Blind to my ignorance, I write to you with the humility and uncertainty of someone who is trying to emerge from a lifelong cave. Up until two weeks ago, I had never even heard of the concept of anti-racism let alone understood its implications. Talking about this concept with a wide range of CMOs, I came to realize that it was new to many of them too, even those who considered themselves fair, liberal-minded and pro-diversity. It turns out that a lot of us are emerging from a cave, struggling to shake our sheltered perceptions.
In a recent conversation, one CMO shared “I believe it’s a supply problem,” lamenting the challenge of hiring a more diverse workforce. Another CMO called this a “bullshit excuse,” explaining how they’ve forced their recruiters to find diverse candidates. This interchange helped me to understand an important aspect of what it means to be anti-racist. It’s being proactive. Another CMO realized his social feeds lacked diversity, so he took this as an opportunity to change and seek out prominent Black voices in the #BlackLivesMatter conversation. This is another key part of the journey towards being anti-racist, actively listening to the marginalized voices helping shape this movement.
For the most part, I’m proud of my fellow marketers and the actions they are taking to address racial injustice both inside and outside of their organizations. They have helped open my eyes to what it means to be anti-racist. They’ve figured out a number of ways to change the algorithm, not just of their social feeds, but of their entire information flow. None are declaring victory, and none should be. In fact, all realize it’s a life-long journey, measured by both big and little steps of progress. Here are a few of the steps the CMOs in my orbit are taking to instigate change.
Learning: Expanding their Perceptions
One CMO mentioned watching 13TH, the 2016 documentary directed by Ava DuVernay (currently on Netflix), with her 10-year-old daughter. The film introduced them to the term “prison-industrial complex,” and the systematic incarceration of black men. Two books in particular, White Fragility and How to Be an Anti-Racist, have risen to the top of many CMO reading lists (and my own). If you’re in search of other resources, here’s an expansive Google Doc that’s circulating far and wide. Closer to home, my in-the-know daughter suggested I follow certain Instagram accounts (@jemarmxchael, @naacp, @shityoushouldcareabout @soyouwanttotalkabout) to expand my purview.
Listening: Getting Beyond “How are you?”
The majority of CMOs I’ve spoken with have orchestrated internal company meetings to discuss diversity and inclusion issues and initiatives. These were intended to open company-wide dialogues and were often followed up with team and 1:1 conversations. Many CMOs recognized the need for their organization to listen more, hoping to identify and address intentional or more likely unintentional racist behavior. A few companies opened up an organization-wide Slack channel called #MicroAgressions, making it easier for these to surface and hopefully, be eliminated.
Recruiting: Broadening their Talent Searches
Most CMOs understand the advantages of having a diverse marketing team that can add perspectives beyond their own. But building such a team takes extra effort since it requires overcoming systems that have long hindered diversity in the workplace. One CMO spoke of the need to force their recruiters to share a diverse candidate pool for a recent opening. That approach worked and in no way compromised the quality of the candidates. In fact, they ended up hiring two of the six finalists. Another CMO shared how they are changing their list of schools from which they recruit to include historically black colleges like Spelman, Moorhouse and Howard. These are a few small steps that could lead to big change.
Sharing: Speaking Out
One of the more contentious debates in the last few weeks has been whether or not brands should speak out and/or show solidarity with the #BlackLivesMatter movement. A couple of candy brands like Gushers and Fruit by the Foot frankly looked ridiculous on Twitter sharing “allyship.” Others like Nike (Just don’t do it) and P&G (The Talk) produced powerful videos that were mainly lauded although some questioned these brand’s authentic commitment. And that’s the issue in a nutshell. Actions are ultimately what matter and will prove out whether or not your organization is riding a bandwagon or making real change.
Giving: Time Off & Matching Gifts
Several CMOs I spoke with noted that their companies were making contributions directly and implementing incremental matching gift programs. One CMO recommends Benevity as a giving-platform to facilitate their matching gift efforts. Some of the non-profit organizations currently being supported include Black Girls Who Code, the Black Lives Matter global network and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. In addition to giving money, some companies are celebrating Juneteenth (June 19) as a holiday while others are encouraging their employees to give their time by providing extra days off for volunteering on behalf of organizations like those listed above.
Final note: My 94-year-old dad asked me if all the protests and all the talk of change would make a difference this time. Having watched so many movements fizzle out over his lifetime, he’s earned the right to be skeptical. My response to him was, this time could be different because the CMOs I know are committed, are taking more action than ever, and can indeed help change the world.