All of us are at least somewhat familiar with this country’s history when it comes to racism; however, not everyone has experienced it. If you have spent most of your life shielded from overt racism, discrimination or bigotry, you can’t possibly relate to those who have.
This fact has become abundantly clear in the various reactions to the most recent videos of Black men killed by police in Baton Rouge, La., and St. Paul, Minn. There seems a gap in understanding the lived experiences of marginalized groups by those in the majority culture.
As a Black woman, I could cite a dozen personal experiences to illustrate my point here, but I’ll only use one. I attended majority white schools growing up in Anchorage, Alaska. The Black student population represented less than 3 percent of the total student body of my high school. While Black students had been experiencing and speaking out against incidents of racism and bigotry in the school for years, the school administration and the PTA only took notice when a small group of “skinheads” enrolled in the high school. After several violent fights perpetuated by these students, including an attempted attack on a Black teacher, the school leadership scheduled a town hall meeting.
It was during this town hall that I realized that those who either refused to acknowledge there was a problem because it didn’t affect them directly or were simply oblivious to it, were just as much a part of the problem. It took acts of violence perpetuated by this small group of new students to bring attention to the issue of racism in the school for others to even acknowledge what we had been experiencing for years.
When the Black Lives Matter movement started gaining traction, I heard it dismissed as everything from reverse racism, to unnecessary. Then there was the counter #AllLivesMatter hashtag that insinuated that Black Lives Matter supporters only value lives of Black people. Rather than trying to understand the catalyst for the movement, many people trivialized the message because they couldn’t relate or didn’t care to listen. A recent article in The Washington Post entitled “Fatal Shootings by US Police Officers in 2015: A Bird’s Eye View” confirmed what the Black community and the Black Lives Matter movement already knew: unarmed Black men were shot and killed last year at disproportionately high rates, and that officers involved may be biased in how they perceive threats. Mind you, this is just in 2015. How many incidents went unreported for decades? How many incidents occurred before the advancement of technology and the advent of social media? To add insult to injury, the officers involved received what amounted to a slap on the wrist leading those of us in the Black community to believe that the lives of Black Americans are somehow less valued.
One might wonder how this relates to an ad agency? A specific example is the travel warnings that other countries are issuing based on what is seen as civil unrest. The Bahamas, a predominiately black country, issued a travel warning aimed at their young, Black, male citizens urging caution. The bigger picture is that as an industry, we have a voice, we influence behaviors, and we represent clients who we can encourage to value diversity. Wieden+Kennedy, the global ad agency responsible for Nike’s iconic “Just Do It” campaign, recently took a bold step to acknowledge the experience of those in the Black community and used its home page to send a message.
To this end, while I don’t pretend to have all of the answers to how we move forward to a place where everyone’s experiences are valued, I do know diversity plays a role. At its most basic level, this is exactly why diversity is important. I realize that diversity has a much broader meaning than simply checking a box for race, gender, sexual orientation or religion; however, having people from these various groups at the table better ensures you will hear their differing perspectives and experiences.
This principle can be applied to any industry, situation or discussion. Hiring more law enforcement officers who come from the communities they are helping to police is a start. Including diverse perspectives in and around the policy discussions currently taking place is a start. Supporting causes, like Black Lives Matter that may not directly affect you but strive for equity, is a start. Sharing our experiences through conversations, blogs, social media and so on is a start. I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge last week’s events in Dallas where five police officers were killed and several others wounded. When we’re all paying attention and engaging, we are more likely to achieve positive change. And perhaps there has never been a time when more positive change is needed than now.