Brands Are Saying They Stand Up for Black Lives, But Do They Really?

Big brands and businesses keep coming out in support of the movement for Black lives. Here’s how to tell if they really support Black people.

George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade are just three of the growing number of Black individuals who lost their lives to police brutality.

These injustices led to a renewed outpouring of support for the Black Lives Matter movement, so much so that it would be alarming to see a brand that hasn’t used #BlackLivesMatter on their social media channels. Yet, there is a significant disconnect when you compare these companies’ posts with the overall lack of Black people who are given leadership roles in the workplace.

“A lot of the corporations who have been posting statements ‘in support of the Black community’ have: 0 Black executives, 0 Black contractors, 0 Black management, 0 Black board members, 0 Black PR professionals,” attorney Jaia Thomas, the founder of Diverse Representation, wrote in the tweet that inspired this article. “Make sure their actions match their words.”

In a 2019 report, the Center for Talent Innovation revealed that only 3.2% of Black adults are in executive and senior-level positions, even though Black people account for 13.4% of the American population. Fortune also divulged that out of all the Fortune 500 companies in 2020, only four — four — are represented by Black CEOs. That is less than 1%.

“When we think about companies that are saying Black Lives Matter, the first thing we need to be considering is: Is this just lip service, or is this the start of what they're trying to achieve?” Gwendolyn McCoy, a senior consultant at Diversity@Workplace, tells Supermaker. “Because there is a distinction.”

How to fact-check the brands that claim to care about Black lives.

“The way you know they're actually committed to supporting justice and equality — and right now, we're just going to talk about Black people — is seeing what they're doing with their workplace culture,” Dr. Akilah Cadet, founder of Change Cadet, tells Supermaker. “If people are just giving money to give without having a clear, transparent, and accountable culture to make sure that Black people are valued, appreciated, supported, and have opportunities for promotion, professional development, and fair pay, then none of that matters.”

Cadet advises that we google and critically examine companies’ annual reports and, if available, their diversity reports. We can also post follow-up questions on their solidarity posts, inquiring about what they’re doing internally for their Black employees. If they are doing the work, their response should clearly provide you with that information. If they don’t respond, find whatever company employee emails you can and send them the same question. Push them to answer and publicly call them out if they don’t.

"The way you know they're actually committed to supporting justice and equality—and right now, we're just going to talk about Black people—is seeing what they're doing with their workplace culture.”

Trudy Bourgeois, the founder and CEO of Workforce Excellence, tells Supermaker that we must look at these companies’ board members, C-Suites, and advertising campaigns. This information can be found on LinkedIn and should be on the company’s website. “If you don’t see representation there, it is highly unlikely that they truly are committed to the Black community,” states Bourgeois in an email. “Next look at their engagement in the Black community. It is not just about giving money — committed organizations build authentic relationships with non-profit organizations that are dedicated to social justice.” Namely, Bourgeois says this could materialize as companies working with grade schools and offering summer camps that actively support the development of Black talent.

McCoy also points to the power of shareholders. Yes, even if you’re not inside the company, you might still have the power to push for internal change. “Folks don't understand that the second you own a share of stock in an organization, you also have the right to ask questions during the shareholders meeting or to send messages to the leadership of the company,” McCoy says. “Ask them, ‘What are you doing? What are you doing to contribute to Black businesses to make sure that they're sustainable, particularly now on top of COVID? What are you doing in the social justice arena in regards to contributing to bail funds for protesters? [How are you] making sure that you're on the frontline, in-person or virtually?’”

The work is already being done to investigate these companies.

It’s important to acknowledge that there are already people—especially Black people—who are making an effort to fact-check these companies. Sharon Chuter, the founder of UOMA Beauty, is just one example. She started the #PullUpOrShutUp movement to hold brands accountable, asking that those (particularly in the beauty industry) claiming to support Black lives actually share the number of Black people they employ.

If you look at the comments following a company posting in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, you can also glean information from people who have internally worked with the business. For instance, when Lisa Frank posted a black square in support of the controversial Blackout Tuesday, comments revealed that Lisa Frank has stolen ideas from and contributed to the eviction of Black artist Amina Mucciolo, and that they also have a history of workplace culture issues.

Again, Black people have long been speaking about topics such as this one. I shouldn’t have to tell you this, but my being able to write this piece, to disseminate this information, is an example of my privilege as a white woman. It demonstrates how systemic racism affects every aspect of our society—from the information we read to who’s given the opportunity to report on it. We must critically ask ourselves: What has led us all here—to this piece, specifically; to this moment in time—in the first place?

Who else is getting it wrong?

As we examine ourselves, we must also critically look at the corporate structures we support — even inadvertently, by sharing or liking one of their social posts. Before engaging with companies, research should come first to answer the question: Is this company actually practicing what they preach?

Thomas, for one, feels that all brands are getting it wrong. “Until a brand is able to clearly demonstrate the ways in which they actually ‘support the African-American community,’ their words mean nothing,” she states via email. “Clear, concise, and specific next steps are what is needed.”

“If people are just giving money to give without having a clear, transparent, and accountable culture to make sure that Black people are valued, appreciated, supported, and have opportunities for promotion, professional development, and fair pay, then none of that matters.”

In particular, Cadet mentions The Wing, a co-working space and club for women that is known for having internal, race-related problems. “They made a public statement saying that they donated $200k to one of the greatest hits of who to donate to, and [yet] they laid off [a significant percentage] of their workforce,” she says. “If you look on The Wing's post that says Black Lives Matter, you'll see how people are like, ‘Why didn't you put $200k into the GoFundMe that was created [for the people you laid off]?’”

Cadet also cites One Medical, a membership-based primary care practice, as missing the mark. “Their message says, ‘We stand together with the Black community. As care providers, as individuals, and as an organization. Against racism. Against inequality. Against inhumanity.’ What does that tell you? The answer is nothing,” says Cadet. Their message does nothing to convey what they are actually doing for their Black employees or the Black community as a whole.

“For the examples of good and bad, internal impact has to be the same as or more than the external impact or message,” states Cadet

We can all do better.

“Oftentimes, in an effort to figure things out, we want to lean in to scientific studies, benchmarking, [and seeing] what other companies are doing, instead of taking an opportunity to lean in, listen, and learn,” McCoy says. “Companies have that person, usually someone in a position of power, who will say, ‘Well, why does that happen? What are the studies that support that?’ But as we all know, we have studies to support whatever position we want to take. So organizations that choose to be dismissive of the things that are right there in their face are the ones that are not successful in this space.”

In order to work against systemic racism within corporations, it comes back to doing the work, which BIPOC and, in particular, Black femmes have been doing forever. I, personally, recognize that I should not be taking up space right now, which is why I did my best to use this space to amplify the voices of Black women who are workplace diversity and inclusion experts. They graciously agreed to provide me with quotes, though they shouldn’t have to put in the work to educate non-Black people such as myself. Now, it is time that we — especially white people — listen, learn, and apply this knowledge to our words and actions moving forward.

How to Show Up.

If you recognize that a company’s solidarity post is merely performative, take the time to act upon what you have learned. That doesn’t mean that you passively share someone else’s Instagram graphic or tweet about this issue. It means that you take your own steps to expose and dismantle the injustice. McCoy specifically mentions boycotting and protesting companies, using your own words to spread the truth on social media, and having potentially uncomfortable conversations with the people who support those brands.

The next step is vowing not to give money to these brands. Instead, McCoy suggests devoting your finances to those who are fighting racial injustices on the frontline. There are also Black-owned businesses we should be championing instead.

Ultimately, it is not easy or pleasant to acknowledge that companies you’ve been supporting your entire life could be doing better. But anti-racist work is not supposed to be easy. Improving ourselves requires effort in every area of our lives. As we take a hard look at ourselves and take steps to become more just, we must also analyze what is around us. This can start right now, with a single item, in your own home. Look at the soap in your shower or a book on your shelf. Is the company that provided that product also putting in the work?

I would like to specifically thank the following Black women who made this piece possible. You can follow them and support at the following links:

Jaia Thomas, founder of Diverse Representation

Dr. Akilah Cadet, founder of Change Cadet

Trudy Bourgeois, founder and CEO of Workforce Excellence

Gwendolyn McCoy, senior consultant at Diversity@Workplace

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