The post-controversy Diversity Enlightenment

Image: http://stopblackface.com/

A well-meaning friend shared a job posting by Gucci with me in March. Gucci advertised for a Diversity and Inclusion job in the wake of Blackface controversy shortly after their black $890 balaclava sweater with red lips became a viral sensation for the wrong reason of course. My response to her was just this "hmmmmm". Well, there can be many connotations to my "hmmmmm" in the urban dictionary. 
However, mine was more on the lines of disdain. Come to think of it I once also fashion blogged about Gucci in my blog "Dreaming of Gucci". Haha, I am dreaming of Gucci no more! Nothing personal against Gucci. A lot already has been written about the backlash, the should-haves, and the must-haves. Here I am revisiting the racist legacy of blackface because this has been an ongoing series, mind you, likened to a literal house of cards. Prada faced a similar backlash on social media. Katy Perry and the Blackface Shoes Controversy...then so and so, and the blackface controversy. Burberry, more recently following backlash against a "noose hoodie" design on its Fall 2019 collection. A series of unfortunate events. Really!

A common thread that runs amok is shortly after these events, Gucci, Prada, and Burberry a
nnounced new diversity initiatives like scholarships, advisory councils, and changemaker programmes to “elevate voices of color within the company and the fashion industry at large.” Or, "People of color will be given new opportunities through these new initiatives." Not to mention, the new found momentum to hire regional and global Diversity officers and run culture sensitivity and unconscious bias workshops. 

  • Heck, some of these brands would also come to me to find them their next Chief Diversity Officer ;)

Sounds familiar? Remember 
Starbucks did the same with a well-meaning campaign back in the days which aimed to spark conversations about race relations by having their baristas write the phrase "Race Together" on Starbucks cups. And yet they had to resolve to educate their baristas for racial-bias training...for acknowledging their corporate responsibility and for taking action to confront a racially charged uproar over the wrongful-arrest-incident at a Philadelphia Starbucks. Shortly after the much-hyped training, there was yet another incident where a barista mocked a customer's stutter.

These are not isolated events. I don't believe that is the case of better late than never. Why? Because 
One would assume that being the top global luxury brands, these brands would have sorted diversity challenges much earlier especially when their recent collections and the whole essence and existence reverberate slavery and colonialism which anyways was particularly a shameful period from a historical point of view. 

Global brands, yes. Having diverse customers, yes. Despite all that, they couldn't establish the need for a more diverse strategy in their concept to consumer stages to get the right product out on the drawing board and eventually to their end customer! 


Yet here we are, discussing these challenges in 2019 that range far and between the racist or suicidal imagery which is still an integral part of their collection including trying to make sense of the mockery of multiracial solidarity by reassembling established racial hierarchies through rampant controversial fashion that has intent or the context to be hurtful and disturbing at the same time!

This is a loop. I tell you. That never ceases to unloop. I believe it is a fact now that brands, in general, need more diversity within because if they don't - they will continue to stereotype, continue to faux pas and will lose out on not just an existing customer base but potentially many more diverse groups that will fail to connect with these brands as opposed to brands that do it right because they recognize diversity as a strategy to outperform competitors but most importantly they realize that it takes a wide variety of people to become the best and that they need to have the ability to be able to rely on everyone on their team, no matter how different another person may be.  Organizations with diverse leadership outperforms organisations that aren't on all possible metrics and yet,  despite all the research, many organizations still wrap around the need for a diversity business case. Especially for these luxury brands, diversity could also be the biggest single most factor determining a business' success in assessing its ability to market to a wide range of demographics. However, Diversity ignorance kind of trickles down to every aspect of these brands' DNA. Even the recruitment process which is so skewed that it fails to recognize and even acknowledge the contribution diverse talent can make. It's not me but many diverse candidates who share the same sentiment because brands seem to hire mirror neurons of their "cultural fit" who invariably is someone they believe is "just like us".

It's still unbearable to see that many brands fail to understand this and work around diversity more reactively than proactively. This is despite that savvy businesses have known for a while that diversity is simply not a good thing to do, it's essential in innovation and creativity. Should I say that Gucci, Prada, and Burberry are not savvy businesses?

So many brands like Gucci, Prada, and Burberry are tinkering around the edges of diversity rather than embrace all the benefits that it brings. They fail to understand that Diversity needs to be built in, not added on. The classic response from them is that fashion doesn't have a diversity issue because there is a lot of representation already (Women / LGBTQ). Conveniently brushing the fact under the carpet that how many of those diverse representatives are at the leadership level? 

The questions here to ask are "Does punching the Diversity card and setting up diversity councils and initiatives work so late in the day
No matter how much diversity cards these brands will punch, unless they have diverse leadership at the helm, it will never be about misinterpretation, but will always remain to be a misrepresentation at the most. The buck starts and stops at the top of the pyramid. The leadership at the helm of these brands have an understanding of diversity that is minimal. It would take really strong Chief Diversity Officers to not become mere instruments and preemptive tools of leadership or 
obliviate into becoming a tick box exercise for such brands to seem diverse to the outside world, while from the inside they still follow the old dictums of control and continue to dabble in the fine art of puppetry.

Many diversity initiatives fizzle out because they lack steam and buy-in from the leadership. Advocating Diversity and implementing it - It’s never been a path of least resistance... Quoting what, Christopher Sacca, former super angel, venture investor, company advisor, and entrepreneur pointed out in his discussion Greed case for Diversity adding how companies that have diverse consumers still lack in having diversity in the highest echelons of power in their leadership.
This is true in the case of Gucci, Prada, Burberry and the likes. Bring in more diversity at the top of the pyramid to see more inclusive outcomes. Period.


So what else would work, one can ask? One of the other ways these brands can authentically drive change and see the impact of their diversity initiatives is to engage with diverse communities inside-out and outside-in of the employee-customer ecosystem because engagement would reflect the brand's intention to embed diversity and inclusion into their core values ensuring that every decision taken within their organization is well informed and guided. For example, holding diversity events and engaging with diverse communities, having conversations about the direction the brand should take to become inclusive, soak in feedback, etc. across dimensions of demographics that constitutes the diversity of their employees and customers is evidence in itself that brands are not embarking on wildly ambitious projects but they want diverse communities to be a part of the company’s long term future i.e. brands do not just want to hire diverse talent or people of color or gain them as customers, but they want them to stay and flourish with them and above all not to exploit, cut and commercialize diverse culture purely for their financial benefit. 

I think they can better serve by approaching the idea diversity initiates announced after courting controversy should be more about generating awareness than trying to change behavior and culture of the organization and claiming that these reactive initiatives will bring more inclusive outcomes. Brands like Gucci, Prada, and Burberry might believe that one and done diversity initiatives are enough and that mindset is completely wrong. Launching Diversity initiatives are not the end of the analysis. A truly effective diversity initiative is comprehensive and integrated, with training or hiring people of color or even hiring a chief diversity officer just one component of a strategic plan. Once this post-controversy enlightenment fades, brands often go back to what their culture DNA say is easiest to process, and implicit biases rule, controversy continues. So, these brands just need to own it up and jump out of their privileged high horse! Start possibly with the leadership, as I said earlier. Change how the top-level behaves first and make the representation more diverse there, gradually it will trickle down. 

Also, to say "People of color will be given new opportunities through these new initiatives" and " We will elevate the voice of color" is a lot of BS, frankly. We all are people of color. Even white is a color. But racism is wrong, wherever it's directed or in whichever way its described. Just understand the basic tenets of diversity and y'all are good to go, Gucci, Prada, Burberry, and XYZs.

The brands that would play their cards right in the diverity department are the ones that'll succeed in the most testing times. And, the testing times aren't far enough.

====Amit Anand====






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