A group of people smiling as money rains down in front of them.
Design by Emily Schwartz.

On March 1, 2023, Hershey’s relaunched its SHE bars campaign to celebrate Women’s History Month. It ran an ad featuring Fae Johnstone, a trans activist and transgender individual. This, of course, enraged the American right. In response to this Hershey’s ad, the “War Room” Twitter account for Kari Lake, the former Arizona gubernatorial candidate and American television news anchor, tweeted the following: “Republicans cannot afford to sit out the culture war … and if we can’t defend the reality of basic biology … we might as well take our ball & go home.” As you can imagine, this transphobic sentiment echoed loud and clear in the conservative community.

But Republicans have completely misunderstood the performative activism of this company. This ad is simply an example of how capitalism works. These companies have a profit incentive to appeal to the widest market in the United States, which today is the liberal community that supports the LGBTQ+ cause. Yet conservatives cannot seem to reckon with the fact that this company’s social positions are just examples of virtue signaling based on particular demographics. 

In an interview with The Michigan Daily, LSA junior Aubrey Kim said, “The right’s frustration with corporate ‘woke-ism’ is based on misguided motivation; the messages these corporations promote are important. The problem is when there are evident social-justice inconsistencies in the company’s infrastructure.”

Let’s look at another example. Take BMW, a luxury vehicle manufacturer. This company changed its profile picture on social media to celebrate pride in June of 2022. All BMW social media accounts, including its Twitter, Instagram and Facebook accounts, displayed a pride emblem. This was the case for its regional Twitter profiles as well, including South Africa, the United Kingdom, Mexico and several other countries. However, BMW didn’t change its emblem for its Middle East account. Why? Because BMW’s Middle East office is based in the United Arab Emirates, where homosexuality is punishable by lengthy jail time and hefty fines. 

Asaad Sam Hanna, an Arab journalist, took to Twitter to ask: “Why @BMW is (in) solidarity with all #LGBTQ around the world but not in the Middle East?” Well, because BMW is an ally of the LGBTQ+ community, but only in regions where it’s profitable to be an ally.

These companies’ lazy activism is even more appalling when we look at how they treat their own workers. For instance, one Hershey’s worker at its Stuarts Draft, Va. plant was forced to work more than 70 days straight. The company has forced overtime on its workers and punished those taking time off. Workers have spoken out about the company’s two-tier system, which underpays newer workers and allows them significantly fewer benefits. 

Similar (and even more grotesque) examples can be found in BMW’s business model, which has relied on child labor in India. Workers as young as 10 years old have been linked to extensive labor shifts in mica mines, which produce the mineral found in the paint that makes extravagant BMW cars shine. The company has launched a reactionary investigation into this after the Guardian publicly accused BMW of using child labor. 

These two companies are just a few examples of how Western commercialism has corrupted social justice. Companies comprise a private sector of investors and stakeholders who hire consultants to increase the company’s profits. That’s why it’s unbelievably unproductive to pay any attention to these companies’ appeals to social justice missions. Republicans view social justice ads as some woke cultural takeover while Democrats cheer these companies on, completely missing the fact that these companies are simply exploiting various social identities to increase their sales.

By allying themselves with various social movements via advertising campaigns, corporations cultivate a form of aesthetic consciousness that allows for the abstraction and consumption of social identities. In the economic sense of the term, capitalism values things as commodities to be exchanged for money. But in the cultural sense of the term, capitalism views subjects only in terms of their utility, as a means to an end. In the case of race, for instance, identities are only a stepping-stone for neoliberal rhetoric and, as a result, they are deracialized, packaged and sold as a part of a cultural pseudo-revolutionary accompaniment for the material product. 

The American consumer buys this product and feels as though they participated in some meaningful change while, in reality, they’ve only consumed the identity they’re “fighting” for. But identity cannot be salvaged when material desire debases the cause, resulting in the alienation of individuals from their own cultural heritage. This commodification of cultural practices and social identities ultimately leads to the objectification and exoticization of social identities.

Instead of meaningfully implementing change, brands carefully cherry-pick individual identities and flaunt them all within the scope of the grand white-liberal complex. This cultural mediator decontextualizes social identities, reducing them to commercial stereotypes. For instance, when a company hires a Black employee, the employee has to assimilate into the culture of the predominately white institution. This results in general loneliness and a sense of self-commodification in the Black employees; they are pressured to play into the “Black character” manufactured by the plastic altruism of the neoliberal dogma. Thus, companies’ diversity efforts focus more on collecting quotas to prize themselves on theatrical multiculturalism than actually making their workers feel included. People of various social identities are tasked with compromising their true selves in order to gain social acceptance.

More pressingly, non-white individuals can often find themselves competing with other non-white individuals for diversity, equity and inclusion positions. In that light, a workplace can instill a sense of internalized racism in its employees, who feel pressured to give into the tokenization of their identity. Employees conform to certain expectations or behaviors in order to be perceived as the “right” kind of representative for their group, even if those expectations are limiting, inaccurate or just outright racist. 

It’s unfortunate how misguided and lost both sides of the American political binary can be when it comes to the topic of corporate multiculturalism and diversity. How do we deal with such a convoluted problem like this? Well, we can begin to focus on intersectionality. It’s pivotal to recognize that individuals have multiple identities and experiences that overlap. DEI efforts should focus on understanding and addressing these intersections, rather than treating individuals as representatives of a single identity group. 

Further, companies should not be rewarded for their empty lip service when there are clear contradictions in their business practices. For example, don’t boycott the Mars candy company because conservative social media personality Ben Shapiro said the M&Ms have gone “woke”; boycott the Mars candy company because it relies on child slavery in West Africa. Consumers can make a difference by researching the supply chains of the products they purchase and supporting companies that prioritize ethical and sustainable practices. 

During this late stage of capitalism, we must be able to discern between pretentious and meaningful social justice efforts. The commodification of social identities is a core element of Western capitalism, and in order to combat its liberal auspices, we must allow diverse individuals to thrive in their workspaces without assimilating to the hegemonic narrative. Moreover, Democrats and liberals must point out unethical corporate practices and push for a substantial change in how diversity looks in the workspace. 

Ammar Ahmad is an Opinion Columnist from Damascus, Syria who writes about international politics and American culture. He can be reached at ammarz@umich.edu. Follow him on Twitter: @ammarzahmad.