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In times of divisive politics, social unrest and massive protests, brands are taking notice and adding more diversity to their messages. Many companies post social justice messages designed to show allies. However, if we take a closer look, we will find that many of these brands do not have the internal organization or actions to align with their messages.
This is called performative allyship. Performative allies are essentially when you "speak" but not "walk".
Brands and companies know the power of marketing and intentionally create positive social perceptions. However, brands should be careful when spreading these messages. They can create false perceptions that weaken a brand's trust and respect among their customers.
Of course, diversity messaging can be used jointly. I use this power in my own business news. But I think there is a way for brands that want to jump on the bandwagon to jump in awareness. Here's how to use your diversity messages in a more targeted manner to avoid the pitfalls of a performative ally.
What is performative ally anyway?
After May 25, the unfortunate and iconic day that George Floyd was killed, it seemed like everyone felt the sense of urgency to do something and say something to stand on the right side of justice.
Brands and organizations began to follow the conversations about social justice in business and in society at large. People in all states saw changes. Buildings were renamed, statues were lowered, murals were raised, and of course brands began to change their news and marketing.
Related: 5 Ways Color Entrepreneurs Can Determine An Ally's Authenticity
Don't get me wrong – nothing in and of itself is bad about it. But the conversation I want to wake people up to is about the pros, cons, and considerations you should have when messaging in support of DEI and allies. You and your company should avoid “appearing” in public spaces and not doing the work in-house.
There is no perfect answer or scripture in DEI to address racism. Rather, it's a reflection of what you've done before, and more importantly, what you're going to do afterwards.
It is important to understand that when organizations or companies make an internal or external public statement, they are essentially inviting people to hold them accountable. The whole world can now question the actions of their past, how their business works internally, what culture they have created, and how they will continue to operate in public.
This year, executives may have felt they needed to act with a knee-jerk reaction in order to be perceived as being on the right side. However, many people look through brands that don't "go the way". People see the inauthenticity of certain brands as performative. Executives need to recognize that there are implications and consequences that come with performing ally.
What are the problems for my company when I engage with performative allies?
Performative allies can weaken your company's trust and credibility. Not only can this be detrimental to color communities, but it can also put the news in a context where your company feels like it is throwing some money into the diversity issues and hoping they'll go away.
Related: The Supreme Court Decision To Protect LGBTQ + In The Workplace …
When people see performative allies, they feel like you could avoid the hard and important work. This performative work can feel good on the surface and give us a glimmer of hope as there is a certain amount of solidarity. But at the end of the day those of us who are interested in DEI work are wondering where the in-depth work is and what practical steps are in place to reduce systemic racism.
As entrepreneurs interested in DEI, we don't want this work to be window dressing or just ticking a box. We don't want it to be a costume for the real problems. We want society to emerge stronger and not repeat the injustices of the past. We want organizations to align their words with their actions. We want our companies to act and communicate with integrity and credibility.
Brands make a fatal mistake with performative ally. It's about intention versus effect. Just because you didn't intend for something to end up a certain way shouldn't mean that others should face the consequences. Insensitive DEI messages can lead to negative word of mouth, poor market reaction, or boycott of your business.
What can you do to be a real ally?
Here are some tips for brands to become true allies and avoid performative allies.
Count the cost. Before you find it appropriate to write a statement, give an oral pledge, or change your messages, you need to "count the cost" and know what it means to deliver it. In other words, browse the job or reach out to a DEI specialist to find out what it is costing you, your team, and your company to focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Analyze your resources so that you can do justice to the DEI messages you want to run. Conduct an internal assessment. It is especially important to evaluate your DEI efforts through the lens of the executive team. You need to consider what will help your company build a solid foundation on which DEI can thrive. Ask yourself and your team questions like: Are you actually ready for DEI work? Do you have the infrastructure to support them? Do you have the capital to support them? Have you set up processes to drive sustainable change? Evaluation to collect important data to inform the way forward? Conduct a readiness interview and conduct an assessment. To build on the last point, I encourage brands and executives to ask questions about the Meyer DEI Spectrum Tool 12 Dimensions of DEI work. These 12 dimensions include policy assessment, leadership, infrastructure, training, and more. This assessment includes verifying that you did the hard work of these conversations to determine why you are doing this work, analyzing the business case for it, and making sure the vision is aligned across the leadership. Create systems of justice and justice. If you want to empower brown and black people, ask yourself if there are systems in place for that. Even if your proposed systems are small, make sure you can deliver them – if not, don't market them. After analysis and evaluation, you can get in touch with DEI professionals to build these systems and implement these ideals for external messaging. Avoid washing up. People want to support brands that they believe really "woke up" and not "wake up". They want to support brands that are actually aligned with their values and do hard work. Ben & Jerrys is a great example of a brand that has woken up and is working for justice in the world. They demonstrated allies long before George Floyd's death and continued to support DEI efforts afterwards. They earned the trust of their audience and avoided the pitfalls when they woke up cocky. In other words, they spoke the conversation and walked the path.
When you are focused, prepared, and honest about the news you want to share, you will take important steps toward becoming a real ally.
As we get into the world and more issues with racial and social justice begin to arise (because they become) make sure you dig deep and really do the work to avoid any performative connectedness.
Make sure you can secure your messages with the system, culture, and infrastructure changes in your organization that are having real impact. Make sure that you are actually doing the ally work to help you and your company contribute to a more just and just world.
Related: Be intentional about diversity