The Commodification of Black History Month

On February 6, I received an email about Apple’s new Black Unity watch. At first, I was confused by this new piece of inventory until I remembered: it’s Black History Month, and that means it’s the time when corporations remember that we exist and decide to bombard us with a plethora of Black-inspired and focused products. 

While Black people look forward to this month as a time to celebrate the positive aspects of our history in this country and the work of organizers past and present, it seems that corporations look forward to this month as it allows them to market to the Black community. From streaming services to clothing companies and everything in between, we see corporations using Black History Month as a marketing tool. 

Following the display of performative activism that was #BlackoutTuesday, many Black people denounced the posts as lip service that often led to no action. Similar assertions were made about the many corporations that published statements in support of the Black Lives Matter movement yet did very little to dismantle the systemic racism that exists within their companies.

For example, UOMA owner Sharon Chuter’s #PullUpOrShutUp movement showed that many companies were quick to support #BlackLivesMatter in statements but, evidently, did not actually support the movement within their own companies, as is seen by the low percentages of Black employees in many of these corporations.

However, despite direct call-outs of the problematic practices of corporate America, it doesn’t appear that they quite received this message just yet.

This is not to say that I don’t love receiving a discount on Uber Eats for ordering from a Black-owned business, but I do pause and consider the motivations of these promotions. Given the severe lack of diversity in corporate America, these marketing schemes come across as disingenuous and patronizing.

Click here to read more about this chart, as well as see other corporate diversity statistics.

I, for one, don’t want conciliatory clothing and media collections if it means that there is no actual systemic change occurring behind the scenes of these corporations – especially when many of these efforts all disappear the second the clock strikes midnight on March 1. 

This corporate virtue signaling is not a new marketing technique. This identity branding also occurs during Pride Month. As soon as we hit June 1, many companies begin to hang up LGBTQ+ flags and sell rainbow-themed products; however, any support of the LGBTQ+ community ends there when it comes to these corporations. 

For example, Under Armour, like many other companies, releases products in honor of Pride Month every year. Yet, Kevin Plank, then CEO of the company, called Donald Trump “a real asset for the country” in 2017. While this praise was in relation to the former president’s stances toward businesses, none of Trump’s policies – positive or negative – can be separated from his extensive laundry list of homophobic actions that began long before his time in office.

Therefore, it is clear that companies will use Pride Month as a marketing tactic to draw members of the LGBTQ+ community to their products. As we now see, companies take the same approach to the Black community, and it’s time for them to stop. 

Marginalized people do not exist solely for companies to profit off of us. While discounts, collections and products are something nice to look at and possibly buy, marginalized people would much rather see action – specifically, long-term action – from these corporations instead.

Art credits: Halimah Smith, @artpce on Instagram

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