Performative Corporate Activism is Tired. It’s Time to Open Your Wallet.

Unsure how to steer your company away from the pitfalls of corporate activism? Find straightforward, actionable insight here.

Collage of Worklife guests speaking about corporate activism (Lindsey Farrar, Nkrumah Farrar, Michael Hagos, Adrienne Lawrence).

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We launched our first annual meeting in 2020, a year of awakening and upheaval for many around the globe. In the midst of this widespread shift, we brought together game-changers reimagining the future of work and life to weigh in on everything from switching careers to inclusive design. Couldn’t make it? Not a problem.We’re rolling out the info here. Today we’re talking about steps that companies can take to go beyond “Black Lives Marketing” and performative corporate activism to start affecting real change.

In 2020, many in the U.S. began awakening to systemic racism. Companies were implicated, leaving many brands scrambling to keep the public tide from turning against them. Success varied.

Rather than taking the time to reevaluate their internal processes and make actual changes, many brands used 2020 to peddle words and sell more stuff. Many corporations also skipped out on investing in Black-founded, -owned, and -operated companies and organizations. (Note: Black-owned companies are not hard to find; in fact, Black women are more likely to become entrepreneurs than any other demographic in the U.S.). 

In this talk, guests tackle the empty statements of performative corporate activism and share visions of how companies and individuals can actually support Black Americans, whether or not BLM is trending.  

The discussion is moderated by Adrienne Lawrence, author of Staying in The Game, and features:

Three covers of crwnmag, Lindsey and Nkrumah Farrar's magazine.
Source: @crwnmag

Want to make sure your efforts don’t ring as hollow as that Pepsi ad? 

Then dive in to hear what Lawrence, Hagos, and the Farrars have to say. 

Corporate Activism and the Blackout Tuesday Fiasco

Lawrence: This summer we saw a huge number of companies, influencers, all else, posting black tiles on social media, replacing their icons with BLM photos. How long is this whole black tile activism really going to be influential?

Hagos: I think the black tile moment was cringe-inducing, but also kind of perversely positive in the sense that it was one grand moment where millions of people made a mistake at the same time. 

The fear of a mistake is something that is an excuse for a lack of action. When everybody makes a mistake at the same time, then when we can have a nationwide conversation around activism versus appearance. I think it was a helpful thing in the long term. 

Lindsey Farrar: From my understanding the black tile thing was started by two music industry executives who are actually Black women. I think they had a certain intention and then it was co-opted and changed into something else. 

But I think the problem is that people—brands—don't know what to say and don’t want to do the hard work of auditing their businesses and internal practices to see how they are contributing to systemic oppression. So the shortcut is: black tile. Cool. They say “We're here with you, we’re standing strong, we see you,” but their actions and practices do not reflect any of the words. 

I don't think a post or a series of posts can have an impact without changing practices and systems.

Nkrumah Farrar: I don't think that our allies have gotten the memo that symbols will not suffice for us anymore. People are informed, people have spent some time studying history, and people are ready for substance. We've had enough symbol. 

How to Avoid Performative Activism? Invest in Black Lives and Talent.

Lawrence: What do you think needs to be done for those people who are looking to make their mark and to say that they truly are invested in Black lives? 

Nkrumah Farrar: They’ve gotta invest. We understand very clearly that we are operating in a capitalist society and to operate in a capitalist society in the absence of capital is a horrible existence. So what it means to invest is to invest. 

If we had more spaces of our own—founded and operated and run by people who are of the culture—there'd be fewer incidents of misunderstanding and cultural insensitivity. But instead, we’re fighting to be respected while fighting to have access to something that we didn't create.

Does Corporate Activism Make a Difference?

Lawrence: How do you feel about companies that didn't put out a statement or reaffirm their support for Black lives? 

Lindsey Farrar: I think statements are statements. My personal belief and feeling is that statements can mean nothing. I would guess all of the same microaggressions are still happening for people who work inside these organizations.

We live in an era and a culture where we want people to say something. It can easily become corporate performative activism. I personally would rather see these companies do something. 

There's a lot of companies that did say something yet they aren’t:

  • Reevaluating their hiring practices and company culture
  • Updating the way that they hire vendors 
  • Improving their internal structures and processes
  • Putting Black people in executive positions

So the statements are very hollow. 

Nkrumah talked about being in a capitalist society. Black people were literally the seed capital for that society. So we are coming from a very different frame of reference, a very different standpoint. We don't have the same resources and access. There has to be a complete reframing when you engage with Black-owned businesses. You have to educate yourself and understand that there are alternate realities for different groups of people.

Hagos: The beauty of it is, if you're going to make a corporate statement, you're basically asking people to check your books to see if it’s just corporate performative activism. 

Visibility was the name of the game for so long. But you can’t use Black Lives Matter for marketing. The phrase of late is “fuck you, pay me.” Don't use my face, don't use my name, don't use my culture, without the capital. 

That’s when public opinion turned against Martin Luther King: once he started asking for things that cost money. Once it became a war against poverty. 

Once it's no longer just marches and pictures, but finances, conversations get a lot more real.

Keeping Companies that Support Black Lives Matter Accountable

Lawrence: We also have companies that support Black Lives Matter being viewed to some as in alignment with the Black community. What is the best way to hold them accountable? We talked about making sure that there's more disbursement of resources and opportunities, but what else can we do when Black lives are no longer a trending issue?

Hagos: Part of it comes down to what these organizations are doing with actual on the ground community organizations. So many initiatives were created in the summer of 2020. Chief diversity officers were hired without the support they needed. Those steps can easily fade away. But creating public partnerships with organizations on the ground that are actually doing the work can become a trust building exercise. 

When companies can build their brands with organizations over the course of decades, now we’re talking.

Nkrumah Farrar: I would say that companies have to be all in or just stay out of the way. I think a part of being all in is leveraging the scale of influence and the scale of wealth that some of these companies have to put pressure on the government and to intervene directly on our behalf.

I'm not privy to how things work in society at that level, but I do understand that politics follow the money. So, however you guys do that, work it out amongst yourselves. If you want to intervene on our behalf, get serious and go all in.

Lawrence: When the Trump administration came into power, the first thing it did was roll back the Obama era rules and regulations about employers reporting what they're paying to their employees based on things like gender and race. Back then we could see if companies were practicing what they preached in terms of equality. 

Now we don't get to see those books to determine how companies are investing in us. 

Lawrence: What do you think people can do to hold our government accountable? 

Lindsey Farrar: I definitely believe it has to be more than voting. I think voting is the bare minimum and particularly voting in the presidential election is the bare minimum. I think we can all do better at being more civically engaged on a local level. 

We saw with the Breonna Taylor case that it came down to a DA making a particular decision and handling things in a particular way. We can make sure that we know how people got into office and make sure that the people who are in office are aligned with our values. 

There's so much that we can do on a personal and community level in terms of organizing. It's our everyday action:

  • How are we spending those 8 to 10 hours a day? 
  • Are we upholding the systems that oppress us? 
  • Or are we creating new ones? 

As individuals we also have tremendous buying power and where we spend our money matters. Do the hard work of aligning your consumer spending with those values and stand firm in that.

What we do every single day matters. When it's collective and it's compounded, it shifts culture entirely.

So, I think it is important to be engaged civically, but that's just the start.

Corporate Social Activism Starts Internally

Hagos: Businesses aren’t the tip of the spear when it comes to progress, but the government is even further behind that. 

In my experience, unless the rich want something to happen, politicians aren't going to follow suit. And there's a lot of data to back up.

So I think, instead of pressuring particular politicians, it's more about pressuring businesses to: 

  • Give people time off to vote 
  • Protect the environment 
  • Make sure that Black people get paid

Nkrumah Farrar: I think it goes back to the black tile activism question. The companies who participated in making these statements did so from the comfort of their seats. It was easy for them to watch and identify systematic racism against Black people in the form of physical violence from the police. But can they identify racism within their own company?

I think it’s important for all of us to start with ourselves, to start with our personal accountability to the question. 

Put Black women in charge. How about that? 

We have worked for companies where all of the C-suite are white men. Let me work for a company where the entire C-suite is Black women. Those internal shifts in power are demonstrations of a company’s desire for outward change in the world. 

From Corporate Activism to Leveraging Power, Fame, and Money

Lawrence: Yes, personal accountability is pivotal. When people are their own individual brands and carry so much power, what can they do? What should we expect of influencers and celebrities when it comes to standing in solidarity with the Black community and advancing us?

Nkrumah Farrar: I think that what I said about companies applies to the individual. Either you're in or you're out. You're out, that's fine. You're a person, you got your own stuff that's going on, you don't want to deal with it, I understand. 

But if you're sincere and you want to be involved, use what you have.

If you're rich and famous, you have the ability to speak in public and in the private spaces where your influence and fame have sway. Move around the riches:

  1. Find the most radical, dissenting, powerful grassroots activists engaging in meaningful work.
  2. Give them everything that you can. 
  3. Get out of the way. 

I think that white folks—especially the ones that want to help—do a lot of head-scratching as they try to figure out what to do. But in truth, a lot of the problems that we have, we have to solve for ourselves. Part of us having that self determination and solving problems for ourselves is having access to resources that empower us to do so.

So, if you're rich and famous, say whatever you want to say. Make it heartfelt. Look in the camera and use your best acting skills. And then bust out the purse. 

Hagos:  There are also so many elements of power that we don't see, but that are much more important. It's like an iceberg. 

I think if we have more extensive conversations about the hard levers of power and how shit actually works, then I think we'll have a more meaningful conversation about equity.

Calling Out Corporate Performative Activism: Worth It?

Lawrence: What do you think can have the greatest impact: calling people out and condemning them or giving allies support and praise? 

Lindsey Farrar: What does cancel culture really do at the end of the day besides put brands in our mouths and give them:

  • More impressions 
  • More views
  • More conversation
  • Free marketing

I am much more likely to see a mistake, take note of it, and then continue doing the work that I know will actually have an impact. 

I don't have time to educate. There's so many people—the Rachel Cargles of the world—who have dedicated time and energy and effort in their lives to creating resources for allies and educating. We live in an information age. There's so much available, so much to read, so much to learn and unpack.

If you're in, you have to have less defensiveness. That’s for the allies, but that's also for ourselves. We have to spend less time policing whiteness and more time building our own shit. 

Nkrumah Farrar: The folks with nothing to do, y'all be our Twitter fingers and you negatively or positively reinforce. The rest of us are going to be engaged in doing the work to create spaces for our folks. ∎

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