Behold, the performative wokeness of Black History Month is upon us
Though there are silver linings to the cloud that 2020’s trash fire left us with, last year took a toll on many of us. One of the bigger issues that came to light was institutionalized racism. And while the devaluing of Black lives is a 24-hour-day, seven-day-a-week problem, marketing departments the world over seem to only be concerned about acknowledging my community either after an unjust police killing, or during Black History Month, which is also, conveniently, the year’s shortest month. The onslaught of content, products, and social media shoutouts to Black Americans from February 1 to the 28 has always been a little contrived. But this year, it’s going to piss me off more than usual — I can feel it.
The outcry over George Floyd’s tragic death in 2020 prompted companies of all sizes to figure out how to profit off of anti-racism, using performative activism — empty and sometimes vague messaging, for example — to attract consumers. That’s just a microcosm of what happens every Black History Month, as the 28 days are part of a corporate agenda having very little to with Black people or our history. At best, it’s boring. At worst, there are social media snafus like, since 2018, PETA reminding us every Black History Month that there is also racist language towards animals. Yes, comparing Black Americans to animals is sometimes what happens when you try to force participation in Black History Month.
This year, Apple released a Pan-African flag-themed watch from their new Black Unity Collection of products which comes with a black, green, and red striped band and face. It’s at this point in my rant that I point out that you can choose any face on your Apple Watch, no matter what time of year it is and change it easily, even if it isn’t Black History Month. However, the band, which to this Black person, seems incredibly patronizing, is $49, but will be available for sale past February.
Apple says it’ll be “supporting six global organizations” as part of this product launch, including the Black Lives Matter Support Fund, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, and European Network Against Racism, (even though the U.K.’s Black History Month is in October).
“What could be wrong with any of this?” you may be asking. Know that “supporting global organizations” is not the same as “donating all of the profits.” Much like many things that Apple does, the percentage actually going to these organizations is pretty much a secret at this point.
While we love calling out big, reckless corporations, Apple is perhaps the least of our problems. They did, reportedly recently launch a new Racial Equity and Justice Initiative project to challenge systemic racism and advance racial equity nationwide to the tune of $100 million. So honestly, they could have done without the watch.
This is the whole point though — walk the walk, and then you don't have to talk the talk (which is more like a scream for attention when you're selling a Black Unity watch). Overall, American marketing departments swell with a culture whose social awareness, especially when it revolves around Black lives, pride, and wellbeing, is largely performative.
Where is the substance behind the Black History Month products, messaging, and content? How many of these companies hire a fair amount of Black people? How much of their money is spent reckoning with injustices within their own system?
Regular people have to take responsibility for the performative Black History Month behavior as well. If you’re not doing the work, as a non-Black person, to be an active advocate every single day, your commemorative post or tweet during the month of February is just tacky.
Sometimes, loving Black people means doing the work behind the scenes and amplifying Black voices instead of using your own all of the time. And to all the marketing departments who are scrambling to show how much they love Black consumers in their meetings this week: Maybe hire some of us and pay us as much as you’re paying our white counterparts. And then your wokeness might not be a cheesy community theater production anymore.