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I spoke today to a group in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The topic, organizational diversity, was the same as the one that would smack me in my face as soon as I left the stage. Opening my cell phone, I saw a message from a member of the media asking me to comment on the recent Super Bowl ad for Acura, in which the company went through great pains to ensure that the black actor was “friendly,” and “not too dark.”
What I find most interesting about these kinds of silly mistakes by major corporations is that in most cases, the racial ridiculousness was typically inspired by a black-owned marketing firm. The easiest way for predominantly white corporations to get themselves into trouble is to rely on one “black representative” to give the OK for anything they do that relates to race. The in-depth analysis at “Any Corporation” USA might go something like this:
“Shaquanda, we want to produce an ad with a big-lipped monkey wearing a gold chain, dancing for a piece of fried chicken, do you think black people might find this to be offensive?”
“No, my friends would probably think the ad was funny.”
“OK then, let’s do it!”
I am not sure who gave the go-ahead for the Acura ad, but the move was clearly a no-no. What’s most interesting about these costly decisions is that they are likely a symptom of a lack of diversity in the company’s upper management: either there are no black people making any of the important organizational decisions, or the black people on board have been traumatized into being scared of their own shadows. Every time I speak to a corporation about diversity issues, I always end up having those “secret conversations” with the black employees that happen when their manager leaves the room. In other words, they are scared to death.
The decision by Acura to communicate a preference for light-skinned blacks over dark-skinned ones is obviously rooted in America’s deep and very sick commitment to white supremacy. It’s no secret that historically, the more a person of color matches the Eurocentric standard of beauty, the more the world defines that person to be of value. In fact, I dare to say that if Barack Obama looked like Bill Duke or Wesley Snipes, he wouldn’t be President of the United States.
Acura may pay dearly for its mistake, at least in the court of Black Public Opinion. They should rightfully be expected to pay, since there is no excuse for this behavior. But one can hope that this valuable lesson will help the organization learn that seeking out meaningful diversity within its corporate ranks can make the firm more efficient, effective and productive. This kind of silly thing tends to happen when there are no (empowered) black people in the room.