Amplifying the Black Voice

By Ashleigh Williams, Research Director, C+R Research, Chicago, Illinois, ashleighw@crresearch.com

On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, was murdered in Minneapolis by a police officer who pinned Mr. Floyd to the ground by holding a knee on his neck as Mr. Floyd called for his mother and cried out, “I can’t breathe!” It was a cry that was heard around the world—a cry that was amplified by the release of video footage of the murder. George Floyd’s murder energized the Black Lives Matter movement, a movement that gained national attention when Colin Kaepernick “took a knee” during the 2016 National Football League (NFL) season. However, the movement actually started in 2013 after the acquittal of the officer who shot and killed Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old Black man who was walking back to a home he was visiting in a gated community after purchasing candy from a convenience store. Sadly, these are not the only unjustified and horrific murders of Black people; there are many others.

We are witnessing an awakening within the cultural groups outside of the Black community. Perhaps the shelter-in-place orders that have been instituted to halt the spread of the coronavirus have created an environment where people who were otherwise oblivious to the injustices toward Black people are now attentive and “woke” to the realities that Black people have been dealing with for several years. Black people, on the other hand, have always been watchfully “woke” to their plight—a term used to refer to being aware of social and racial injustices. Individuals and companies alike are finally asking important questions: “What can I do to help?” “How can I become an ally in the fight to end systemic racism, social injustice, and discrimination?”

It is abundantly clear that those sincere about helping need to be in this for the long haul, as eradicating these injustices is not something that can be done overnight. The remedy starts with education—education about the Black experience and what needs to be done to make Black people feel like valued members of society. Though this is not the first time that civil unrest has been prevalent in our nation, it is a first for the multicultural solidarity that we’re seeing to combat the injustices against Black people.

On June 18, 2020, the day before the celebration of Juneteenth, the holiday that the Black community hails as “Black Independence Day,” I moderated a roundtable discussion with Black consumers. There was an attentive audience listening in. Our company actually broke our record for the number of webinar attendees. This was an opportunity to amplify the voice of the Black consumer during a time that is very meaningful for them. Not many people outside of the Black community were even aware of the significance of Juneteenth. However, as a first for many, time was set aside to research what this holiday was all about. Many companies and brands acknowledged the holiday for the first time, and this conversation provided a live platform for Black consumers to share how they were feeling during a time when there was civil unrest throughout the country, fueled by the murder of George Floyd.

We wanted to hear firsthand from Black consumers: (1) how they were coping, and (2) how they view the role of companies and brands during this movement for change. This article will share five key takeaways from the live discussion and our “Get to Know Me” video series.

George Floyd’s death received national attention and outcry, and the emotions and feelings that members of the Black community are experiencing are still raw. Although racial injustice is not a new experience for them, Black consumers report experiencing pain daily. With new incidents constantly happening, Black people say they find it difficult to focus, grieve, or heal. Every new incident can cause them to revisit past personal trauma they have tried to suppress from those who are not people of color (POC).

1- The Black Community is hurting. Trauma is real and current.

“With George Floyd’s murder, that’s kind of like somebody ripped the stitches out of my arm, and the blood from Philando’s [Castile] murder being revealed all over again, relived. And so I make an appointment to see the behavioral health specialist…”

Male, late 40s, Community Activist, St. Paul, Minnesota

A cultural pillar of the Black collective is the reliance on community, also regarded as the “village,” an approach that leads the community to be protective and always looking after their own. Now, more than ever, they are clinging to these values to help them through. Furthermore, Black consumers described a “Black Experience.” It allows them to seek comfort from their community during trying times. It is a community consisting of family and friends who have shared the same struggles along with similar feelings and emotions that accompany those struggles. It is here that they can share their raw emotions of anger, sadness, exhaustion, and frustration.

“…a person who is not of color to understand about the Black experience is to understand that you’ll never understand. And, I know that is a tough pill to swallow as there are a lot of genuine and caring people that are not people of color that really just want to understand and be empathetic toward the Black community, but you just have to understand that it is something that you just cannot relate to.”

Male, early 20s, MBA Student, Chicago, Illinois

As Americans re-examine cultural biases and the systemic racism plaguing organizations that led us here, Black consumers report finding themselves rehashing or having conversations on the subject with non-POC for the first time. They find themselves actively approached by non-POC who, after witnessing the death of George Floyd, are more willing to have these tough conversations.

2- Educating others is a burden yet a mission that Black consumers feel obligated to uphold, as many are revisiting conversations with their non-POC counterparts.

Black consumers say they feel a duty to educate anyone who will listen in order to change the collective mindset around injustice in the Black community. Most feel like they have no choice because the very lives of their family members and friends are at stake. Revisiting these conversations with non-POC is a welcome change. Black people described that they find themselves retelling their personal experiences to provide context for non-POC who have found themselves “awakened” by these recent tragedies.

“Well, that’s why the ones who don’t know are the best ones to educate, because they’re not against it, but they need to be educated as to why so they understand. Once they understand, most of the people that I’ve come in contact with thankfully are more than willing to learn and understand, and know how we feel.”

Female, mid 30s, Nurse, Queens, New York

“I think companies just need to educate their employees. I think even go as far as educating young kids. I think that’s the only way that we are going to be able to overcome discrimination based on race, just by educating people.”

Male, 40s, Insurance Claims Representative , Genoa City, Wisconsin

“Sometimes I feel like every Black person is representing every Black person, which is a very heavy burden to bear. When I step in a meeting sometimes, I’m not just representing myself in this meeting, I am representing all Black people…I feel like I do because when a Black person does something bad or wrong or whatever it may be, someone turns to me and be like, ‘Hey, Carlos, what’s that about?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, I don’t know him. I don’t know her.’”

“Having grown up in Detroit, but then living in a very conservative part of Michigan, and now living in Washington, D.C., which is a very progressive area, I have lots of different friends and people that I encounter. One of the things that I have seen is for the first time in a while, some very conservative folks who would say things like, ‘Oh, racism doesn’t exist,’ and, ‘That was years ago,’ and, ‘Get over it.’ I think for the first time more of them than I’ve seen before are, in fact, saying, ‘Oh, okay, wow.’ And so, I think that opens them up to hear the message now, and to me it’s extremely important, and I actually take it as my duty. I’m actually taking this time to educate people based on my own personal experiences but also recommending literature.”

Male, late 30s, Digital Media, Washington, D.C.

While images of people from all nationalities from across the globe joining together provide a sense of hope that progress is being made in the hearts and minds of non-POC, it often feels like it’s a Catch-22. They say there is hope for real change, but on the flip side, Black consumers are exhausted from the continuous spiral of seeing injustices play out in their communities, and there is a strong perception of indifference from the government and others to take action. Black consumers are especially sensitive when it comes to observing where people stand on racism and police brutality. They notice who is making efforts toward change and who remains apathetic or silent. In taking inventory, Black consumers are drawing a line in the sand, purging those who display a disregard in their lives and social media circles. This can include family, friends, social media influencers, and even brands/companies. It’s increasingly clear that lip service is not enough.

3- The “All Lives Matter” counter response to “Black Lives Matter” is a constant source of frustration and outrage. With more people suddenly empathizing with the mistreatment of Blacks, there is hope that this time is different compared to previous incidents.

“Until Black lives matter, then all lives don’t matter because Black people are part of all lives. That’s the thing that people don’t seem to understand. They’re using it as a response to sort of deconstruct Black Lives Matter and criminalize Black Lives Matter.”

Male, late 20s, Mail/Package Center Manager, Chicago, Illinois

“I was scrolling through Facebook one day, and I saw (an old friend’s) posting of a picture in her police uniform saying, ‘All lives matter. All jobs matter’…So I had to take the entirety of my day to try to explain to her that a job is not an ethnicity. It’s not a protected group. It’s not a minority. It’s not a racial group. It’s not a class. It’s a job. You signed up for it, you take the uniform off at the end of the day, and you go on about your life. However, you cannot take your skin off and have people perceive you in a different light, have people not weaponize your skin as a threat.”

Male, early 20s, Musician, Chicago, Illinois

“Yeah, I’ve unfollowed quite a few, not only celebrities, but like I said, friends, because I feel like you are one of my closest friends, and I think not saying anything is saying a lot…I have to also let my kids know, ‘You watch this person, you follow this person, you listen to this person, so you think you ought to wear these clothes, and they don’t support you and our
Black community.’”

Female, mid 30s, Nurse, Queens, New York

Black consumers are seeking brands that show action behind their words. The Black community has noticed over the past months a parade of brands and companies that have produced a “textbook” response that seems to be duplicated and only “customized” with the change of a logo, ultimately rendering their efforts trivial. Moving forward, they demand internal and external strategies within each brand/organization claiming to be aligned with the Black community, expecting proof and corresponding actions. They say that words are just not enough. Companies that only take a calculated risk such as a commitment to a one-time donation, or who communicate in spaces they exclusively inhabit (such as BET, OWN) aren’t a sufficient sign of “allyship.”

4- Black consumers are pushing for brands to do more than offer just lip service. They want to want to see meaningful changes to communicate true brand authenticity.

“I’m seeing a lot of companies and a lot of executives and upper level management of these Fortune 500 saying, ‘I’m pledging this much to the Black Lives Matter movement,’ or swapping out a logo, but then there are no specifications, there are no details as far as how this will be implemented, where this will go…I don’t feel like that’s really coming from somewhere, I guess, at heart.”

Male, 40s, Insurance, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

“We want to see ourselves represented in the highest echelons. We want to see representation in senior management, in the C-suite, on the board of directors, people that have their hands on the pulse of change in these huge organizations. I see so many different brands making these crazy mistakes in their advertising as it relates to people of color that could have been avoided had they had a person of color in the room, at the table, in the decision-making process.”

Female, 50s, Consultant

Ben & Jerry’s response has been perceived as a shining example of what companies and brands should strive for in their efforts to commit to support the Black community. Unapologetically taking a stance, Ben & Jerry’s co-founders not only pledge their dollars toward the cause, they denounce racism, have been seen on the front lines of protests for years, and have even been arrested. Their efforts are valued even more based on the presumption that their core audience is comprised primarily of non-POC.

“I don’t eat ice cream, but Ben & Jerry’s had the wokest response of this whole movement. I don’t know if everyone saw Ben & Jerry’s response, but Ben & Jerry’s went bold. They said names, they said, ‘This has been a problem forever.’ I don’t know for certain, but I would assume that the highest percentage of Ben & Jerry’s customer base is not Black people. So that’s the type of thing where it’s like, show your integrity, be real.”

Male, late 30s, Digital Media, Washington, D.C.

“If you want to make real change, then you pass the mic, you pass the baton, you put someone in power who’s actually part of the community. Reddit had a great response where one of the founders stepped down. He said, ‘You know what? As a white guy, I don’t feel like I should be sitting on this platform where most of the people that use it are not white. Give my position to a Black person,’ and he stepped down.”

Male, early 20s, Musician, Chicago, Illinois

Black consumers say they can see right through the marketing/PR “fluff” and assess which brands are genuinely committing versus those looking to protect their profits. While this newfound support is nice to see, Black consumers hold frustrations against brands/organizations who showed indifference or opposing stances in the past. In some cases, frustration turns into outrage toward these companies who jump on the bandwagon now that Black Lives Matter is trendy.

5- Black consumers remain skeptical that brand/company support will last. They feel it’s important for brands/companies to know their lives “are not a hashtag.”

Black consumers demand consistency and support over time, long after the news coverage fades. Specifically, when crafting a statement, apologies go a long way with this audience. Admitting any past wrongdoing and assessing internal business policies and practices with sincerity is seen as a step in the right direction. Only time will tell if this push for change will last…and Black consumers will be vigilant.

“I’m a businessperson. Companies exist to maximize shareholder value, so if they have a rationale that makes sense, stick with it…But think about the NFL, for example. The NFL shift on it actually ticked me off more than their initial position against Kaepernick’s protest, right? Peacefully protesting, using his First Amendment right, and he got blackballed from the league. And they said, ‘Well, this is what you do.’ But all of a sudden, now that this is a trend, it almost feels to me like the NFL paid attention to the trend, and I think a lot of companies are doing this. ‘Okay, what percentage of our target consumers are leaning that way, and that’s how I’m going to make my decision.’ It’s based on no integrity, right?”

Male, late 30s, Digital Media, Washington, D.C.

“I was watching my social media timeline kind of vigilantly within the first week of protesting, and I was looking to see if these influencers that I’m associated with are saying things. Are they speaking out? Are they going beyond a black square that literally does nothing for anybody? Are they making a statement? Are they donating? Are they using their platform to the fullest extent to speak out against this? Otherwise, silence is silence. So I was looking for that, and I gave them probably a 48- to 72-hour window, and if I didn’t see anything, then it’s as simple as I’m not following you, I’m no longer supporting you, because it’s clear to me that you’re not supporting me or people who look like me or the advancement of this issue.”

“Appoint Black people to governing positions, positions of leadership, positions of power. It’s one thing to give money, but that’s not anything…We’ve seen with the distribution of these economic bailout checks, basically, the COVID relief funds. Here’s $1,200, that’s basically what a million dollars is to a Fortune 500 company. It’s a $1,200 stimulus check in the midst of a pandemic. What we are seeing is that racism is a pandemic, [and] that there’s no cure for it besides literally stepping away from it and abandoning these walls that you’ve built in your head around the issue.”

Male, early 20s, Musician, Chicago, Illinois

The Black community has suffered injustices for far too long. This is not a moment in time where companies and brands can just jump on the bandwagon of what’s trendy, and then move back to their old routines. Black consumers are demanding that brands that seek their loyalty make a bold and genuine commitment in support of them, not a quiet, subtle one. The Black community wants to see companies and brands take a firm stance in support of them. This is overdue; the time is now.

History is being made. It’s time to pick a side.

The Black community is moving full steam ahead for change and views this issue as cut-and-dried. Inaction is a choice and a statement in itself. They believe brands/companies either fall on the side of change/justice or choose to remain indifferent to the Black experience in this country. During such a critical moment when the spotlight is on this issue, it’s important to take heed of these dos and don’ts.

It’s not a stance unless there’s risk.

Black consumers say they are well beyond caring about statements or empty promises. They want to see proof behind what your brand/company stands for in the form of action. Consider ways your organization can get involved in the nearby Black community or local level. Don’t be afraid to go out there and get your hands dirty. Embrace the uncomfortable and make your message bold. Use language that makes it clear where you stand. Don’t just broadcast your message in public spaces where only Black consumers can see/hear it. Take some risk, and make your stance known to your non-POC consumers.

Don’t just throw your money at the problem.

When the news coverage stops, continue working. Change must be instituted at all levels within the organization, both internally and externally. Educating yourself about Black American history and the context of racial bias in the past and present is important to indicate to those you align yourself with that you as a brand or researcher are a true ally. In addition, future decision-making is made from a place of knowledge and understanding, not fear or even guilt.

Bring POC into developing these strategies and communications to the outside world to get it right the first time. Assess where you are when it comes to diversity in your organization at all levels including (and especially) at the top. Consider conducting internal racial bias training. Consider new ways to recruit Black employees into the organization. Be clear where you are investing your dollars and how your money will be used.

It is our hope that hearing directly from this consumer group has sparked ideas for ways in which you can support as well as celebrate inclusion.

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