Beyond Black History Month

Beyond Black History Month

The title of this article is a reference to the brilliant blog post and book by Reni Eddo-Lodge ‘Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race’. If you’ve not read it, then stop reading this and read it first. Her writing is a beautifully accessible repost to the many deniers that we still have a problem with racial exclusion in the UK. Don’t take my word for it, take Renni’s – we do.

I am white, so I’m painfully aware of the line I’m treading by writing this at all. And I’m arguably more comfortable than most when talking about race, simply because I’ve had a lot of experience.
Having worked with BBC 1Xtra as a client, I’ve moderated days of debates on whether to call the station ‘the home of black music’ or not (the answer was not, if you’re interested.)
Despite being passionately invested in the project, as the white moderator of the workshop, I was not entirely comfortable. As a result I often I hurriedly mumbled my way past the inclusive but BBC-approved acronym BAME sometimes three or four times in a single sentence. This left me uncomfortable, feeling it was a cop out, which is why I try to avoid using it these days.
BAME does have its uses. Like its cousin LGBTQ, it is an inclusive term. And that inclusion is crucial because it acknowledges the shared experiences of marginalised groups. But when the aim of the conversation is to visibly and audibly include people of colour, it’s ‘people of colour’ that we need to talk about. If talking about specific groups, we should refer to people as they would identify themselves. British people of African descent do not identify simply as African. When asked (far too often) where they come from, unsurprisingly they do not say ‘Africa’.
When it comes to advertising, the need for inclusion is obvious and urgent but it will take a long time to break down the norms established in the past. It’s important to acknowledge progress, but it’s even more important to acknowledge that structural racism still prevails.

We do not yet live in an equal society, and we do not yet represent society equally.

The advertising industry is 88% white according to IPA census data. Obviously this is the thing to change in order to change advertising’s output. But in the interim, we need to open up more conversations about race. Everyone knows it’s tactless to ask the black guy in the office if an advert containing a hip-hop stereotype is offensive. But once we’ve shut this kind of behavior down, we are left with an arguably far greater risk: for fear of getting it wrong, too many white people will never try to talk about race in the first place.

The agency model of retained talent makes us slower to change than other media businesses. We are literally more structured, so structural exclusion will prevail for longer. Netflix’s access to a more fluid talent pool of idea generators helps. But their ability to create diverse work runs stems from their mission statement to connect people with stories. Lots of people, and lots of stories.’

And they implement this by encouraging personal responsibility and openness in their company policy in these five principles.

  • Encourage independent decision-making by employees
  • Share information openly, broadly, and deliberately
  • Are extraordinarily candid with each other
  • Keep only our highly effective people
  • Avoid rules

What is clear from these principles is that Netflix has worked hard to make difficult conversations feel permissible.

Because discomfort is productive when we confront it directly. In the case of talking about race, we are afraid of our own ignorance, afraid of being exposed and afraid of the history that we, as white people have to accept ownership of.

Last week the 3% Conference came to New York, with the important title 'Beyond Gender'. To my mind, it was the best one yet because instead of being an affirming echo chamber, there was conflict, and there was tension. But I left feeling that I had learned a lot more than I had in previous years.

We can't afford for these conversations to be had in silos. These debates will not be won if we see them as men versus women, white versus black... or even privilege versus disadvantaged. The fight is between people who care and are willing to work hard to do something about injustice versus people who don't.

By Elle Graham-Dixon, strategy director at BBH. Follow her @elle_sis