In the wake of massive racial protests over the past year, some companies began the work of re-evaluating how their brand messaging and corporate actions contribute to racism. Most famously, Quaker Foods “retired” the image of Aunt Jemima, originally based on the caricature of the enslaved “mammy” who contentedly and lovingly cared for her white family. College campuses attempted to reconcile unencumbered, historical outward displays of racism on campus while simultaneously grappling with the legacies of segregationism; some renaming lecture halls and buildings. The Mars company announced a plan to change its Uncle Ben’s brand, another product grouping whose branding was developed around historically racist iconography, to Ben’s Original in September. However, to date, all products are still promoted as Uncle Ben’s on the corporate website.
While some progress has been made, the marketplace has not realized a universal push to migrate from promulgating racist or white nationalist messaging. Under pressure, the Washington Football Team and Cleveland Indians are in the process of moving away from aged mascots fashioned around stereotyped Native American imagery, but other popular teams like the Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Braves have not signaled a willingness to change. Etsy, while purging some merchandise of the white power movement from their shelves, still (as of January 27) sells a “Battle for Capitol Hill Veteran” t-shirt. Amazon offers a Kindle version of the book QAnon: The Awakening Begins, offering to educate readers on these theories, presumably as legitimate.
While these explicit examples of commerce’s complicity in promoting and condoning white supremacy are reported on by popular media, the perpetuation of white supremacy and cultural hegemony through marketing’s more subtler and sophisticated devices is not often brought to public attention. We hear little about Captain Morgan, a brand named for pirate Henry Morgan, who ran three Jamaican sugar plantations off of the labor of enslaved Africans, and owned 131 African people when he died. Is less critical attention given to commercial images of racist oppression when the white supremacist is the central figure of the ad or when capitalism seems to be a civilizing effort? When the object or experience being sold is meditation, are we as apt to interpret the dynamics as a colonization of South Asian culture? In their essay about yoga and cultural appropriation, Gandhi and Lillie Wolff propose that consumer culture in the United States serves to fill a void that was created through years of stripping away all cultural and ethnic distinctions to produce an anesthetized whiteness.
For this Spark series, we invite submissions from diversity scholars whose scholarship or creative work speaks to the relationships between commerce, power, and race in light of shifting opinions and epiphanies about racial justice over the past ten months. Questions to consider may include, but are not limited to:
- What vestiges of racist ideology are maintained in contemporary advertising, and what examples exist in the public space that the general public is simply not aware of or chooses to ignore?
- How does materialism contribute to racial injustice?
- Where do expressions of power, race, and commerce intersect in institutional spheres such as education and politics?
- What are the foreseeable effects on commerce of racial demographic shifts, and how do current racial majorities continue to assert their perceived power in the marketplace?
- Do the statements of support for civil rights issues posted by companies accompany genuine efforts to society by acknowledging racist brand messaging or by restructuring business practices to be more inclusive and equitable? Are these merely empty pledges of brand activism intended to raise the company’s profile?
- How does commerce influence or reinforce values that may adversely affect people of color’s societal identity? Video games that offer limited hairstyle options for the characters of color, or apps that define expectations of productivity or enforce self-monitoring as self-care, are but a few examples.
- Is the world of commerce affected by sellers’ and/or consumers’ historical amnesia or denial given that many individuals are either not versed in understanding historical legacies as colonialism, slavery, and the Holocaust or simply do not critically reflect on this history?
- What creative possibilities exist for revealing or critically articulating relationships between commerce, power, and race in artworks?
- When should the sharing and blending of cultural practices and symbols be celebrated and when does this constitute a form of colonialist appropriation?
- Does the willingness of whites to serve as allies to minority racial groups affect these whites’ consumption patterns of brands and messaging steeped in minority culture? If so, should/could corporations guard against perceived appropriation?
We encourage your creativity and imagination when it comes to these significant and timely issues! To submit a pitch, please fill out this brief form. Authors must have scholarship or creative work directly related to the topic. Priority selection will be given to members of the Diversity Scholars Network.
This series will be curated by Dr. Roland L. Leak (Associate Professor of Marketing, North Carolina A&T State University) and Rebekah Modrak (Professor, Stamps School of Art, University of Michigan).
Pitches are due Friday, March 12.