In light of the recent Black Lives Matter Movement that has spread throughout the world, numerous government organizations, institutions, companies and individuals jumped at the opportunity to stand in solidarity with the Black community. The most recent protests in response to the murder of George Floyd have highlighted the prevalence of systemic racism and oppression of Black people and called for those who benefit from this inequity to not only denounce racism when they see it but, also be actively anti-racist.
This iteration of the Movement specifically calls on those who benefit actively or passively from this injustice, who feel comfortable in the status quo or society or who post about Black Lives Matter and never speak of it again on their social media platforms. Those who have the choice and the privilege to decide whether or not they participate in the Black Lives Matter Movement have been called upon to reflect on their own lives and learn that the comfort they experience day-to-day comes at the expense of Black suffering.
Many high-profile companies have released statements declaring their support for the Black Lives Matter Movement. However, members of the Black community have consistently criticized these statements, given the fact that many of these corporations are speaking out against racism for the first time in 2020. Worse yet, some companies only address supporting the Black community when they are urged to do so for fear of being the odd one out or losing customers. These companies are not going out on a limb when they address unambiguous violence against Black people. Police brutality and violence against the Black community are not new and are only one facet of the different types of violence that befalls the Black community. So when everybody is in agreement that these things have to change, why do these companies continue to harbor inequities that continue to harm Black employees?
Conde Nast, one of the most powerful mass media companies in the world, faced criticism from employees and consumers due to the disconnect between their statements on supporting the Black community and the actions of people in leadership positions in several of their subsidiaries. Former BIPOC employees of these companies have spoken out about unfair treatment, a lack of belonging and lack of respect they faced as often one of the only non-white employees in their workplaces.
It seems that these companies only want to change things when their behavior is challenged, which once again shows their leadership’s contentment with living within a system of racial injustice that benefits them. These companies are taking a reactionary and profit-centered approach in their support of the Black community, as they only bother to do so when it is “trending.” Whether they see their competitors releasing statements or have to “save face” when racism within their company is exposed, these attempts at centering the Black Lives Matter movement can seem disingenuous.
But companies are not the only ones following this pattern: over the past summer, many colleges and universities have also released statements in which they proclaim that they are standing with Black students. Wellesley has released numerous statements on the topic of solidarity with Black students, which is aligned with their stated commitment to diversity throughout the college.
However, just as companies have addressed the Black Lives Matter Movement on their social platforms while failing to address the inequities that are woven into their culture — an issue that exists when looking at colleges and universities as well. Despite the fact that colleges and universities have released statements in support of their Black students, pledging to make policy-level changes, they often fail to actually reach students and make a noticeable impact on the experience of Black students. Recently, during the virtual Orientation 2020 for incoming first years, a member of the College’s Health Services stated the following: “I once heard that sugar gave rise to the slave trade. Now sugar has enslaved us.” These comparisons seem to contradict the essence of Wellesley’s most recent statements and completely oppose the mission of the College. How could this have moved through the chain of command unnoticed?
This incident is simply a symptom of larger issues at play. For many Black students, this language is unfortunately unsurprising. For those unaffected by racism it can be extremely hard to see that the way they view the world, their own culture and even their dialogue is intrinsically tied with racism and oppression. Something like this was able to happen because, for the most part, the ones who are creating the content are not the receiving end, leaving them unaware of the way that these words can harm Black students. It goes beyond examples as clear as that of the orientation video; consider how non-Black professors can fail to include writers of color in their syllabi, or how a Black student feels responsible to describe the Black experience when they are the only person of color in a given class. Similar to how companies use statements in support of Black Lives Matter to absolve them from further action that is not actually put into practice in the day-to-day workplace, colleges and universities must ensure that their statements turn actions and visible change.
Supporting the Black Lives Matter Movement should not be a reaction. Rather, it should be a preemptive move to change how structures in the College setting negatively impact Black students. Statements that lead to the creation of an anti-racist culture can ensure that incidents like this are prevented altogether. Restructuring the college environment to address these concerns because they reach the students and potentially cause harm to them can prevent the need for apologies after the damage is done. This can look like professors reviewing their syllabi to ensure diversity of authors and the perspective they bring to the class, supporting Black students in courses in which they are underrepresented or a plethora of other ways to support the Black community at the College. Unlearning racism, educating oneself of the history of this country and the origins of many aspects of modern society and identifying ways that one benefits from the unfair system are steps that can be taken every day. This, translated to a lifelong commitment, is the only way to ensure real, lasting change happens.