Are Industries Engaged With Racial Equity or is it Just a Phase?

It’s been over a year since thousands of companies joined the masses in posting statements in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Along with most other Black people, I was skeptical of the legitimacy of promises to “do better” and commit their company practices to ensuring racial equity. Mostly because it seemed like many newly enlightened white activists and their workplaces were acting out of fear of an impending Trump re-election and the ongoing quarantine. So what happens when Trump is no longer in office and people are allowed to leave their houses again? Where do broken promises go?

Among the lasting positive results of the 2020 racial reckoning have been the creation and promotion of spaces specifically for Black Creatives like Where Are the Black Designers, The Black School, Afrotectopia, Revision Path, and more. Adobe, Facebook, Paypal, and more created a number of grants and fellowship programs for Black creatives and small business owners. Companies like Vogue, West Elm, Madewell, Old Navy and more joined in the 15 percent pledge to acquire 15% of their products from black-businesses. Still, these organizations currently have a very long way to go in meeting these goals.

“There must be a long-term approach to promoting equity…If the work is a one-time response that is only impactful for the current situation, then it is short-sighted.” -Connie Evans, CEO, Association for Enterprise Opportunity

Despite all this enthusiasm, American corporations pledged $50 billion to racial equity and (as of May 2021) have spent only $250 million with very little change being affected. There aren’t structures in place to track accountability from these companies, either. In addition to this concerning statistic, a New York Times article found that white support for Black Lives Matter (after soaring to 60% summer 2020) is even lower today than it was before Breonna Taylor and George Floyd were killed by the police. Even further, little progress has been made in hiring black workers. In spite of pledges to diversify hiring efforts, employment for women of color is worse now than when the pandemic started, with hiring for Black women being 9.7% lower than it was in February 2020.

This isn’t the first time diversity and racial equity have been trendy buzzwords in the creative field. If we look back to the 90s, it almost seems like TV and media was more diverse because of the spaces that Black people in media were able to make for themselves at the time. And yet, the buzz faded away over the years – especially in a post-Obama world where many believed racism was a thing of the past. When looking at how these trends have played out in the design field, I found a 1992 article published in AIGA entitled “Are Designers Having a Long-term Relationship with Social Issues, or Just an Affair?” by Michael Rock.

In the article, Rock tackles the question: Is social responsibility a function of the content, the form, the audience, the client, and/or the designer? Basically, to what extent are designers like myself responsible for living and advocating for our values in the workplace. What power do we have as employees and gig workers? He concludes that our responsibilities come down to two rules:

1. Don’t work for cigarette manufacturers or for companies that produce neuron bombs and nerve gas.

The ethics of working for an unethical company were complicated in the 90s and have only gotten more complicated. Now it’s not just the cigarette company, but asking what your company’s influence on national and global politics are. Do they, like many other companies, invest or profit from the prison industrial complex? Does your client or parent company abuse their workers? Do they support political candidates that excuse police brutality? There is the possibility that you might work for a company that takes on clients like these without your input.

It’s heavy stuff, and at times it can feel like nearly every company is complicit in some unethical practice one way or another. However, as workers and consumers we do have the power to cut financial ties with companies that cross our personal boundaries. Even the UN, a nonpartisan organization, has published a list of companies with business ties to Israeli settlements and encouraged a boycott as a means to ending further human rights violations. Boycotts are popular for a reason – they work.

2. Be sensitive to the impact of the materials you specify for your clients.

According to Michael Rock, the main ethical issue designers in the 90s faced was design’s impact on the environment. The amount of paper and product waste continues to be concerning, but as we’ve shifted more primarily to digital media, clearly our focus has changed. The pandemic has created a boom in digital marketing. “Instagram infographic design” is now a meme as users continue to flood social media with graphics for social issues from “allyship fatigue” to colonization. Black designers have raised questions about the sincerity of this type of activism, as it usually is done for the benefit of the individual taking advantage of the moment, rather than contributing to real change. This checklist was created to prevent the kind of “Creative Savior Complex” the internet has turned into a joke.

For an article about design and social issues, Rock includes no mention of racial bias in design and most industries or how that contributes to uplifting global white supremacy. This is unsurprising. The author acknowledges the monumental power that commercial design has in its ability to change minds and imbed images into the minds of consumers. Yet, there is no awareness as to how that power is historically used. Brands like Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s had to re-do their entire brands last year because of the way they insensitively used powerful imagery for decades. Rock recommends that the designer or employee use what little power they have to convince their clients, at the very least, not to produce wasteful materials. Using this model, we could perhaps update this second rule to: be sensitive to your industry’s role as a tool of white supremacy and push back against requests that continue this legacy – from the very beginning.

“Black designers can’t only design for Black folks. Black designers should not only be invited as part of a quota.” -Antoinette Carroll, Creative Reaction Lab (2020)

On a day-to-day basis, employees of color are asked to confront whether or not the work they are making is contributing to harm in some way. Whether it’s including a stock image of a white family instead of a Black one in a graphic or including AAVE in the copy of an ad for a credit card. Simply hiring a handful of POC does not solve a company’s diversity problem and hiring new workers into a problematic environment with no support ultimately does them harm. Especially when they are the only person of color responsible for speaking up when they see something wrong.

It is not fair to expect more free labor and education from workers. Systems need to be put in place and communities need to be fostered so that there is support for equity and anti-racism at all levels of your organization. If a worker or union brings up unethical practices or problematic behavior, they should have their concerns heard and implemented rather than dismissed with the empty promises to “do better in the future”. Do better now.

“So many of us work and create in high-pressure environments. Left unchecked, our biases can seep into how we create in ways that exclude others and cause negative and even dire outcomes.” -Project Inkblot, How To Begin Designing For Diversity (2019)

It is disappointing that the inevitable has indeed come true and the trend of racial equity and ethical corporate practices has died down along with white support. However, in order for us to create a better world, everyone needs to be held accountable for their promises. This is the work. Companies must keep going and push beyond performative gestures. Your commitment to social change can’t stop at solemn words over a black background. It has to come with concrete plans of action created with marginalized people and a committee of people dedicated to sticking to the plan. It has to come with real costs to capitalism, white supremacy, and your business. And it has to come with receipts.

Camille Gomera-Tavarez

A Dominican-American graphic designer, illustrator, and writer from Northern New Jersey, Camille currently designs for progressive political campaigns and is the founder of plantinmag.com, a platform for Black Immigrant fiction writers.

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