Brands Won’t Save You From White Supremacy

Neither will flooding black boxes on Instagram.

With the dust hardly settled from a stampede to let consumers know that they were here for us as a pandemic unfolded, corporations large and small are suddenly scrambling to meet another crisis.

“Speaking out is worth it,” the French cosmetics company L’Oreal declared on Instagram, one response to the mass protests set off by George Floyd’s killing by a white police officer. In its version of a solidarity post, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Sunday politely expressed his horror and announced a $10 million donation to racial justice organizations. The list continued, with brands like Nike, Spotify, The Wing, and countless others breathlessly chiming in to offer echoing notes of support.

It’s a familiar parade. But this time, the rush from brands to declare unity carried an unmistakable stench of hypocrisy that feels unique to this moment—and consumers have not stayed quiet.

“It’s not adding up L’Oreal,” one user said in a post comparing the company’s current ruminations on race to its 2017 firing of trans model Munroe Bergdorf for speaking out against white privilege. “I am obligated to call you out,” former Reddit executive Ellen Pao wrote, responding to that company’s statement on the Floyd protests by pointing to its own record of profiting from racist speech. “You don’t get to say BLM when Reddit nurtures and monetizes white supremacy and hate all day long.” Much of the same was hurled at Zuckerberg, who days before his lengthy Facebook post, once again publicly refused to take action against the president’s racist screeds. “Instead of throwing money at this, can we take a real stand and change our policies and products to get at the root of the problem?” one Facebook employee reportedly wrote in an internal memo.

In one of the more egregious examples, Fox was slammed for attempting to support the very people its owner, Rupert Murdoch, has with another hand endlessly vilified.

Here was hypocrisy on full display, with scant mention outside of a handful of vague donations as to how companies would assist in bringing change to a country plagued by racist hiring practices, profiling in its department stores, cultural exploitation, and rampant online abuse. That, too, is likely by design. Because America’s leading brands know that they’ve well-profited from the very discrimination they now claim to decry.

On Tuesday, a similarly messy scramble played out on another corner of the internet, with everyday Instagram users posting black squares in supposed solidarity with the black community. The resulting cascade of #BlackOutTuesday, particularly when captioned with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter as so many users did, had the inadvertent effect of obscuring forms of actually useful information on how to support the ongoing protests—petition signups, donation resources, etc.—in favor of well, black squares with no information. Despite many pointing to #BlackOutTuesday’s failings, the bandwagon raged on, with people clearly joining without bothering to do the work to understand what it is they were leaping to join in the first place.

While the false virtues of corporate America and the efforts of those posting black squares aren’t the same thing, they do share an uncomfortable space in today’s performative discourse. Both invite the question of who their actions are intended to please.

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