The authenticity of corporate activism

Monday, November 9, 2020 - 8:27pm

The murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and numerous other innocent Black people this year sparked a revolution yearning for change Black people have needed for many years. With worldwide daily protests and heavy social media conversations about race, it feels like the world is finally waking up to the injustices Black people have faced for centuries in America. But how much reform can there really be in systemic racism if the systems that encourage this oppression fail to change? Individuals are constantly being told to fix the racial biases present in this country when most of the blame should be shifted towards corporate performative activism. It is easy for brands to say that they want to see change and are in solidarity with those who are suffering from the systemic challenges of this country. It is easy to post an Instagram picture condemning racism to make themselves look good. But if there is no real change or accountability being taken for their contributions to the systemic challenges marginalized communities face, the preached activism is useless. The reality of this corporate performative activism has resulted in the continued oppression of marginalized groups of people. It’s great that brands like Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben recognized the racist foundation of their brands, but the surface level activism only further establishes the very institutions we are trying to get rid of. Were all the promises from brands and corporations to do better genuine? Or were they just stunts used to keep consumers coming? 

Following the protests and pledges from brands to do better for the Black community, Sharon Chuter, Founder of Uoma Beauty decided to question these claims. She launched an Instagram campaign called #pulluporshutup where she challenged these pledges of solidarity by asking companies to release the number of Black people they have in positions higher than field and retail levels. With there being an average of 10% of Black college graduates in America, Chuter wanted to see how many brands have at least 10% of Black representation in those higher positions. 

As I followed this campaign, I have been shocked to see just how many brands that I support still have little to no Black voices in leadership positions. Even some of my favorites who have voiced their support for diversity, including Netflix, Apple and Nike, all surprised me in how little Black representation they have. Netflix has only 7% Black representation across the organization, 8% in leadership roles and none in executive positions. Apple has only 3% of Black voices in leadership roles, and 9% Black representation throughout the company. Nike has no Black representation in executive positions, and only 4.8% in corporate levels. These brands thrive on Black dollars, but can’t hire these same people to lead their companies?

Some brands pledged to increase their Black representation and donate to HBCUs and foundations fighting for Black lives after being called out. Unilever, which is home to businesses including Dove, Vaseline and Lipton, committed to making their workforce more diverse with only 8% of Black representation across the corporation and 17% in leadership roles. They are also donating over $1 million dollars to bail funds and organizations fighting for Black lives. Coty Inc, which is home to beauty brands including Covergirl, Sally Hansen, and Rimmel London, has 17.2% of black representation across the board and 2.9% at executive levels. Covergirl has committed to amplifying Black beauty influencers on their platform and donating money to Black Lives Matter and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. There are even some companies that have been successful in implementing more than that bench mark of 10% in their leadership positions. ELF cosmetics' leadership team is 14% Black and 45% diverse. P & G, which is home to Old Spice and Pantene, has 13% Black representation in leadership positions and plans to do more. Progress has been made with businesses seemingly taking accountability for the part they play in systemic racism, but is this just more corporate performative activism? 

In a survey of 2378 people conducted under Chuter’s same campaign, 70% have not seen any of these changes happening in their company, and 69% have seen their companies lose momentum since June when they said they would make these changes. Statements committing to change look good on paper, but it is interesting to see just how many companies have no intentions of improving their faults. 

In July, actress Aisha Dee released a statement calling out her show The Bold Type for its part in the lack of Black representation in Corporate America. The Bold Type is one of my favorite shows to watch because they have difficult conversations about race, sexuality and gender. But what is communicated on screen is not always carried out behind the scenes. Dee revealed that it took two out of the show’s four seasons to get a writer of color. In forty-eight episodes, only two of them were directed by a Black woman, and it took three seasons for someone who knew how to do textured hair to appear in dressing rooms. The presidents of Universal TV and Freeform, where the show is housed, have Black women presidents, but there is still little representation in the production crew that creates this show. If the need for social change is embraced on screen, why isn’t it practiced behind the scenes? If what is preached on camera isn’t translated in the real world, the activism is performative and hypocritical of the messages they try to teach viewers at home. It further contributes to the oppression of marginalized groups.  

I am happy to see how many people seem to be in solidarity with Black voices that have been silenced for so long. I have also been eager to be introduced to and support so many Black owned brands through the Instagram account @blackownedeverything. But the presence of corporate performative activism does more harm than it does good if corporations are unable to acknowledge their own faults. Marginalized communities have suffered for too long. Plans for change are no longer suggested, but rather demanded and expected. If 2020 has taught us one thing, it is that life is unpredictable — it is okay and also necessary to change the principles companies were founded on. We need real change.