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COMMENTARY: How brands move past performative BHM activism to meaningful cultural exchange

Shoe designer George Sully. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO

Every February we see brands suddenly finding their voice with something to say (ahem, sell) regarding Black History Month.

But after a year of racial reckoning with protests worldwide calling for racial justice, there is heightened attention on companies that are simply ticking boxes versus those that are truly championing Black people, culture, and excellence. Meaningful campaigns require going beyond social media hashtags and engaging with Black communities in real and actionable ways.

Brands need to grasp that Black History is History. It is Canadian History. It is American History. It is world history. We do not stop recognizing historical significance or impact on a set date. Yet for so many companies, their work ends on March 1. It is the brands that continue with year-long initiatives to amplify Black voices and remain steadfast in centring Black stories and excellence at the core of their campaigns that resonate strongest.

Despite so much to celebrate, some brands struggle with what to focus on during Black History Month.

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“Remember that things like slavery, Jim Crow and such are not Black history. You need to own that as white history because white people did those things, while the achievements and innovations of Black people were stolen, destroyed or downplayed. We have all year to focus on how Black people have been brutalized, we have 28 days to focus on Black joy. Google some names of great Black Canadian innovators and celebrate their achievements during BHM” Camille Dundas told me in an email about what brands trying to engage with Black History Month need to remember.

Dundas is a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Consultant who focuses on anti-racism and allyship. She is also the co-founder of ByBlacks.com- an online magazine that doesn’t actually celebrate Black History month with huge fanfare. They highlight Black excellence year-round.

“We’re Black all the time and so right now for example, we’re running our #BlackHistory365 campaign where since January we’ve been posting one micro story about a Black Canadian historical figure or modern-day change maker. We’ll be doing this every day for one year.”

There are certain campaigns Dundas sees as great examples of brands getting it right this month — Canada Post’s Black History Month collection being one of them. An annual initiative, the collection does touch on the discrimination Black Canadians have experienced, however the stories are centred on how they overcame and succeeded across various fields.

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While there is no gold standard, centering Black voices and stories at the heart of a campaign is key.

Renowned footwear designer and creator of Black Designers of Canada (BDC), George Sully will be awarding 100 Black Canadian designers The BDC Award of Excellence for the first time this month.

“Any Black Canadian designer who has survived designing in the face of these obstacles, including systemic racism, has earned a level of recognition that this Award exemplifies” says Sully of the inaugural awards.

SheaMoisture Canada launched a grant program called Salon Relief Fund this month to offer financial support to Black female-owned salons affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Salons, especially those owned, led and operated by the Black community in Canada, face some of the most challenging times in recent years.

 

Big brands and retailers like Nike, Under Armour, Target, Walmart and Gap have also shown their support for Black History month with new initiatives and product drops. Gap launched a campaign created by Black artists and designers and committed to donating $200,000 to the 15 Percent Pledge, a non-profit that focuses on equality for Black-owned businesses and Black people in the workplace.

The Under Armour campaign – rumoured to have been in the works for two years – was a partnership with Baltimore photographer and activist Devin Allen, and included a collection of shoes and apparel featuring photographs of young Black athletes shot by the local artist. https://www.instagram.com/p/CKl7uI5nqrA/

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I am encouraged to see collaborations like these. They actually bring awareness and profitability to the Black community. There is a sense of partnership rather than self-serving opportunism.

On the flipside, there have been some fails, like the Region of Durham’s scavenger hunt, that had myself and so many others in utter shock, anger and misbelief.

Region of Durham acknowledged their mistake with a social media post and Regional Chair John Henry made public apologies to various media outlets Feb 11, taking personal responsibility and admitting much more has to be done to meet their failures in fighting systemic racism.

Region of Durham criticized after creating scavenger hunt for Black History Month

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Mis-steps like this make me question who has a seat at the table when these creative decisions are being made. Oftentimes, the very people these campaigns are about are not in the room, and even if one or two racialized people may be part of that group, they are often not in decision-making positions of power.

Another cultural event on the calendar that brands lust after is Lunar New Year. We saw a slew of companies pull out all the stops to ring in the Year of the Ox. But, if you didn’t know better, you’d believe that Lunar New Year is just about red-and-gold packaging and zodiac-themed collectibles. Far from that, the holiday holds tremendous cultural and historical significance for the billions of people around the globe who celebrate it. But, there is a fine line between cultural appropriation and appreciation and without taking time to understand the symbolism and traditions, brands risk harming those very people they hope to uplift.

“A lot of times, these brands aren’t actually hiring Asian artists or creators to design or produce these products, nor do they provide education around Lunar New Year or use the proceeds to help the Asian community — something that is much-needed at the moment, given the rise in xenophobia and racism against Asians due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has resulted in Asian-owned small businesses seeing a massive decline in customers, as well as vicious hate crimes against Asian elders in the United States (one of which, recently, resulted in the death of an 84-year-old Thai immigrant, Vicha Ratanapakdee)” says Madelyn Chung, founder of The RepresentASIAN Project.

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Slapping a symbol on an item and calling it ‘cultural’ celebration does not cut it.

Sephora Canada’s though, enlisted two Asian Canadian influencers, Brigitte Truong and Angel Zheng, as its stars.

Sephora’s Diwali campaign too featured three South Asian Canadian influencers and dug deeper into the celebration and its meaning. It felt genuine and thoughtful.

At the end of day, we are all looking for connection. As consumers we seek out brand messages that resonate and are swift to sniff out those brands that don’t. My hope is that long after those limited-edition releases, companies do more to prioritize diversity, equity and inclusion in all aspects of business. To me, it is all that work that we do not see in flashy campaigns that is the most important.