Facing down racism: Pushback and apathy
In the second of a series of interviews, Black people and People of Color explain who pushes back against their perspectives and how we can fight apathy in the industry.
Following last week’s article, we share additional insight from marginalized voices in the advertising industry.
The accounts appear as follows: Elisha Smith-Leverock, a director based in Germany with frequent work in the UK [ESL]; an anonymous Agency Strategist, who works internationally [AS]; Jaiden James, a Creative Strategist, who works in Germany and the UK [JJ]; Rachel Hoffman, an Agency Producer based in Germany [RH]; Monika Martinez, a Creative Producer specializing in fashion based in Germany and the USA [MM]; Anissa Carrington, a freelance designer and Art Director based in Germany [AC]; an anonymous Creative Strategist working internationally [CS]; Katharina Hingst, a director working in Germany [KH]; Lorena Maza, an international stylist and consultant [LM]; Affa Osman, a creative consultant and Casting Director in Germany and the UK [AO]; and an anonymous Social Media Manager [SM].
Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Who pushes back against your perspective?
ESL: When it comes to the casting process the responsibility for the lack of Black and PoC faces often gets passed on. The agency will say it’s the client and the client will say it’s their consumers. They specifically say that their consumers are unable to identify with Black people and People of Color. Everybody is deflecting.
I am expected to check my identity at the door and execute what is expected of me. Often this means that while I go in with a diverse and inclusive casting board, reflective of the world I live in, I end up shooting with an all-white cast. I often find myself in these situations when I have been hired in spite of who I am. I realize quickly that my voice and the insights that I could bring to the table as a Black woman are, in fact, unwanted.
In many ways, the main issue is that the lack of diversity in the room creates an environment that’s toxic because the thoughts lack diversity. -JJ
I frequently experience pushback when I have been hired as a token. Sometimes people who have hired me, a light-skinned Black woman, feel they have done enough work towards diversity just because I’m on the call list. Therefore they feel no need to further diversify what’s happening in front of the camera, or that diversity 'light’ is enough.
AS: I think the more constraining issue is that my perspectives are silenced even before I have a chance to speak up. Because of the culture of the industry, I never feel safe to express how I honestly view a situation. There are unspoken barriers impeding inclusivity, diversity, equality, and equity. These barriers are in place on all levels; institutional, structural, conceptional, personal, and conversational. For me, this cultural reticence is the most pressing manifestation of pushback.
I see [pushback] most often from white men in positions of power, trickling down to all those complicit in upholding the status quo. And since whiteness is the status quo, all white people are in positions of power. -MM
Whenever I do mention that something is problematic, one of two things usually happen. I find myself in discussions where I carry the responsibility of educating, fighting for intersectional perspectives and mostly becoming a projection surface for whatever frustrations my counterpart has regarding racism and their complicity in it. Sometimes people skip the interrogation altogether and I find myself having to listen to their justifications for their racism in addition to lectures on how I’m actually the ignorant one because I didn’t consider their "good intentions."
JJ: In many ways, the main issue is that the lack of diversity in the room creates an environment that’s toxic because the thoughts lack diversity.
People who challenge, dilute, or silence my voice have always been my bosses and people in power. Exploring any platform that feels new and fresh is often shut down because these spaces are not specifically whitewashed or built for white people.
I receive pushback from anyone who has to give up a little bit of power or put in a tiny bit of extra work. -AO
RH: Often the difficulty lies with the agency or with the agency's implied obedience to perpetuating whiteness. It lies with agency creatives who preemptively filter the casting, making assumptions about what the client wants.
Even if I wanted to push back, there is no safe space for PoC to address issues such as racism, especially not in an immediate work context. In a room full of white colleagues and clients who do not share your lived reality and usually do not understand it, you will inevitably encounter incomprehension. Addressing racism or representation in such an environment is always accompanied by the anxiety of being labelled an ‘angry black woman’. The desire to hold a successful, smooth meeting also prevents you from raising your voice.
MM: Pushback comes from many different places, but I see it most often from white men in positions of power, trickling down to all those complicit in upholding the status quo. And since whiteness is the status quo, all white people are in positions of power, and actively resist my perspective as it decenters them.
AC: The people blocking progress in the creative industry are, simply said, everybody. From the apathetic white people who do not speak out when they witness racism, to the ones who gaslight their Black and brown colleagues into thinking any reaction to racism is “overly dramatic.”
Because of the culture of the industry, I never feel safe to express how I honestly view a situation...this cultural reticence is the most pressing manifestation of pushback. -AS
KH: I usually have to fight against an unanimous consent amongst white men and women who all seem to be extremely worried about skin colors their white target group is able to handle before they feel disconnected to the products and brands.
AO: I receive pushback from anyone who has to give up a little bit of power or put in a tiny bit of extra work. Anyone who has to actually use more emotional intelligence than they’re used to.
How do we combat apathy in the industry?
ESL: The onus has always been on the marginalized groups to call out the injustices, and that’s a difficult spot to be in. Especially when you are the only person of color in the boardroom or on-set. There is a tendency to ignore or even punish that lone voice. I’ve definitely found myself in situations where I caved to racist requests; when I should have pushed back harder or walked off the job but I didn’t do so because I was scared of losing work and damaging my career.
To me, the single biggest issue is definitely the make-up of our business. It's a predominantly white male industry. I find it hard to believe that there was no awareness of the problems of racism and underrepresentation. In my mind, people simply did not care until now.
In order to break through apathy, white companies need to really understand the importance of representation, especially for young people of color. -RH
AS: I think it's quite easy for the white majority in this industry to express sympathies and perform surface-level solidarity. Especially in our industry, there is an affinity for quickly developing a purpose-driven claim for a brand, splashing it all over, and then washing our hands of it, making a habit of shallowness, even when advertisers genuinely stand behind these messages and positionings.
It is a literal trend. Just look at how feminism, body-positivity, sustainability, mindfulness, or climate change is utilized within advertising. The good intentions and convictions are always there, at least for the brand, but none of it is a reflection of how the ad industry actually operates.
We need a more robust antiracist education on all levels. If that exists and a real exchange with Black people happens in a way that makes them feel safe, that’s when the industry can truly change, for good. -SM
So, what needs to be combated is the current way advertising operates. The solution will not exist solely in representation and diversity in ads. Adland cannot only issue solidarity statements and tweak corporate values, it has to also employ experts and re-imagine corporate dynamics. They cannot claim "we are open to everyone" and then lean away from action. It will be necessary to provide education on intersectionality and inclusion, as well as reforming hiring procedures and investing money in marginalized professionals.
Combating apathy will take real change. It will ultimately mean that white people will have to give up space. I hope there is a present, and a future, where people of color not only have a seat at this broken table, but get to build a whole new table altogether.
RH: In order to break through apathy, white companies need to really understand the importance of representation, especially for young people of color. Hiring should be critically questioned. Specifically, companies should look at their workforce and make considerations towards hiring PoC, and not just in subordinate positions. Ideally, it should be PoC in decision-making positions and not just white allies.
In a more individual context, white colleagues can back PoC when they point out racism.
I need people to stop arguing with me about something that they, as white people, have never experienced. -AO
MM: Apathy is, in part, due to the normalizing of racism in the industry as a means to uphold the status quo.
Unfortunately, voice is a privilege some of us don’t always feel we have - as a Black woman working in a predominantly white male space, every day I am actively gauging whether I should express myself or protect myself. As a result, I remain silent about much of the racism and sexism I experience and witness on a day-to-day basis.
In order to combat apathy, we all have to make the more difficult commitment to changing our day-to-day actions and conversations surrounding racism as well as our response to racism. We have to speak up and become informed about the many and complicated ways in which racism plays out in these spaces.
This will take time. This will be hard. But we need everyone to call out when and where we see racism. We need our allies to use their platforms. We must divest from racist individuals, brands, businesses, and corporations.
CS: We need more Black people in advertising, this means more representation in order to encourage Black applicants and active recruiting of BIPOC.
KH: The industry has to move away from publicity statements and towards fundamentally changing the structures from within to diversify executive decisions.
LM: I think everyone should look inside their own community and re-evaluate how they can change the industry and make it more diverse. It's not just about the color of your skin and the country you’re from. Starting out in this industry is often tied to economic privilege. We have to be more open about mentoring and uplifting young talent. We should be donating to funds and giving away scholarships, making the fashion industry, as well as film and advertising, more accessible.
I find it hard to believe that there was no awareness of the problems of racism and underrepresentation. In my mind, people simply did not care until now. -ESL
AO: People need to understand systemic racism first. There is a lot of literature out there by Black writers. I need people to stop arguing with me about something that they, as white people, have never experienced. There is an idea in people’s minds that they can argue with me if I experience racism or mention that something is racist. This power dynamic only protects white people and makes it clear whose intellectual contributions are valuable.
We need to nurture talent and make creative education accessible and attainable for people, especially those who might not have the privilege of support from their parents when doing an internship in a creative field, let alone the cost of art school. Optics matter and we need to question how much we have done in the past to actively fight systemic racism. If you are seeing antiracism and diversity as a phase, do you understand that you’re part of the problem? Before the industry accepts that this won’t be solved in a year or two, they can’t do the heavy lifting.
SM: We need a more robust antiracist education on all levels. If that exists and a real exchange with Black people happens in a way that makes them feel safe, that’s when the industry can truly change, for good.