Ernest Owens is a Philadelphia-based journalist.
The first day of the month brought yet another yearly reminder of why I’ve grown to cringe every February as a Black American. Soon after receiving a thoughtless “Happy Black History Month” email from a White colleague, a friend messaged me with a crying emoji. “And they made Siri say it,” she wrote with a screenshot of her White employer’s “Happy Black History Month” text with the Apple notification stating that it was sent from the monotone virtual assistant. She punctuated that with a skull emoji. We both had to laugh to keep from crying. A boss from a Fortune 500 company couldn’t even muster the consideration to pander to her with his own fingertips.
It became clear we were in for a month of empty platitudes after a year that had already been filled with tons of them. Just like Pride Month, Black History Month has become a routine time of year when corporations say the absolute most while doing the least for marginalized communities. As a Black queer millennial, I’ve grown tired of both June and February because I find myself feeling more insulted than inspired by the way the same companies who deny both of my identities any other time of the year find it suddenly mandatory to suggest otherwise.
This month we can expect organizations to post statements, graphics and video clips on social media filled with blanket declarations of “celebrating” Black history and culture. Watch as your White boss tries to get “creative” and find a way to “get staff in the spirit” in the most offensive ways. Once a teacher gave me a gift wrapped in Kente cloth when I was a part-time after-school program coordinator a few years ago. (I have yet to burn that sage-scented candle she thought was going to make me “beam with Black Boy Joy.”)
After the racial uprisings of last summer, you would think White people would have gotten the hint that such superficial attempts to address Black inequity are worthless. I had hoped that after all of the Black Lives Matter conversations, woke book clubs and anti-racism virtual trainings, White people had learned some valuable lessons.
Corporations also tried to wrap themselves in the flag of racial justice with the most basic ways to express their support for the Black Lives Matter movement. UberEats waived delivery fees for users ordering from Black-owned restaurants (although they may have allowed restaurants who were not Black-owned to take advantage of that). Warner Bros. offered free rentals of the movie “Just Mercy.” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell apologized for not supporting athletes protesting against police brutality — even though former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick never got his job back.
Since then, much still hasn't changed.
There’s only been one Black woman added to the Fortune 500 CEO club, Silicon Valley remains a White tech bro scene, and much of the enthusiasm to address racial equity and “keep the conversation going” has died down across the board.
All of this makes it hard to stomach Facebook displaying a Black History Month illustration while advocacy organizations, such as Color for Change, recently had to demand a civil rights accountability infrastructure from the company following years of reported racial bias.
It was difficult to scroll down my Twitter timeline and watch CBS News post a clip of Rosa Parks speaking on injustice after the news that another investigation has to be conducted into allegations of racial discrimination at the media company.
Until corporations find concrete ways to address the ongoing ways they directly hurt Black communities, they should stop their farcical marketing campaigns celebrating Black History Month. This month shouldn’t be an excuse for companies to roll out PR stunts or attempt to absolve themselves from true accountability. Instead, it should be a time for corporate executives to move away from the aesthetics and the token compliments and find ways to invest their money, resources and power back into the hands of a community that’s been disproportionately exploited and erased.
Right now, Black History Month is more about corporations telling us how they appreciate Black culture instead of showing us. Reparations, reallocation of resources, and honest and transparent reassessments of current racist power structures are more desirable than copy-and-paste greetings sent by Siri.
Tangible actions are the only things that could be worth “celebrating” from corporations in February. Anything less is just more unnecessary lip service.
Read a letter in response to this piece: When we can abandon Black History Month
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