me­dia posts have been pushed fur­ther down our feeds, what is next for brands? How are they ex­pected to be­have?

Con­sumers are of­ten cyn­i­cal about com­pa­nies mak­ing any real change. They point to his­toric brand be­hav­iours, where a com­pany may de­clare sup­port for a cause but move along as soon as me­dia at­ten­tion sub­sides. This cre­ates an im­pres­sion that brands merely of­fer lip ser­vice to trend­ing causes and then for­get about them. Take Ap­ple and Nike, for ex­am­ple, among the many brands who put up mes­sages about tack­ling racism. They were quickly called out by peo­ple who posted pic­tures of their all-white lead­er­ship teams and crit­i­cised them for not prac­tis­ing what they preached. Even when brands seem to be do­ing the right thing, there is the prob­lem of nav­i­gat­ing a back­lash.

In the US, the Aunt Jemima brand of syrup and pan­cake mix by Quaker, owned by Pep­siCo, an­nounced it would change its name and brand be­cause they were based on racial stereo­types that date back to the era of slav­ery and black min­strels. It was a de­ci­sion that caused some con­tro­versy. In Ari­zona last month, a speaker at a rally for US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump called Aunt Jemima a “pic­ture of the Amer­i­can dream” and said that “the left­ist mob is try­ing to erase her legacy”. Brands, it would ap­pear, are as con­tested in cul­ture wars as stat­ues.

In the UK, two pop­u­lar brands, York­shire Tea and PG Tips, de­cided that the way to tackle such a back­lash was to chal­lenge it. Af­ter re­ceiv­ing boy­cott threats from a far-right critic for not declar­ing sup­port of Black Lives Mat­ter, York­shire Tea tweeted: “Please don’t buy our tea again. We’re tak­ing some time to ed­u­cate our­selves and plan proper ac­tion be­fore we post. We stand against racism.” In a col­lab­o­ra­tive spirit, PG Tips, weighed in with its own tweet: “If you are boy­cotting teas that stand against racism, you’re go­ing to have to find two new brands now #black­livesmat­ter #sol­i­daritea.”

As the two-teas saga in­di­cates, com­pa­nies may have re­alised that this is not just about the US. Tack­ling racism is a global chal­lenge. In fu­ture, big busi­nesses are go­ing to have to tie con­science with com­mer­cial suc­cess. And while it is im­por­tant for brands to is­sue state­ments about end­ing racism, this alone is not nearly enough. To bring about tan­gi­ble change, com­pa­nies will have to make new tar­gets, spell them out clearly and en­sure that they are met. Once they do that, more peo­ple might be drawn to the brand in ques­tion, which would

trans­late into more busi­ness.

There are pos­si­bly huge un­tapped con­sumers, who are over­looked due to a num­ber of fac­tors: un­con­scious bias, ig­no­rance and same­ness of think­ing within or­gan­i­sa­tions. In the UK, for ex­am­ple, a report this year ti­tled Re­think­ing Di­ver­sity in

Pub­lish­ing found that white, mid­dle-class read­ers were con­sid­ered the only au­di­ence for books. This abysmal lack of di­ver­sity is a much wider prob­lem, ex­plained in part by a 1000-peo­ple sur­vey in 2017 that found 90 per cent of peo­ple in the UK’s pub­lish­ing in­dus­try to be ‘white Bri­tish’. None of this should come as a sur­prise. And yet, di­ver­sity in work­forces has been proven to in­crease com­mer­cial suc­cess.

Do­ing the right thing is ul­ti­mately what brings a com­pany div­i­dends. Last month Johnson & Johnson an­nounced that it will with­draw its skin-whiten­ing prod­ucts. Not only is this the right thing to do, it will also free the com­pany to cre­ate prod­ucts that ad­dress the needs of newly en­light­ened con­sumers.

One as­pect that has come to the fore in the af­ter­math of the Black Lives Mat­ter protests is that brands need to be hon­est about their short­com­ings. That is how they will be able to au­then­ti­cally take a stand against so­ci­etal ills such as racism, and progress to­wards cre­at­ing anti-racist work­places, prod­ucts and com­mu­ni­ca­tions. This is not just about the skin colour of mod­els. This is about ev­ery­thing from equal pay to em­ploy­ing peo­ple from di­verse back­grounds, to in­clu­sive of­fice cul­tures, to rep­re­sen­ta­tive lead­er­ship, to mak­ing prod­ucts that en­gage with a range of con­sumers. This is a time when some­thing piv­otal could emerge. But only if brands recog­nise that hash­tag sol­i­dar­ity is no longer enough.

Brands need to be hon­est about their short­com­ings. That is how they will be able to take a stand against so­ci­etal ills

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