Let's get it out there.
This one is going to be a little different.
I don’t believe you didn’t know.
Not after years of protest, not after best selling books, and award winning movies, and record after record after record going platinum, all directly and openly telling you about anti-Black racism, about systemic bias, and especially about the police.
I believe you didn’t want to know.
Because when I was a kid in the suburbs and my mother and father tried to talk to me about how racist the world, and people in positions of authority, could be, I didn’t want to know either. Ugly truths are seldom welcome, regardless of how true they are.
But I had to know. I had to acknowledge the patterns and the realities, everything from being followed around stores, to being singled out by teachers for ‘behaviour issues’ to being the only one in a group of kids fooling around to called out as a bully or a trouble maker. I had to acknowledge what being Black (even mixed, light-skinned, middle-class, suburbs Black*) meant and still means in our society.
You knew the police were disproportionately killing Black people, to some degree. But it didn’t seem egregious or urgent, maybe. Or there were enough unknowns that you could wonder if maybe the person who was killed had it coming, for some reason. Or maybe, if we’re being really real, you knew but you didn’t care because it didn’t impact you in any way. It was far away, and someone else’s problem.
I’ve been asked why this time is different, many times now. Why people care more about George Floyd or Breonna Taylor than they did about Alton Sterling or Philando Castile or Sandra Bland. Why many Canadians don’t really talk about the police killings of Andrew Loku or Abdirahman Abdi or the police assault of Dafonte Miller. And I can’t really answer.
I don’t know what’s different, other than the social isolation and the stay at home orders. It didn’t get any more unjust that Black people are getting executed by the police for existing without the correct level of deference. I think for a lot of people, the answer is they just have more time, and less other stuff to do.
You knew. You had to know. The video of Eric Garner being strangled to death was international news. You had NBA players on TV wearing shirts that said “I Can’t Breathe”. This was only a few years ago. Trayvon Martin got killed over being Black and going to a local store. It was international news. There was no national uprising against “stand your ground” laws. Nothing really changed.
You knew. But you didn’t necessarily care.
That’s why I’m scared. I don’t know what the future will hold specifically because this time isn’t necessarily different. There were 400 days of protest in Ferguson, after Mike Brown was killed. I’m seeing Instagram posts about being “burned out” after a week of acknowledging racism exists. Caring, it turns out, is harder than it looks. That’s why it has to turn into action now, before the numbness sets back in and the caring stops.
This is just as true for our companies. The same is true for our industry. We knew better. We just didn’t care enough.
As a whole, advertising is good at making our failings less obvious, because we’re an industry well suited to learning new language and ensuring we stay culturally relevant / appropriate, at least in public. That’s also why it’s embarrassing to pretend we collectively just noticed that arguably the most influential cultural group on the planet are disproportionately murdered by police and systematically discriminated against. It is literally our job to know culture better than those who hire us. We have no excuses for a blind spot this massive.
You knew, for example, that your agency or holding company didn’t have diverse leadership. Or that there wasn’t a representative cross section of our society in your meetings or your boardrooms. You knew it was screwed up when a client used “diverse” to mean “racially ambiguous but definitely some white people so it doesn’t seem too ethnic” in a casting discussion.
You knew when the strategy had 5 personas for white middle class millennials and two “ethnic” targets with no details involved beyond country of origin and language, that something was off.
But too many of us just didn’t need to care until it was time to figure out what to say to your team, what to tell your clients, what statement on social media was going to be appropriate but not too toothless.
We didn’t need to care enough, to take the risk of trying to be better.
This is a world of incentives. We want to think of ourselves as primarily driven by morality, but let’s cut the bullshit - we change when we think we have to, and in the last couple weeks, a hell of a lot of people in agencies have realized they might need to change.
This is your window. Our window. Take tangible actions. Fix your shit. Decide to continue to care, after the news cycle shifts and the hashtags stop trending. And don’t forget that these problems didn’t start when you became willing to see them.
We all knew. We didn’t all care. Not enough to act. Think about what that means, and what needs to change for you, for us, to stop that cycle.
*If you’re wondering, I’m pointing this out specifically to acknowledge the relative privilege I operate in as a mixed person who grew up with means. That privilege, and the family I had to advocate for me, played/plays a very significant role in how my life has gone.