The Business of Being Black

By Jefferson Ellison

The current revolution has without a doubt, pushed America further than modern history has ever allowed. One citizen at a time, the country is coming to terms with her race problem and her equity problem. As a part of that work, White people have had to learn how to show up in times of advocacy and distress. It has been taught them that their power and privilege is best served in the back, amplifying voices rather than co-opting messages and leading calls-of-action. Perhaps the worst thing a White person can do at a time like this is to speak for others. It is their job as allies to educate themselves, uplift the melanated voices around them, and encourage others to do the same. Why? Because that builds lasting equity. It brings about real change. Allowing Black people to take up space creates a narrative-driven by Black voices, forces the public to learn, to listen, and trust the Black voice. All while creating pathways for Black growth, Black roots, and yes, Black power.

What has been a surprising and welcomed side effect of this moment is the call for Black visibility in business. Given the fact that America is a country that operates as a company, it makes sense that social justice caught capitalism firm in its grasp. The most specific of the calls being The 15% Pledge. Started by Aurora James of Brother Vellies, the pledge asks brands to commit to an equitable distribution of contracts and shelf space. Black people make up 15% of the population, therefore they should make up 15% of the brands and companies that Big Box Stores do business with.

A bold step but one rooted in common sense. One can imagine that in an equal and just world, that representation in business would naturally follow representation in life. The fact that well-meaning White people can honestly say that their company accidentally became All-White is case-and-point how privilege and racism work. Even when you’re not trying to be racist, if you are not actively creating fair and equitable pathways, you will inevitably fall trap to the beast. But it’s not just about the representation, it’s about the money. Big businesses like Target, Shopbop, Sephora, and more, committing to black-own businesses would greatly increase the income coming into Black America. That increase would lead to greater wealth, homeownership, better and more education, generational wealth, and all the things that create privilege and opportunity. It would also create a demand for Black-owned businesses that the world couldn’t currently supply, offering those who never thought they’d have the opportunity to do so, the chance to become entrepreneurs. The pledge would increase visibility, purchasing power, access to important conversations on a local and national level, and even raise test scores amongst Black youth. When the future seems brighter and you have more hope, you feel better about yourself and tend to buy-in to greater systems - because they are actually fighting for you. Not to mention that if Black neighborhoods saw increased income, they would also see increased taxes that directly fund their public education system. Bottom line, it’s a great idea.

“I had brands reaching out saying, ‘Hey, girl, how do you think we should handle this?’” James told Vogue, in a recent interview. “You know, that kind of call-your-Black-friend energy. We were talking specifically about Target, and I said if we’re thinking about big retailers that are starting to offer solidarity with people of color, we hold a trillion dollars of spending power in this country. Black people represent 15% of the population, and so stores like Target should make sure they’re hitting 15% of Black-owned business on their shelves. If they agreed to do that in a major way, which isn’t even that major—it’s kind of the bare minimum, in fact—then a whole ricochet effect could take place. Why not try?”

The saying goes that a closed mouth doesn’t get fed, so while Aurora James was asking for money, Sharon Chuter of Uoma Beauty, called for the receipts. The founder and CEO, launched the Pull Up or Shut Up initiative asking brands to share how their company - especially their C-Suite - was made up, demographically.

“The trigger for me was seeing all these brands post for George Floyd and blacking out their Instagram on Tuesday,” she explained to Forbes. “And I just thought, why are you absolving yourselves of the role you’ve played in creating this problem? How are you not seeing the connection between your depriving people of color of economic opportunities and the oppression?”

“They all posted things like, ‘If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have taken the side of the oppressor,’ but don’t invoke the words of Desmond Tutu if you’re not going to follow them. I thought, if they really want to care, they can help destroy this system of oppression completely.So, if the whole world is going to come together and say Black lives matter, then let’s make Black lives matter. Let’s stop talking about it. Talk is cheap. You can’t say Black lives matter if you don’t have any Black employees in your office.”

The call gave 72 hours for brands to get their ducks in a row and share the information. Dozens of brands have answered the call including Glossier, L’Oreal, Ulta Beauty, Kylie Cosmetics, Milk Makeup, and more. But not all are proud to stand by their numbers. Many brands like Milk, Glossier, and even Honest Beauty fall short of a truly equitable distribution amongst power and demographics and the majority have a 5% or lower black-presence in their executive roles.

The brands who have made their stats public have also vowed to “do better” and some have gone so far to apologize, justify and pivot. Dolls Kill founder, Shoddy Lynn made a video apologizing for the choices her brand has made as well as the ignorance that they have shown. And while White-woman-tears have never been the answer to systemic racism and implicit bias, it’s refreshing to see brands own their truth and open themselves up for customer feedback.

Both initiatives have skyrocketed to legitimacy amassing thousands of followers and James going so far as to register The 15% Pledge as a 501(c)3. The two also have the common goal of showing the world, and more specifically the Black youth what is possible. By holding brands accountable and opening up the workspace, you create the same energy that brought white women into the corporate workforce in the late ’70s and 80s. You transform them from “a minority” with limited options to a full-citizen with equal opportunity and viability of American promise. The business of being black is about more than creating Black wealth. It’s about activating Black hope and ensuring it never dies.