As Susan and Will pointed out in the The 4am Report, the ‘stop, drop and roll’ episode – we’re in a crisis within a crisis. Whether you’re in North America, South Africa or Yugoslavia, we’re going through massive change, the kind of change that forces you to confront truths about yourself and your government and what’s currently happening in the world.
I am South African. White South African. I live in Cape Town when I’m not travelling (which is all the time now). In South Africa, we’re no strangers to conflict and revolution. We deal with crime and police brutality as the norm, to the point where you become desensitized to it. The lockdown has brought this ostrich-in-the-sand mentality into the forefront as South Africans are faced with highly-politicized and often arbitrary lockdown rules, widespread rioting for government-distributed food parcels as job losses cause country-wide hunger, and acts of police violence and enforcement that have seen at least 12 people killed. One of these was Collins Khosa, a South African man allegedly beaten by soldiers enforcing COVID-19 lockdown restrictions in April who later died in hospital from his injuries.
The murders of black South Africans at the hands of brutal police have become intertwined with The Black Lives Matter movement, resonating with South Africans simmering under residual injustice and inequality. After the killing of George Floyd by Minnesota police, South Africans are becoming even more outraged, furious that black citizens in a supposedly first-world countries are still suffering. Has anything really changed, or are we just pretending and covering up endemic racism?
While it would be impossible to go into the deeply entrenched and systemic injustices that are rooted across society in any kind of depth. I don’t think there is any country that is exempt. Racism is everywhere, in the open and behind closed doors. This point was illustrated by (the now established as a Canadian national) Amy Cooper, who knew exactly how to “weaponize her whiteness” to threaten the life and liberty of a black man. It provided a great example of how racism operates structurally and questions how progressive we are. How often do we really confront our beliefs, recognize our privilege and understand our responsibility? I’m going to go out on a limb here and say not often enough.
Of course, there’s wonderful examples of people who do take a stand. American footballer Colin Kaepernick sat down during the American national anthem on August 26, 2016 to protest against a country that oppresses people of colour. The news cycle loved it. The supremacists hated it. ‘Traitor!’ they screamed. While Kaepernick was eventually fired from the league, he inspired other NFL players to kneel during the anthem as a sign of solidary with the Black Lives Matter movement, and became the face of Nike’s 30th anniversary ‘Just Do It’ campaign. While still unsigned and in some ways, exiled, the footballer has remained openly political. True to his mettle, Kaepernick recently started a fund to pay for the legal representation of arrested protesters.
Rosa Parks was tired and refused to get off her seat and move to the coloured section to make way for a white person when taking the bus home from work. She was arrested and fined $10 dollars, but with her simple protest, sparked a revolution.
In June 1976 in South Africa, Sowetan school children took to the streets to protest being taught in Afrikaans. While they were being shot at by Apartheid police, photographer Sam Nzima captured the image of dying 13-year old Hector Pieterson being carried away in a stranger’s arms, with his distraught sister running next to them. This photo, which became the embodiment of the Soweto Uprising, as the protest was called, was published on the front page of newspapers from New York to London, effectively going ‘viral’. Suddenly the international community could no longer ignore apartheid. Activists lobbied for international sanctions and the government faced a civil uprising and liberation movement that became a turning point for the resistance.
And yet, here we are again, in 2020 fighting the same thing. Prejudice, intolerance, racism. Horrible, powerful words that seem like the cockroach survivors of a nuclear holocaust, outliving us all.
And a 9-minute video of a man being strangulated, over a $20 bill, by someone with ‘his hand in his pocket’ seems to have been what we needed to confront this.
Words have power
If words can have such huge meaning, why are we as communicators not using them more? If you are scared to take decisive actions and start revolutions, that’s okay. Not everyone is ready to put their life on the line for a cause. But we have power too. Journalists and writers have been jailed, deported or killed for using this power for centuries.
It’s not good enough to be silent. Use your voice and your platform to drive change.
I remember watching Taylor Swift’s documentary ‘Miss Americana’ and her struggle between staying true to her brand and standing up for what she believes in. And yes, she’s white, rich and privileged and losing a few fans wouldn’t be the worst thing. But she recognised that she had a platform and a voice and she used it, regardless of the potential consequences.
One of the quotes currently going around on social media comes from South African Desmond Tutu, a well-known opponent of apartheid. “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Most people know that part of the quote. Here’s the rest of it “If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
Hit pause, and reflect
As marketers, it’s time to stop. At c+p digital, instead of popping the bubbles and celebrating 50 podcast episodes and the first birthday of The 4am Report, we hit pause on all our marketing. If you can’t think of anything to say, don’t say anything at all. Don’t blind the marketplace with more specials and promotions and vacuous reflections about marketing. Let initiatives like Blackout Tuesday dominate (backlash or not). As a communicator, you can’t ignore politics. It’s time to be aware, to be sensitive and to take a long, hard look at what you can and should be doing.
While you’re busy reflecting on what you should be doing as a brand, think about what you should be doing as a person. Look at your own journey, your own privilege and responsibility. You need to fight what we’ve been taught systematically and subtly, those value systems that are okay with some people’s lives being worth less. Maybe you’re outraged at what happens in America, but are silent when black people are compromised right in your home, with impunity.
As a South African, I can see firsthand the damage of our history of legalized oppression – the residual poverty, the lack of education, the hopelessness. Ask yourself if you’re doing better than your parents or grandparents and openly communicate with your peers, families, and friends about what you can try to undo the damage, with whatever means or power you have. Take responsibility and educate yourself so that you can make a difference, even if it’s just by cheering on the sidelines.
Think before you speak
While you’re hitting the brakes on those campaigns, think about what you’re going to say if you do decide to say anything. Don’t be insensitive or hurtful, even if unintentionally. Don’t be disingenuous or defensive. Grant Napear, a white sportcaster for the NBA’s Sacramento Kings, recently stirred up controversy in a Twitter exchange with former Kings center DeMarcus Cousins, who is African-American. Cousins asked Napear for his thoughts on the Black Lives Matter movement and Napear responded with, “All Lives Matter…Every Single One!”
This type of comment highlights a typical white response to the BLM movement! White folk are just not comfortable with attention given to a cause that’s not relevant to their lives. It’s a knee-jerk defensiveness or “white fragility” that some people suffer from when they’re confronted with actions that have racial implications or with being racially insensitive.
Another knee-jerk reaction is a tendency to divert, pointing out the riots, arson and vandalism that’s been spreading across America as somehow representative of the BLM movement, instead of seeing it as the repercussions of entrenched discrimination – exacerbated by rising concerns about what the future will hold as millions of people, often already historically disadvantaged, file for unemployment benefits and rely on charity to feed their families.
Instead of having open, meaningful conversations that confront their assumptions or accept feedback from a black person’s viewpoint on how their comment impacts them, they either hijack a movement (think of spinoffs like ‘All Lives Matter’ or ‘Blue Lives Matter’) or refuse to acknowledge any kind of responsibility or solidarity. As Sam Louie says in Psychology Today, if racial reconciliation and healing are going to happen, people need to acknowledge racial inequities in policing, that endemic racism exists across numerous institutions, and that it’s just not right.
Assess what’s happening
As a brand in a social space, take time to assess what other brands are doing. How are they responding? Ask if your brand should be saying something or if there’s a way you can be showing support. Talk to your clients, have conversations and don’t be afraid to call friends who represent different demographics to get their take on it. It’s what I did when writing this article. I don’t speak for South Africans. None of us speak for anyone else, no matter what your colour, culture or background is. Open your mind to different viewpoints and think about what you’re going to say before you say it. Every single day we need to be learning, and unlearning, what we ‘know’ or what we’ve been taught, challenging our bias and assumptions, and trying to be better, as leaders and communicators.
If you think your brand should step forward with something to say, then say it. If you think you should be a platform for sharing, then do that. You don’t have to be a big company with a big budget, like Nike who repurposed their famous slogan with their “For once, just don’t do it” ad, but put yourself out there and use your voice and platform to make a stand or spotlight those who are saying something well. “To be silent is to be complicit. Black lives matter,” Netflix stated on Twitter, referring to their duty to speak up on behalf of their black members, employees, creators and talent.
For those of us who prefer to be in the background and don’t want to say anything at all, use your platform to support the message you believe in. Many brands joined the Black Out Tuesday campaign to raise awareness about systemic exclusion and inequality, expressing their support for Black Lives Matter on social media. The music industry and many other industries shut down for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the time Floyd was held to the ground with a cop’s knee on his neck, unable to breathe. While the general criticism of the Blackout Tuesday campaign is that it’s not enough – it’s “activism for non-activists,” I don’t agree.
It’s easy to call this politically-correct wokism or woke-washing, but just like corporate social responsibility can be called greenwashing, if used correctly it can drive real, meaningful change. By saying nothing, we are in effect agreeing with the status quo. In the aftermath of Covid-19, the focus is now on social issues more than ever before. If almost a third of all consumers are buying brands whose social and political values mirror their own, we need to put ‘purpose over profit’.
Just don’t clutter the news with your offers and product benefits and showcase your complete lack of social awareness. Share, support, donate and do what you can. Don’t stick your head in the sand. Black lives matter.
– Melissa Andrews