Advertising Age published a perspective titled, “Five Ways Agencies Can Dismantle Systems Keeping Diversity Out”—and the author declared White supremacy is a root cause of the global dilemma. Actually, White supremacy is not as big a problem as White complacency in our industry. That’s why the “Five Ways” don’t present a true solution. Why would Madison Avenue’s ruling majority consider taking five action steps when they haven’t even bothered to take a single step toward progress? Hell, the typical advertising agency leader makes the average Grand Wizard look like a Boy Scout.
Five Ways Agencies Can Dismantle Systems Keeping Diversity Out
Ad Agencies Would Be Remiss If They Did Not Address the Uncomfortable Topic of White Supremacy in the Industry
By Bethany Iverson
I’m grateful to those taking up the charge to build an industry reflective of the world we live in, though we would be remiss to talk about the progress we’re working toward without addressing the most pressing and uncomfortable issue keeping diversity out of agencies. I’m talking about white supremacy—a core component of inequality most ad agency folks are reluctant to acknowledge.
Wait! Don’t stop reading, I know it seems dramatic to see the words “white supremacy” and “ad agency” in the same sentence, but hear me out. My hope in writing about such a charged topic is not to shame our industry, but rather to start a conversation about the root problem preventing us from being inclusive. Once we move past the initial shock, it becomes clear that white supremacy is nearly invisible in our everyday lives—all the more reason to call it out.
White supremacy is an ugly term with an uglier past, conjuring images of Nazis and the KKK, undoubtedly two of the reasons it’s uncomfortable talking about it. It’s a shameful part of our history we’d rather bury because acknowledging it means we’re complicit and that’s all it takes to shut most of us down. That said, it’s critically important to acknowledge a much wider definition of white supremacy apart from the overtly racist symbols of Civil Rights-era America and hate groups. It’s our misguided aversion to the subject of white supremacy that keeps wide-reaching, sustainable diversity beyond our grasp.
To further complicate things, the phrase “white privilege” is sometimes confused with “white supremacy.” While we’ve begun to open up about privilege in recent years, our role in the system of white supremacy has gone largely unaddressed. Put simply, white privilege represents all the perks we have as white people. White supremacy is why white privilege exists; it’s the system our industry was built on because it’s the system our country was built on. Evidence of white supremacy can be found in imbalanced political power and representation, incarceration rates and sentencing disparities, wage gaps and skewed unemployment rates, discriminatory housing practices, and inequitable access to education. Acknowledging white privilege without addressing white supremacy is like treating a symptom while ignoring the disease.
Our industry was born to push against complacency and yet when it comes to issues of race we find ourselves quietly burrowing into it. We navigate our way through oftentimes cloudy conversations about diversity without understanding that it is we who continue to hold it back. But we can do something about it.
Here are five immediate actions we must take to meaningfully address the structural inequities in our industry. I offer these in addition to best practices such as recruiting from historically black colleges and universities and Hispanic-serving institutions; tapping professional organizations dedicated to advancing young people of color; continually investing in employees of color via mentorship; and unconscious bias training for managers:
1. Remove four-year college degree requirements, create an apprenticeship program for new talent (or partner with an organization like BrandLab), and recruit from places like community and technical colleges.
2. Create culturally competent agency leaders. There are organizations in every major market dedicated to helping people learn about racial equity (shout out to Interaction Institute for Social Change and the YWCA).
3. Get other white people thinking critically about race by facilitating discussions with co-workers in a judgment-free zone where they don’t have to be afraid of saying the wrong thing.
4. Make it easy for agency employees to develop a deeper understanding of race and racism by organizing a listserv, blog or book club dedicated to articles, podcasts and books by people of color.
5. Don’t monopolize the conversation. You should be listening more than talking in conversations with people of color who are working to address our industry’s structural inequities.
It’s time to get comfortable being uncomfortable. Our privilege will always prevent us from perfectly navigating discussions about race and inequity. We’ll make inaccurate statements and ask awkward questions in front of friends and colleagues of color. I’ve personally fumbled my way through countless conversations about race, I’ve inadvertently offended people I respect, and I’ve resigned myself to continue trying. What matters is that we don’t let shame or pride get in the way of progress. And that we don’t try to fool ourselves into thinking we’re making measurable strides toward an inclusive future unless we’re also willing to talk about the ways the industry we built is set up at the expense of diversity.
Bethany Iverson is director of strategy at Space150, a full-service digital ad agency.