Racism is not just a news story, it’s a disease all marketers should fight

The media frenzy around Black Lives Matter might have subsided but the issue has not – racism is still prevalent and we must all use whatever influence we have to remove it from our workplaces and our society.

A statue of protester Jen Reid by artist Marc Quinn, which temporarily replaced one of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol (Photo: Sam Saunders)

It was hard watching the news from the US following the killing of George Floyd. Awful in itself, it laid bare the high level of anger at the huge racial inequalities in American society. This is a country where Black people are still paying the price of being descended from slaves; people who were bought and sold, who were deprived of their humanity.

If ‘Black Lives Matter’ to brands, where are your black board members?

In the US today, Black and Hispanic people are more likely to be arrested, imprisoned and given longer sentences than their White counterparts. They are more likely to be unemployed, on welfare and have no access to healthcare. I could go on. To see this type of systemic racism is not just upsetting, it is enraging.

And let us not be fooled into thinking that this is just a problem for the US. We see similar inequalities in this country, across a whole range of metrics, whether it is involvement in the criminal justice system, educational attainment, employment or health outcomes. The reason why a disproportionate number of people of African, Caribbean and Asian descent have died in Britain as a result of Covid-19 is not to do with genetics; it is because of structural discrimination.

It is easy to think these are huge problems, not your responsibility and too big for you or your brand to solve. But that, my friends, is copping out. Every organisation can do something, do more. No organisation has it nailed when it comes to tackling racism in their businesses.

Now is the time to take a position. Staying silent is taking a side – the wrong one.

It shouldn’t be this way and doesn’t have to be. There is so much we can do, must do, as individuals, as communities and as businesses. Most of it is pretty straightforward. That doesn’t mean it is easy. We are talking about challenging entrenched behaviours – but unless we start to dismantle them, we can’t ever finish. So, listen up, here are my top three things I think you should do the help tackle systemic racism.

Educate yourself and your teams

Many people won’t have direct experience of racism. That’s OK, it’s great that you haven’t had to endure a lifetime of implicit and explicit prejudice. What is not OK is that you don’t make an effort to understand the impact of racism on the lives of your colleagues and your consumers.

And it is possible to find out about it without asking a Black person you know to explain it. There are loads of books, articles, films, podcasts and documentaries out there to help you. Set up a digital resource centre that everyone in the business can access and contribute to. This will help to create an environment in which it isn’t just the people of colour who see racist behaviour – everyone will know what it looks like, everyone should be empowered to call it out.

Speak out

Now is the time to take a position. Staying silent is taking a side – the wrong one. As a brand you can – indeed, I would say you should – express horror, grief, anger. But, and it is an important and big ‘but’, you must do more than that. Anyone can use a hashtag, anyone can black-out a logo; but these are meaningless unless you actually do something, and the risk to your brand being (legitimately) accused of jumping on the bandwagon is great.

Take action

Use your power and influence to change things. As brands you have a huge role in how people of colour are represented in your advertising. In the briefs that you write, in the content you sign off, make sure we aren’t just bit-players – give us active roles, give us agency. And do it authentically, with credibility.

P&G threatens to pull ad spend if platforms don’t take ‘systemic action’ over racial equality

That of course means looking at the make-up of your own teams and those of your partners. Where are the people of colour and do they have the power to speak up? What are you doing to recruit people of colour into your business at all levels and what are you doing to make us feel welcome, that we belong? Look at your board and senior leadership team, what colour are the faces there? Change this. Change this now.

The truth is, I am mad as hell. I am tired too. I am South African, born under an expressly, unashamedly racist government. It feels like I have spent my entire life explaining racism to White people. I am so bored of people telling me how much they admire Nelson Mandela and thinking admiration is enough. It isn’t. We watched George Floyd being killed. If we don’t use this as a moment to change, we are complicit in his death.