Advancing equity is the active process of looking at the systems we have today through the lens of those most disadvantaged by those systems.

As a consultant in the field of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB), more and more, I’ve been hearing the phrase, “We’re over-indexing on Black.” Each time I hear it I ask, “What specifically do you mean by that”? My question is an attempt to disrupt a person’s thinking, to create enough pause to give them pause. This is frequently followed by a flustered look as some poor soul scrambles to produce what they hope is a politically correct response.

Let me tell you one thing: the likelihood of you over-indexing on Black is dubious at best. Let me paint a picture for you.

 

 

Several years ago, I sat with a panel at the Public Health Institute where I led business development and equity initiatives. It was in this meeting that I was introduced to a concept known as the “curb cut effect.” The curb cut effect is a phenomenon that was observed after small ramps were, quite literally, cut into the curbs of sidewalks at intersections to allow for better access for the disabled. What folks discovered was that the curb cuts had benefits beyond the scope of what was originally intended. Though specifically meant for wheelchair access, people riding bikes, using strollers, carrying luggage, etc. all benefited from the ramps. Nowadays, these ramps, once a novel feature, are simply the standard and are no longer even viewed in light of their original purpose.

I’ve since alluded many times to the curb cut effect as an example of how marketers and communicators create a user experience that is equitable, inclusive in its design and considers the diversity of people using these very curbs and the intersectionality of their identities where they may often have been forgotten. The curb cut effect supposes that where you address a problem for those most in need — experiencing the most inequity — you create benefits for the entirety of the community at large.

A thoughtful look at the numbers matters here,  from the context of what it means to be employed while Black, to what it means to be represented in marketing while Black:

  • “A survey conducted in June 2020 found that younger Americans were more likely to want an increase in racial representation in advertising, with 55 percent of respondents aged 18-34 in favor for more racial diversity in ads.”
  • According to 2020 data from SHRM’s “The Journey to Equity and Inclusion,” only 13% of white HR professionals agree that discrimination based on race or ethnicity exists in their workplace compared to 49% of Black HR professionals.
  • U.S. employment data reported by Statista notes that the Advertising and Promotion industry is 78.7% white, 12.1% Black or African American, 5.2% Asian and 6.2% Hispanic or Latino.
  • McKinsey reports that “Almost half of Black workers are in three industries with a large frontline presence, with significant underrepresentation especially in high-growth, high-wage industries.”
  • A December 2021 jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics noted the unemployment rate for Black people increased from 6.5% to 7.1% from November to December.

The idea of “over-indexing Black” is a relic and direct consequence of the systemic racism and exclusion that are at the core of U.S. culture, which was built on the backs of Black Americans but continues to disenfranchise us at every opportunity.

We need a slight reframe applied to our thinking — one that centers those experiencing a multitude of harms and exclusion brought on by the perceptions applied to their being and identities. A reframe that engages us in seeking out and examining the root causes of disparity. A reframe that focuses on expansion, expansion of access to opportunity for historically marginalized and underrepresented people.

Oftentimes I’ll start with a hospital analogy: much like we triage within a hospital, we simultaneously treat both the patient with an aneurysm and the patient with a broken arm. The patient in most crisis and at the margin of irreparable harm is likely to receive a more intense level of care because the scenario requires them to receive the simple, baseline support they need to not even thrive, but survive. What’s interesting is the assumption that tactical DEI responses and multicultural marketing programs are geared solely towards Black people. This reveals two things to me, first that you know there is a problem impacting us all, and second, your supposition consciously or not is that there is a hyper focus on Black that will create an imbalance for others somehow. One of the operating principles many use in the DEI space is gleaned from Dean Spade a trans activist, writer and teacher who said, “honor and build power in and with the margins”.

Intersectionality needs to be at the forefront of our design considerations and decisions because systems of oppression are interconnected and interlocking. Audre Lorde said, “there is no hierarchy of oppression.” I find myself in a place as employee resource groups are being stood up, as DEI audits abound, and as data is center stage of combating these narratives that underscore a fundamental lack of acknowledgment for our linked fate. The well from which our struggles spring is shared, and the solution is not to parse who deserves more morphine or a hospital bed. Our fates are linked and over-indexing Black, well, it is not a thing.

We consultants live in a world of identifying problems so we can apply solutions, and when these comments are made it becomes clearer that we do not agree on the problem, and we are not singing from the same songbook. It feels much like the oppression Olympics. Our agencies and firms are often integrated, so I know we each understand that where we seek to solve a complex client challenge, we often need a consult or the aid of another practice. These cross-functional considerations can help us address this:

  1. User experience: find out from real people what experience they want and need, then design with that in mind.
  2. Design thinking: co-create marketing and communications with the intersections of varied people’s identities in mind, particularly those at the margins. And invite those very people into the process from start to finish.
  3. Psychology: practice empathy and create space for the reality of psychological safety.

As we advise and create the scaffolding for a multitude of clients and sectors, we have a responsibility to examine not just what we do, but how we do it and with whom. We owe it to the field, our clients and to those who most often suffer harm to stay curious and ask questions as we craft solutions.

A more layered question to ask beyond, “are we over-indexing Black?” is, “whose interests are being served?”

Amira Barger is executive vice president, Health DEI at Edelman.

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