When I was approached about writing this article for OPEN Forum for Black History Month, I thought to myself, “Whaa? I don’t know what to write! How can I possibly make a connection between social media and Black History Month?”
So, what to do?
After much thought I came upon the question I wanted to explore:
With social media’s expansive, far-reaching messaging capabilities (Egypt, anyone?), why have companies taken a clear stance on supporting the quest for a cure for breast cancer, or being more kind to the environment, or in support of PETA, but relatively few have said a word about racism, outside of the almost obligatory Black History Month Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King nod?
I say relatively few because some business leaders are having progressive conversations about racism; not surprisingly though, most do so under the cloak of “increasing diversity." Or, “cognitive diversity," in the case of Joe Gerstandt, whose website tagline is “illuminating the value of difference."
At the end of one of Gerstandt’s blog posts titled Rubbing Brains Together, he provides tips on how to benefit from different ideas. The first of those tips is on having conversations about diversity in your business: “…if you do not have disagreement you should be very, very concerned because you have a lack of honest communication.”
That statement alone made me realize probably the core reason many businesses don’t dare broach the topic of racism: the “d word”…disagreement. I mean, really, what employer wants to have their employees disagreeing in the workplace about racism? We can get almost anyone to agree that it’s good for all people to be kind to the planet. Most people will agree that we need to protect animals. But, getting people on the same page when it comes to racism? That’s a tall order. Could social media help?
Intercultural change agent and relationship builder, Laurie Hunt, believes the answer is Yes. “‘Mainstream (companies) can be exposed to these ideas if they’re engaged in social media when otherwise this information may never cross their paths. I think leaders and executives are cluing into the fact that they need to be online to be current. That’s a form of inclusion and a way to have conversations that would likely never happen,” says Hunt.
On the other hand, noted Twitter personality and famed journalist Harry Allen, notably referred to as the “Media Assassin," is not so sure. Allen’s Twitter bio reads, “Educate and excite, inform and infuriate,” and as someone who’s known him a long time, that about sums it up.
When I was given this assignment, I couldn’t possibly think of writing this piece without talking with Allen. That is to say, as someone who has consulted with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police on this topic, I figured he must have something to contribute to this article, right?
Allen bluntly answered my question about why companies and big brands don’t publicly counter racism by saying, “It’s too costly.”
He continues, “People ignore these issues at their peril. If nothing else, we know that what tends to happen is that something happens unexpectedly. Companies that see their clientele as being mostly white are going to continue to avoid the issue of racism until there is a crisis.”
A crisis? This left me wondering if there would be anyway to avoid such a scenario at which time Allen adroitly drew a parallel between the way businesses seem to ignore the topic of racism to the most recent financial crisis in the United States – a topic to which most, if not all, of the readers of this article can probably relate. “When the crash came, you started hearing people say that no one could have foreseen this, but as time goes by and as more information comes out, what becomes more and more clear is that it was very foreseeable,” he says.
So, why would a company want to have a horse in this race, so to speak? Many companies probably liken talking about racism to walking up to a hornets nest with a sharp stick, jabbing the nest brusquely several times and then standing there to see what will happen. Yeah, that about sums it up.
Allen’s response makes perfect sense to me: “To the degree that a company counts people who suffer the effects of racism as clientele, the stated and or actual attempt to remedy the problem would be seen as a sign of goodwill. In much the same way that a company who found itself violating environmental policies that spoke against behavior that damages the Earth, it would go a long way toward communicating their goodwill and setting their company apart.”
I guess the newsflash is if companies truly want to move the needle they first need to realize that the only productive way in which to talk about racism is to talk about it in terms of eradicating it – something a recycled television commercial from 1999 that touts the “proud and stately heritage” of African Americans could never do. It would be nice to end the lip service and start a real dialogue. And, if we can’t seem to have that conversation face to face, maybe that conversation can start on Twitter.