Welcome to Operation Reach B.L.A.C.K.

Operation Reach B.L.A.C.K. is a Pan-African Blog with an acronym that stands for Building Leadership Awareness and Cultural Knowledge.

The goal of this blog is to become a "Blog of Black Thought" focusing on matters of social, economic and political awareness through education (re-education), self-affirmation and cultural expression. Above all, this blog will DEMAND respect and appreciation for one another as black men and women.

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(Opinions, Observations, and Commentary)

Monday, March 2, 2009

Corporate Marketing: It's Cool to be Colored

(Man, I loves me some Toccarra Jones!)

Toccara Jones is a beautiful full-figured black model who would put most runway models to shame. You might remember her from Tyra Banks' America's Next Top Model where she was best known for challenging preconceived standards of beauty in the fashion industry.

Now, I'm sure there are a lot of other women like Toccara out there. It's just unfortunate that we'll never get to see them because they don't fit the typical mold. Seems as though advertisers have a very narrow view when it comes to beauty. And that's not the only casualty. Most marketing has a narrow view of success as well. It has a narrow view of strength and masculinity. Let's face it, for as much as it claims to "push the envelope" pop culture can be one of the most conservative genres out there. Why? Well, people like Toccara are a prime example that pop culture doesn't like to try new things. In other words, it talks a good game, but it's never been a huge fan of diversity.

But, in the Age of Obama, some point to signs that this might change.

The International Herald Tribune has a very interesting article on the emphasis companies are beginning to place on diversity in advertising.

Ads . . . are part of a subtle, yet increasingly visible strategy that marketers refer to as "visual diversity" — commercials that enable advertisers to connect with wider audiences while conveying a message that corporate America is not just "in touch," racially speaking, but inclusive. (International Herald Tribune)

This strikes me as both a blessing and a curse. It's great if taken seriously. I appreciate any efforts to expand opportunity and awareness. But the question remains: how serious are they? Haven't we been here before?

The main issue for me is this . . .

When it comes to these types of ad-campaigns are we celebrating "diversity" or "inclusion"?

I'm all for celebrating diversity. Different faces, experiences, walks of life . . . sign me up! But the celebration of inclusion is a little trickier.

Now, I can hear some people already: Self-segregationist!

Wait . . . slow your roll for a minute. This is not about self-segregation, reverse discrimination or any other phrase people like to throw around whenever the subject of black empowerment comes up. Inclusion is fine so long as we're talking about a shared experience. We should aspire towards greater inclusion as we seek to learn from each other and grow from our different backgrounds and life stories. That's not the problem. . .

Still, there are pitfalls that warrant attention. I've seen this discussed on other forums as well. At what point does a "diversity" campaign become counterintuitive, ultimately doing more to push the same old "white is right" standards of beauty, power and success, but failing to open doors to NEW conceptions of the same? Can we seriously embark on a "diversity" campaign without first taking time to challenge certain preconceived notions?

The problem is that some acts of "inclusion" quickly turn to acculturation and/or assimilation if we're not careful. Both can be problematic.

Acculturation is the act of adopting another culture at the expense of one's own(i.e., immigrants adopt American culture as their own). Assimilation, on the other hand, is the literal racial conversion of one group of people by another (i.e., multiple generations of intermarrying ultimately leads to a merger of two distinct races over time). Now, this might not be a big deal if there's equal give and take. But that's usually not the case. Too often both assimilation and acculturation are defined by the dominant culture. In fact, the dominant culture is routinely defined by the absence of an "other" quality that is shunned by society.

The "other" acculturates by accepting the dominant culture as his own. The "other" assimilates by deliberately marrying into the dominant race over generations (and before you go there, this is not an anti-interracial marriage argument . . . although marrying for the sake of assimilation - and NOT love - is not cool in my book).

And that's the elephant in the room. The article portrays marketing as a means by which society sets the standard-bearers. Our conceptions of masculinity, femininity, beauty, power, success . . . our understanding of these things are the result (in large part) of advertising. Little girls play with Barbie dolls and little boys like G.I. Joe. The extent to which we deviate from these standards. . . .the extent to which these little girls and boys disappoint these standards (e.g., little Johnny prefers Barbie dolls and little Jane is black) reinforces the mainstream at the expense of the "other." Thus, acceptance into the dominant culture comes by way of sacrificing oneself to fit the cookie-cutter images we've been indoctrinated with as children. Little Johnny covers his sexuality and Little Jane bleaches her skin. Little Kwame learns to be a "safe negro" and Little Maria changes her name to "Marry".

We've grown accustomed to vague terms that get lost in translation. Words like "diversity" "tolerance" "inclusion" and the like can mean completely separate things to different people. For example, a school can flaunt it's "diversity" so long as it accepts the "right kind" of minority students. There are universities where you can count the number of African-American students on one hand. However, that doesn't mean that the school can't point towards statistics showing heavy Asian-American, Jewish or International student populations. Ironically, such statistics use "diversity" to compensate for a lack in "diversity".

Likewise, a movie director might hire a black actress for a major film. But she probably won't have a starring role (however, black women make excellent best friends in a lot of these movies so all hope is not lost - sigh) but she better have light skin, straight hair and a petite frame. (side note - black actors make good best friends as well, but they usually get killed off for some reason or another)

This phenomenon is not limited to popular culture. Our recent election shows that we can elect the first black President, but he better be damned-near perfect and as non-threatening as possible (remember, Obama almost lost for simply knowing an "angry black man"). Forget comparisons to Jackie Robinson, Katt Williams said it best . . . this brotha's a clone!

What does this all mean? Well, for starters, let's not substitute our own concerns and insecurities (justified or not) for the ignorance we fight against. Concerns over "Model Minority" myths are no excuse for anti-Asian or anti-Semitic bigotry no matter how "oppressed" one might be. And it should go without saying that these concerns should not diminish a person's hard work and dedication in getting into such institutions of higher education. Likewise, our justified, if not obsessive, struggles with intra-racial colorism does not give those of us who can pass the "paper-bag" test free license to chastise those who can't. Yeah, we know dark-skinned sistas don't get their just-due, but that doesn't mean that the light-skinned sista can't still be talented and fine as hell in her own right (and trust . . .that light-skinned sista still catches all kinds of hell as she fights racism and sexism just like anybody else).

Our focus should remain on those who set the standards . . . those who hire the actors and actresses. . . those who work in the admissions offices, hold a seat on the hiring committee, write the fashion articles and shape the media. The objective is to add, not take away. More importantly, the goal is to acknowledge new paradigms . . . new standards of beauty, understandings of power and appreciation of cultures.

America is not a melting pot.

On the contrary, I've always preferred the saying that America is more like a salad bowl.

Personally, I prefer to see America as a big ole' pot luck dinner. Each group gets to bring a dish that only they can provide. Each dish is wonderful by itself, but it's even better when all of those recipes come together (I like a little arroz y gandules with my fried chicken and collard greens. . . but let me stop before I get hungry).

This is the real issue in advertising . . . how do we define "diversity"? The token-negro is "diversity" for a lot of people. For many, diversity only happens at the approval of white America. Forget the pot-luck dinner, diversity too often gets portrayed as some type of twisted buffet where white diners come to try something exotic . . . I'll try the Latin night-life with a side of gay fashion sense and an extra helping of black sexual fantasy. WTF???

Call me crazy, but I don't think that's what we're aiming for.

Are we marketing "diversity" or are we marketing "white approval"?

Because society can't talk about "diversity" unless it's willing to accept the fact that all black people aren't like the Huxtables. All black men aren't like Barack Obama and all black women don't look like Halle Berry. And here's the important part . . . get ready for it . . . THERE'S NOTHING WRONG WITH THIS!!! Black success comes in many forms and black beauty comes in many colors, shapes and fashions. There are successful black men who act nothing like the President and there are stunningly beautiful black women who look nothing like Halle Berry.

I'm all for diversity. But not at the expense of who I am. You know when I'll be ready to applaud diversity in the media???

When Hollywood produces a mainstream love story starring an African-American couple. . .

Or how about a show with a token white friend . . .

Or how about (gasp) a show with no white friends at all . . . (I'm not saying this to exclude white people, I'm just wondering if Hollywood could ever pull this off. People of color live their lives through white eyes all the time. We loved Seinfeld, Frasier, Friends and Will and Grace even though you could hardly find a black or brown face on some of these shows. Would Hollywood take a gamble on the reverse? An entire prime time lineup of African-American and/or Hispanic or Asian sitcoms??? Sounds ridiculous, right? I'm just sayin' . . . )

I'll also hold my applause for when the fashion industry recognizes the beauty of more traditionally black female forms (I'll take Toccarra over Gisele B√ľndchen any day of the week!). . .

I'll hold my applause until the in-crowd on the latest teen television series has more than one black or brown "best-friend" that doesn't shy away from stories about life growing up as a black child . . .

I'll believe this whole "diversity-in-marketing" thing when I'm reassured that this has more to do with a genuine interest in different cultures than simply cashing in on the Obama money-train. And we haven't even touched upon issues of management and access for people of color behind the scenes.

Yes! We know it's cool to be colored nowadays.

We've been here before. I can even remember the "Theodore Huxtable" intrigue some white girls had with me in high school. Any black person knows that America has a long-standing infatuation with our style, sex-appeal, swagger and fashion. That's nothing new.

"Diversity" is real life. It ain't no costume party. It's not a social experiment or anthropological study.

President Obama's victory might symbolize a courtship with diversity. But this ain't love just yet. How do you tell love from infatuation? Well, in the words of Chris Rock, "You gotta to love the crust of a motherf*cka!" Sorry, but we're not there yet.

"Diversity" isn't a fashion trend. It's far deeper than some marketing tool. It's people. . . lives . . . love . . . experience . . . history . . . pain and joy. . .

It means that you have just as much to learn from me as I from you.

But I guess that's for another day. Until then . . .

Toccara, call me! ;)




Video: Perspective Piece