An Open Letter from Black Creatives to Institutions, Corporations, Brands, Agencies & Individuals
The brutal murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25th set off a wave of protests not only throughout the United States but around the world – protests that initially focused on racist police killings but grew quickly to encompass the permeating and global nature of racism.
On June 4, less than two weeks after George Floyd’s death, we, a group of Black artists, each received an email from Microsoft and McCann advertising agency, saying they wanted to fill the boarded-up space in front of the Microsoft store on 5th Avenue, Manhattan, with a mural in support of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. The email included a suggested timeline:
“Hoping to complete the mural while the protests are still relevant and the boards are still up, ideally no later than this coming Sunday.”
This invitation was both shocking and somehow predictable. There have been numerous such invitations extended to Black artists and creatives in the last few weeks from similarly powerful organizations. While we take at face value the desire to express solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and support us as Black artists, it is crucial to understand that forms of performative activism that mirror the hierarchies and systems of oppression are part of what makes the conditions for violence against Black people possible.
The timing and content of the request we received shows a disregard for our process and underestimates our commitment to justice: how could we consider our involvement in this project with no sense of your short- or long-term commitment to racial justice? How could we make an informed view of whether our work fits into your vision without even knowing what that vision is or its alignment to our own?
And the urgency to complete the mural “while the protests are relevant” betrays a telling and dangerous opportunism. The systemic oppression of Black Lives, and the fight for justice, was relevant long before any of us were born, has been relevant for us our whole lives, and will continue to be relevant until racism no longer exists. This may be a “moment” for organizations to score PR points, but for us, and for Black people around the world, it is another battle in an ongoing struggle for our individual and collective dignity and humanity.
In their rush to portray public solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, companies risk reinscribing what got us all here: the instrumentalization and exploitation of Black labor, ideas, and talent for what is ultimately their own benefit and safety.
We were all individually approached by Microsoft with an apology. That is a first step forward. But we are not asking for quick apologies. To rush into that would be more of the same knee-jerk, superficial engagement. Addressing systemic racism is about more than (literal) window-dressing and tokenism. There is real work to be done, and it cannot be done overnight (or in five days). These systems of racist exploitation have been carefully, deliberately constructed over hundreds of years, and will need to be dismantled with similar care and intention. But while the problem is complicated, the solutions that will set us off in the right direction are often simple and quite obvious.
We are calling all overwhelmingly-white organizations to engage with these strategies:
- Ensure that workforces, leadership and decision-making teams are truly diverse in racial and ethnic makeup and that these persons are paid equally and promoted equally, that Black artists and creatives are truly represented in management and creative teams and that all are heard for their ideas and experiences – these are the only ways your organizations can have a real understanding and appreciation of issues affecting Black people’s lives.
- Decision-makers in your organization will need to resist the urge to virtue signal and look within — within your organization and within yourselves. No one needs another performative symbol of solidarity.
- Hire Black creatives, advisors, leaders, and educators to support the changes you say you are committed to making.
- Stop silencing, ignoring, disregarding, and devaluing the Black creatives and individuals who are already within your organizations. Collaboratively build a culture that supports and listens to Black people.
- Invest time and money in building your relationships with Black people and our communities, outside of trending topics and PR stunts.
- Create real, actionable policies that effectively respond to injustice, through consultation and dialogue.
We challenge institutions, corporations, brands, agencies, and the individuals that work within them to become examples of how to do it right. Thoughtful and determined action will show your genuine commitment more than any mural or similar performance of support.
We challenge all predominately white creative agencies, institutions, companies, brands, and individuals to do this work and to be more thoughtful and mindful of yourselves and your position in our society.
Without the profoundly unnerving, difficult, and deeply painful, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual commitment to engage in the hard work that is required to defeat racism, you will continue to perpetuate and even exacerbate the problem.
Shantell Martin, Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi, Mia Coleman, Jade Brown, Jordan Moss, Amy Sherald, Nina Chanel Abney, Ingrid Pollard, Nia Imani Phillips, Amanda Williams, Loveis Wise, Roxanne Williams, Aurélia Durand, Kesiena Onosigho, Kodi Seaton, Ira Kip, Nkuli Mlangeni, Atiya Jones, Chantal Stone, Jazzmyn Hollis, Fredrick Norfleet, Jean Joseph, Alicia Skehan, Jonathan Jackson, N3VLYNNN, Nthabiseng, Kai D. Wright , Yvonne Lamar-Rogers , Rozlynn Harris , Ingrid Jones, Francis Kortor Kamara Jr, Carla Edwards, Aisha Densmore-Bey , Johnalynn Holland, Breanna Robinson, Shala., Maya Iman, Larry Ossei-Mensah, Adama Delphine Fawundu, Taylor Camille, Sachi Rome, Lauren Bernard, Noel Spiva , Ryan Drake, Ato Kwamena Takyi Ribeiro, Aisha Alexis Mills, Dodji Gbedemah , Christopher Moises Soul Torres, Mangue Banzima , Josiah Esowe, Mwanel Pierre-Louis, Kendal Henry , Lucia Hierro, Leon Johnson, Adoo Kuma Assoh
& the countless other Black creatives facing the same challenges today.