August 4, 2021

Programmatic

In a world where nearly everyone is always online, there is no offline.

Reflections on race from across the ditch

There has been a wave of conversations in social and mainstream media on the topic of race and diversity following England’s Euro 2020 loss, followed by further discussions around the treatment of Lewis Hamilton after his crash at the British Grand Prix. Jodie Armstrong-Downes, Planning Partner at TRACK Aotearoa, reflects on this with respect to creative agencies in New Zealand and internationally, and how the focus on diversity in the industry is a double-edged sword. 

Over the past few weeks, I have noticed many people across our industry and beyond posting about race, racism and diversity and I can’t help but feel it’s time for me to free up my voice. Especially as many of the posts are written by white Europeans.

I am a bi-racial woman who is black Caribbean/white European. I was born into an underprivileged working-class family in Manchester and raised predominantly by a single mom.

As you can probably imagine, I have a lot to say. Yet, while I’ve tried many times, it’s not always easy to put your voice out there when you’re the minority. When you have worked hard against the odds to make it, fear of it being taken away can leave you frozen to speak up. It is a deep fear that can linger when you’re not rooted in the system of white privilege.

The racist abuse that footballers Rashford, Saka and Sancho and most recently Lewis Hamilton following his crash at the British Grand Prix, have experienced has triggered a wave of conversation and an outcry for change within society. A reminder for me that we are certainly not done when it comes to tackling racial equality and that it is a subject that needs continuous attention. Their experience touched me deeply. I noticed how it reflected the real issues when people of colour have risen to the ‘top’.

In my 15 years of working in agencies in London and now recently in New Zealand, I know what it means to be expected to deliver above and beyond your peers in order to feel valued. To be given no slack when you don’t shine way above your level. When you’re anything less than a star. To produce the ideas and then have the credit placed elsewhere. To be constantly critiqued by people who are not of colour.

You see, it is my perception that there is an unconscious bias that exists everywhere and proliferates. It is that brown and black people must be exceptional stars, or they simply shouldn’t be there. There is little room to fail hard and fast. We see this in sports such as the recent England football loss (or even when delivering a superb F1 comeback), in dance, film, and yes, there is a residue of this in the world of agencies too.

Diversity has become a key word amongst agencies, with old tokenism now being challenged and huge changes being made in recruitment clearly visible to all.

This is absolutely a step in the right direction, yet I must admit I have noticed a major trend (it must be the planner in me). The trend is that for people of colour to be seriously accepted they must have an exceptional story to be employed and accepted. These new recruits are often positioned as being young geniuses, stars, the absolute best in their craft. I know I have fallen into these camps at times.

Yet, while these stories are marvellous I can’t help but feel they are also a double-edged sword the industry needs to be mindful of. It builds a story that people of colour who make it in our industry are these incredible anomalies. Of course, they are incredible having navigated an industry which is rife with white privilege. However, this picture paints one which says, this is not the norm. That it’s a special few brown folk that make it and that the majority of an agency’s organisational structure can continue to remain the same, relatively untouched.

As a person of a colour, I’ve known for a long time that the world and even agencies can feel unsafe if you’re not white and privileged. And there is so much that needs to be done.

This might sound strange, but I want to see mediocracy that has the potential to be exceptional as well as exceptional hires and anomalies. I want to see more people of colour unafraid to give our industry a go even when they still need coaching and development. Even when they’re still a rough diamond, penetrating every facet of organisations. Because I believe agencies will be better off in the long run with this diversity of thought.

Everyone has an opinion and I’m encouraged to see so many people in the industry speaking up, but I would like to see less posting and more policy. I’d like to see less hiring of people who look ‘like me’ and more hiring of people who are your ‘other’. I’d like to see less separation and more curiosity to collaborate with people from diverse backgrounds.

So, there we go, the first time I have used my voice to talk about race publicly. Absolutely terrified it could mean I am shunned or marginalised, yet it’s a risk I can no longer fear after 15 years of hard work. If those players reminded me of anything, it’s that courage is a trait worth believing in. And a trait our industry absolutely needs.

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