Updated: Mar 17, 2021
By Nela Gojevic
As communicators and PR practitioners, we have a powerful role to play in advancing equity, diversity, inclusion and belonging. Communication involves creating and reflecting meaning; it is a tool of connection. Through our work, we have unique opportunities to advance an understanding of equity and diversity that supports justice and inclusion. As storytellers we can use our mediums to help create a sense of belonging, challenge perpetrators of racism, and serve as agents of social change.
It should go without saying that non-racialized folks (like myself) are responsible for educating ourselves about racial injustice, amplifying racialized and Indigenous voices, and speaking up and taking action against all forms of racism. That doesn’t mean that we get to call ourselves allies in doing so.
Anti-racism educator, author and podcast host Monique Melton captures allyship as implying that anti-racism is an identity that can be earned or perhaps even born into, which it is not. Melton says “this would imply there’s a destination, a start & stop point that you get to in this work, when this is instead a lifelong journey. ”
A consistent and lifelong commitment to identifying and eliminating racism should serve as a foundation for how we govern ourselves as communicators and otherwise. Unfortunately, sometimes even the most well-intentioned acts of anti-racism or perceived allyship can be harmful to the people they’re trying to support. That’s why it’s important to continue learning and challenging what you think you understand about racism, its origins and impact. Taking a stand against racial injustices can only be effective if it is informed. A list of educational resources can be found here.
Speaking from the perspective of a white woman and first-generation Canadian, I am sharing 3 ways you can practice anti-racism as a communicator, based on my personal lessons learned.
1. Understand performative allyship, and do better.
There is no single right way to practice anti-racism as a communicator. There are, however, lots of unproductive or even harmful ways to go about it, and performative allyship is one of them. Performative allyship is when a non marginalized person or group shows their support for a marginalized group in way that isn’t helpful. It is often self-serving, and sometimes even damaging to the communities it is supposed to help. In the true sense of the word, ‘performative’ action keeps an audience in mind – it’s usually public-facing and seeking reaction or praise. It is “talking the talk” without “walking the walk”.
With the rise of “woke” non-racialized folks in 2020, we saw various examples of performative allyship, such as the sea of black squares posted to Instagram for #BlackOutTuesday. This trend gave those posting an excuse to show they care without having to offer any tangible help. Further, as many black square posts were paired with #BlackLivesMatter, the trend ended up systemically displacing valuable BLM information and reducing its visibility during a critical time of protest. Needless to say, jumping on the latest trend isn’t an effective way of supporting the collective fight against the long-standing injustices faced by equity-seeking communities. Another damaging example of performative allyship is seen through businesses and organizations who make public PR-driven commitments to create more equitable workplaces without actually doing the work to make their commitments a reality. One such example is seen in Canada’s federal government where despite it’s public commitments to “diversity and inclusion” and employment equity targets, a $900 million class action lawsuit was launched by Black public servants whose experiences did not reflect those commitments.
Professional communicators are leaders in shaping narratives and storytelling. These are powerful tools for advancing societal change, but they are also effective tools for encumbering it. As seen in the two examples above, it is integral that our actions speak louder than our words, that we use our platforms to amplify the voices of racialized and Indigenous communities, and that our attempts to create change keep the needs of these communities at the centre.
2. Design inclusively.
Designing inclusively is a powerful tool for dismantling systemic and institutional oppression. As communicators, we’re frequently gifted the opportunity to design inclusively by way of our products, strategies and more. There are various ways in which we can practice anti-racism through inclusive design, from breaking the perpetuation of stereotypes and unconscious biases, to meaningfully representing and empowering our audiences.
How do we put inclusive design into practice? One way is to start by identifying those who have been most negatively impacted through our storytelling decisions, or those who systems have pushed to the margins of our audience. In doing this work, it is important to consider all the intersections of these people’s identities. I like to think of this as creating marketing personas for those on the margins of our audience. From there, design backwards. Working from the margins inward can help to ensure that our communications activities are accessible, and effectively meet the needs of our most marginalized audience members. To help ensure that you reach this goal, consider organizing respectful and inclusive community consultations that adequately reimburse participants for their time.
The graphic below is a great primer for understanding how removing barriers to access through design can enable all people to participate more fully.
3. Speak up against racism, all of the time (yes, even when it’s uncomfortable).
This may sound like a no-brainer – practicing anti-racism innately entails calling out and condemning all forms of racism. It also means that it doesn’t suddenly become alright to condone observed racism if the person committing the behaviour “was probably joking”, or you’re worried you may make them feel uncomfortable by calling them out:
Perhaps there is a power dynamic at play between yourself and the person in question;
Perhaps the person is a client;
What if calling them out would harm your business or relationship with them?
None of these circumstances should be an excuse for staying silent.
In these uncomfortable moments, it’s important to remember that if you are a person without lived experience of racism, raising your voice to condemn racism against others is a privilege within itself.
It’s equally important to remain aware of the fine line that exists between being part of the problem and being part of the solution. Although you may feel that you’re causing no harm by staying silent, your silence in these situations signals that you condone this kind of behaviour. Further, your silence could suggest that your values align with what is being done or said. Most importantly, your silence allows for this behaviour to continue happening and hurting our communities. Create a safe environment for self-accountability by respectfully inviting perpetrators of racism to do better and by supporting their capacity for understanding.
The time is now! I invite you to join me at the National Summit on Anti-Racism in Public Relations and Communications Management on March 22 and 23, 2021, to deepen your understanding of how we can advance equity, diversity and inclusion inside and outside of our organizations.