As Corporations Shout ‘Black Lives Matter’, Their Track Records Raise Scepticism
17th June 2020
In response to a series of racial killings, including the murder of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement has erupted into large-scale protests against systemic racism – being led by black people in all fifty American states, as well as in many other countries around the world. As is becoming increasingly clear, the challenge at hand demands that people from all groups stand together in the fight against racism. Many white people are at last speaking out about this issue and using their privilege to amplify the voices of people of colour. While the importance of this solidarity cannot be overstated, instances of self-serving, performative allyship must also be recognised and addressed. From posting empty black squares that drown out the vital information posted by activists, to sharing pictures with black friends as evidence of anti-racism, it is clear that many people have yet to understand that allyship is not about making yourself look good. However, perhaps the biggest culprits of performative allyship have been corporations seeking to boost their public image.
The controversial image that sparked push-back. Photo by @LorealParis
L’Oréal Paris is one of many companies whose messages of solidarity to the black community have been interpreted as insincere due to a track record of racism. In 2017, model and transgender activist Monroe Bergdorf was dropped by L’Oréal for speaking out about systemic racism in light of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. L’Oréal fired Bergdorf, who was the first transgender model they had worked with, on the grounds that she did no reflect the company’s values just days after hiring her to the ‘True Match’ diversity campaign. Three years later, in a climate where voicing anti-racist sentiments has become palatable, L’Oréal shared a message of solidarity and support with the black community under a post, reading “speaking out is worth it”. This move faced major backlash from many members of the black community, as well as beauty influencers and celebrities such as Jameela Jamil. Bergdorf herself has called-out the company for exploiting the BLM movement for its own gain. The model spoke out on social media about the professional and emotional harm caused by L’Oréal’s actions in 2017 and described the company’s claim that they support the black community as gaslighting.
Many other companies in the fashion industry have faced a similar backlash to L’Oréal. Nike, Celine, Zimmermann and Reformation have all been criticised for asserting their solidarity with the BLM movement despite having a lack of racial diversity in their staff or allegations of racist discrimination in the workplace. While the contradiction between companies’ words and their practices is concerning in itself, performative allyship is far more damaging than simple hypocrisy. Aja Barber, a sustainability expert and fashion writer, has spoken out on social media about why being exposed to performative allyship can be triggering for black people. Many brands posting about BLM have not only been silent for the past seven years on the movement but have actively contributed to the oppression of black people through company practices. Barber argues that by superficially aligning themselves with the anti-racist movement when it is good for PR, corporations are commodifying black death and communal grief. She describes it as traumatising for Black people to watch brands profit from the collective suffering of their community.
L’oreal Paris skin whitening creams continue to be sold in Africa and Asia. Photo by Loreal Paris
Despite the scale of the problem, online activists have seen some success in combating performative allyship and promoting sincere solidarity. After a week of backlash and online campaigning, L’Oréal reached out to Bergdorf about the treatment she received in 2017. L’Oréal apologised for how the situation was handled and pledged to donate €25,000 to both Mermaids, a charity supporting transgender youths and UK Black Pride. Bergdorf was also offered a position on L’Oréal’s UK Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Board, which she accepted, saying she believes in “progress, not cancellation”. This was a considerable triumph for all those fighting for accountability, as well as a personal success for Bergdorf. However, it is important to note that €50,000 does not represent a major financial commitment for a company that took in €30 billion in sales in 2019 alone. Furthermore, one appointment is only a small step towards dismantling racism within L’Oréal’s practices. Many issues, such as the company’s sale of skin whitening creams in Africa and Asia, have still yet to be addressed or even acknowledged as problematic. Whether or not this week’s events mark the beginning of long-term tangible change within L’Oréal ultimately remain to be seen.
L’Oréal’s response to recent backlash may not reveal much about the company’s overall commitment to anti-racism, but it does demonstrate the importance of activism and public pressure. While there is a long way to come, collective efforts to hold companies accountable can set reform in motion. Allyship can play an important role in this process, but only insofar as allies prioritise social justice over their own personal gain.
Featured photo by ABC