Marketers – if you’re serious about being an ally on race, these seven books will help

Recommended reading for anyone trying to understand the issue of race in marketing, the workplace – and life

November 3, 2020

Recommended reading for anyone trying to understand the issue of race in marketing, the workplace – and life

What happens after the end of Black History Month? In a year when race has dominated the media agenda, these last few weeks have been an opportunity to ask real questions of ourselves and our workplaces. Plenty of people have been ready to listen and ready to learn about what the experience of different ethnic groups actually is – and our own role in changing things. But we can’t always rely on other people to tell us what to think and how to behave. And we can’t limit seriously trying to empathise with all of our colleagues to just one month of the year.

A week or so ago, LinkedIn’s Senior Director of Marketing for EMEA and LATAM, Nico Lutkins, hosted a LinkedIn Live conversation with John Amaechi OBE that tackled the issue of what it takes to be an ally on race. One of the things that John said during that session really stuck with me: “there are implications to the things that clever people choose not to know, and smart people choose not to learn.” He argued passionately that it’s not the responsibility of black people to educate people like me about race. That’s a responsibility that we have to take on for ourselves.

For this post, I’ve collected together seven books that I believe can be part of that process. Several of them are recommendations from John himself. Others have been put forward by my colleagues and contacts in marketing and advertising. It’s not an exhaustive list of great writing about race by any means. However, I’ve found that reading or even dipping into each of these brings a different perspective that’s an important part of educating ourselves.

I’m a marketer – and so I can’t help reading these books from a marketing perspective as well. They can help us to understand the experience of colleagues, friends and strangers – and they surely have to inform the way we go about engaging our marketing audiences as well. I’ve tried to draw out the inspiration and ideas that I’ve taken from each one so far.

Whistling Vivaldi
By Claude Steele

Read it because

You’ll understand the real impact of stereotyping on those being stereotyped – and how small details can have a sweeping impact on people’s lives.

What does it say?

Claude Steele is a social psychologist who set out to discover why black students at universities in the United States seemed to perform less well than students of a similar ability who were white. It led to two decades of study that opened a window on what goes on inside the minds of people who know there’s a stigma against them. Steele’s accessible writing style takes you on this journey with him and the results are a wake-up call for anybody who cares about equality of opportunity. He discovered that any group facing bias (whether that’s ethnic minorities or women studying advanced maths) feels an extra stress and pressure that impacts on their ability to perform. Distressingly, this ‘stereotype threat’ effect increases the more motivated the person is – the more they care

This book resonates not only because of the hidden barriers it illuminates – but because of how it describes people’s sense of stigmatised identity builds up. For Steele himself, it was being told that, as a black child, he could only swim in the pool in a white neighbourhood on Wednesdays (he explains this and more of the background to the book in an engaging interview on National Public Radio, available here). For Brent Staples, a graduate student in Chicago, it was the fearful looks on the faces of white people when he walked through an affluent neighbourhood.

Steele also makes clear though, that these details can work in the other direction. His title comes from the solution that Staples came up with of whistling Vivaldi melodies while walking, which instantly changed white people’s reaction to him. This book takes this as inspiration for the value of affirming positive beliefs about people, changing the context, pushing back against stigma and therefore changing what people are capable of.

Inspiration for marketers

Lazy stereotyping in communication has consequences – but so too does making a conscious effort to undermine these stereotypes and emphasise positive role models. In this respect, marketing matters.

Unpacking the Invisible Knapsac
By Peggy McIntos

Read it because

You might understand the concept of white privilege, but not many people have thought through its consequences to the extent that McIntosh has.

What does it say?

First published in 1989, this essay introduced the concept of white privilege into the public debate – and it feels as challenging, humbling and provocative today as it did then. It highlights an intentional blind spot in white people’s attitude to race, and it’s all the more powerful for being written by a white woman asking herself these questions for the first time

As a champion for Women’s Studies, McIntosh had noticed that although men were often willing to accept the fact that women were at a disadvantage, they were unwilling to accept that they themselves were overprivileged as a result. She realised that the same refusal to acknowledge privilege applied to race just as much as to gender. Growing up, she had been taught not to recognise the existence of this privilege and to refuse to accept that she succeeded on anything other than merit:

“I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.”

McIntosh’s essay centres around examples of unearned white privilege that she has encountered in her own life. These are hard to deny, challenging to accept, and as she explains, very easy and tempting to ignore. They include being able to move house to somewhere new and know that people will be neutral or pleasant to you, arranging to protect your children from people who might not like them, and making different choices without them being linked back to race. It all adds up to a passionate argument against the “myth of meritocracy.”

Inspiration for marketers:

Creating marketing that’s genuinely inclusive involves acknowledging that different races experience the world differently. And the same holds true for building a genuinely inclusive marketing team.

Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire
By Akala

Read it because:

You’ve doubtless heard people asking why protesters in the UK were marching in response to a killing by police in the US – or arguing that we don’t face the same issues here. This is the book that vividly demonstrates why addressing long-hidden issues about race is such an urgent issue in this country

What does it say?

Today, Akala is a MOBO-award winning rapper and poet, as well as a respected political commentator and scholar. This seems like a predictable outcome for a bookish young man who attended extra school on Saturdays and was reading The Lord of the Rings aged seven. In reality, it was a hugely unlikely outcome owing to the fact that Akala has grown up black in the UK. And this book compellingly describes why.

It’s brilliantly written by a fiercely intelligent and self-aware human being who’s experienced the issues he describes, but thinks far beyond those experiences as well. It’s part memoir that includes shocking examples of street violence and racism, but also a powerfully argued analysis of the impact of race on life in the UK that to many people, is equally shocking.

Akala takes on institutional racism in the UK as expressed through education and the police. He describes the betrayal of the Windrush generation from the top down, the gradual airbrushing out of Caribbean heritage and identity, and the subjective version of history taught in the country’s schools. He discusses the divide-and-conquer effect of how class and race collide in the UK and the impact this has on a personal level. And he analyses the unique state of denial that the country seems to have when it comes to issues of race.

Perhaps most tellingly, he doesn’t put his own success down to greater merit or an ability to rise above the circumstances he grew up in. To him, it’s another example of the randomness and injustice that controls outcomes in a country that’s very far from a meritocracy. There’s a message that even as a successful black person in the UK, your destiny has not been in your own hands. And that’s a difficult message for others to hear.

Inspiration for marketers:

It’s a call to action that this is not just an issue for somewhere else. If you want to hear more, it’s worth making time for Akala’s hour-long interview with the JOE YouTube channel that discusses the issues raised in the book.

Belonging
By Kathryn Jacob, Sue Unerman and Mark Edwards

Read it because:

It’s identified the most significant issue blocking diversity and inclusion within businesses – and puts forward an in-depth strategy for addressing it

What does it say?

Why is there so little progress on increasing diversity within UK businesses? The three authors of Belonging use the latest available research and extensive interviews of their own to put forward an answer: it’s because most straight, white men refuse to get involved.

The solution that Jacob, Unerman and Edwards put forward is to focus on culture. It’s only by building a culture of belonging that businesses can build consensus around why change matters, demonstrate the positive benefits to the business, and remove the invisible barriers that keep too many people excluded from opportunity based on race, gender or sexual orientation. If division and perceptions of unfairness across different groups persist, the existing order always wins – and has little real incentive to change.

It’s all too easy for the concept of ‘belonging’ to feel like the ‘soft’ bit of Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging initiatives. This book reveals it for what it is – the really tough, nitty gritty stuff that’s essential for anything meaningful to happen. It highlights how discrimination plays out in day-to-day workplaces through a wealth of first-person testimony. It then puts forward a detailed, practical strategy for addressing the issues that ranges from breathing exercises for defusing situations to exercises for reducing conflict between siloes.

Inspiration for marketers:

Two of Belonging’s authors (Pearl and Dean CEO Kathryn Jacob and MediaCom Chief Transformation Officer Sue Unerman) have built careers in the media and advertising sector – and many of the situations they describe will feel particularly relevant to marketers. If you’re serious about taking the journey, then this guide has the next steps for every stage. Josh Graff, LinkedIn’s UK Country Manager and Vice President Marketing Solutions for EMEA and LATAM, describes it as, “required reading for first-time managers to FTSE 100 CEOs.”

Why I’m no longer talking to white people about rac
By Reni Eddo-Lodge

Read it because:

We hear a lot about how white colleagues feel awkward discussing race. This is an important reminder of what the experience feels like from the other side, exposes why it feels that way, and demands that things change.

What does it say?

It’s a bestselling book that grew out of a blog post written by journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge in 2014. That post is a powerful description of white privilege, the denial that goes with it, and how this is expressed by people who often consider themselves progressive, informed and open-minded about race. It also planted important other ideas: that white denial makes trying to communicate about race a real risk for black people; that it leads inevitably to self-censorship; that people who aren’t prepared to acknowledge their own privilege don’t deserve to have reality spelled out for them.

Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race expands this discussion. It examines the causes of structural racism in the UK and reveals the many incentives that lead people to deny its existence and resist change. It also discusses the potential solutions, including the case for positive discrimination – and the dangers of encouraging people to aspire to colour-blindness. It’s page-turningly challenging and uncompromising and relates huge historical issues to everyday experience

Inspiration for Marketers:

Talking constructively about race is difficult, whether that’s in marketing or in the workplace. This is a forceful reminder that the solution is not to avoid the conversations – or retreat behind comforting ideas that are easier to digest. The way to have better conversations about this issue is to approach them in an informed way, and this book is a great starting point.

Diversify
By June Sarpong

Read it because:

It holds out hope that communities, businesses and societies can run in a genuinely diverse and inclusive ways – and offers accessible ways to be a part of that change.

What does it say?

This is a resource for would-be allies that focuses on how inequality and division undermine society as a whole, and puts forward a positive case for change, drawing on stories of organisations that have built prosperity on a more inclusive approach. It’s practical and forward-thinking, with a major focus on helping people to identify and address forms of unconscious bias, and a six-step framework for making a difference.

Inspiration for Marketers:

This book has a different tone and feel to most in this list. Its role is less to enable understanding and empathy for the experiences of others – more to offer an actionable framework for starting to understand and change yourself. And that’s a valuable part of the mix.

Notes of a Native Son
By James Baldwin

Read it because:

It’s a witheringly honest portrayal of what it felt like to be black in segregated 1940s and 1950s America – and what it still feels like to be on the wrong side of racial discrimination today.

What does it say?

This is by far the oldest book on this list. It’s one of the best-selling non-fiction works of all time, and it established a young James Baldwin as an eloquent voice for the Civil Rights Movement and a brilliantly incisive social critic, as well as an honestly passionate and angry black man. Over the course of the following decades, Baldwin was able to express outrage at oppression but also a measured understanding of those doing the oppressing. This gave him a vital role in awakening white audiences to injustice, made him a confidant of the likes of Bobby Kennedy as well as a friend to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and has given his writings a real, ongoing relevance for anybody trying to understand racial experiences.

Some of the scenes that he describes are of their time and place: his experience of the Jim Crow laws, for example, or the specifics of growing up in Harlem. However, what’s striking is how prophetic his ideas are – and how much of his arguments and observations ring immediately true today. They pick out the mechanisms through which the black experience can be denied: through film, through politics and power, and even through the writings of sympathetic people.

Once you’ve read Notes of a Native Son, you’ll probably find yourself moving onto The Fire Next Time, which takes Baldwin through the experiences of the 1960s. You’ll certainly want to watch him speak – because he’s one of the most magnetic, charismatic commentators imaginable. I’d recommend his interview on the Dick Cavett Show in 1969, which was followed shortly afterwards by a memorable on-air debate with the Yale philosophy professor Paul Weiss. There’s a real contrast between these two clips: one with an interviewer committed to asking difficult questions and listening thoughtfully to the answers; the other with a supposed intellectual determined to deny white privilege. There’s a lesson somewhere there, too.

Inspiration for marketers:

As John Amaechi described in his LinkedIn Live session, one of the staggering things about watching and reading Baldwin is how frustratingly little has changed in the half century since. That makes him as relevant today as ever – but it’s also an illustration of how pervasive the forms of racial discrimination that he describes are. His writing makes it clear that this is not something that any intelligent, eloquent person can tolerate.

Like Baldwin, one of the great American novelists, we work in a creative profession. Part of that creativity has to involve awareness of these issues and finding ways to address them.

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