Discussions about diversity in the workplace are usually met with audible moans and groans. Many people simply get annoyed at the prospect of hearing about race, gender, religion or anything related to diversity. This means that not only those yearly diversity trainings are avoided, but valuable conversations about the makeup of the staff are too.
Recent events have proved that those trainings and conversations are needed.
Take a look at some of the decisions from the past year that were actually considered viable ideas at one point by various businesses and organizations:
- A hoodie with the phrase “coolest monkey in the jungle” which was modeled by a black child
- A Super Bowl commercial for trucks using the audio from Martin Luther King’s last speech
- A sweater that resembles blackface modeled by a white person
- A hoodie with a noose for drawstrings
- An elementary school field trip to a plantation to pick cotton and sing negro spirituals
All of these things are connected by one thing, avoidable ignorance.
Now it’s a big assumption to assume that the decision makers didn’t know these things could potentially offend people considering how prevalent blackface and nooses are in offensive racial imagery. But, even if we are assuming the best for all of these scenarios and operating under the assumption that the people involved simply didn’t know any better, the gaffes still fall under the category negligence.
People have different opinions and sensibilities. It’s understandable how one person from one group wouldn’t know what offends someone from another. However, the worst part about all of these decisions isn’t that ONE person made them. It’s that entire organizations and departments allowed them to be made.
Someone at Fiat Chrysler pitched the idea of using audio from America’s greatest civil rights leader in a Super Bowl ad and then passed that off to several higher ranking, presumably well educated, people who all said “yeah, let’s go with that.”
What this shows isn’t just a lack of diversity training, but additionally a lack of diverse staff members. For example, all black people are not the same and they certainly don’t all share the same opinions, but Gucci could have probably avoided their giant blackface turtleneck PR nightmare by having a few African-Americans at the table when their North American rollout is launched… Afterall that particular demographic represents a sizable block of their customers.
It really is not too much or unique to ask companies to adjust based on cultural or regional sensibilities. As a matter of fact, companies do it all the time without you even knowing. Many of your favorite movies have different titles, scenes and posters in other countries for similar reasons. World Wrestling Entertainment has a Pay-per-view event called Elimination Chamber except in Germany where the name was changed to No Escape because “Elimination Chamber is not the best name for anything in Germany for obvious reasons… and WWE is not exactly a bastion of political correctness and cultural sensitivity. This doesn’t mean that H&M should have just sold their monkey hoodie in Europe, it’s just to illustrate that companies are MORE than capable of learning cultural norms and adjusting their products to the sensitivities of the community… if they desire to do so.
If Gucci had done some product testing around their sweater someone would have pointed out why it was problematic, If that South Carolina school had engaged black community members about their field trips someone would have told them their objections after all this EXACT scenario has been a popular meme on the internet for a decade!
Many people remained unconvinced that these companies acted out of ignorance as opposed to malice. But the reality is that any argument about intent is largely an irrelevant point: It’s still their fault. This bad press is the result of their lack of training and preparation to operate in a global marketplace and a diverse country. It’s a result of not hiring enough people of color to stop them from making catastrophic decisions regarding people of color.
This should serve as a lesson to organizations: what you don’t know CAN hurt you so be proactive and plan accordingly by hiring and promoting some people of color.