In My View: Racism, Reputation & Bias

Photographer: Thembela “Nymless” Ngayi

Black hair has always been an aspect of Black identity that is disparaged and looked down upon. When we were in school, our hair was only considered neat when it looked closest to white kids’ hair. Our hair in its natural state was consistently labelled as “untidy”. For young Black girls, this usually meant relaxing (perming) your hair straight and tying it in a pony. For young Black boys, it meant cutting their hair in styles as close to white boys’ hairstyles as possible. From a young age, we were repeatedly told that showing up as we are is not acceptable and may result in detention or being sent home.

Last week, Clicks, a health and beauty retailer, found itself in the middle of a furious storm after posting the below images on the website.

The images speak for themselves, according to Clicks, natural Black hair is dry & damaged, frizzy and dull. I spent many years in marketing departments in Corporate South Africa, and these images, this mindset – the audacity of this campaign did not surprise me because I know who makes these decisions and I’ve seen how they view Black people, Black identity and Black culture. I have had countless infuriating debates with senior marketing managers, who are white, dismissing my opinion about what is appropriate for Black audiences because they “know their market well”.

Marketing campaigns go through a number of phases before they’re revealed to the public; determination of business goal, development of marketing plan to support that business goal, establishment of targets (sales, foot traffic, online traffic, queries, etc), identification of appropriate tools, tactics, platforms and imagery and then internal approval processes. In all of these phases, Black women’s hair being described as dry, damaged, dull and frizzy passed the internal audience sentiment test, the ethical test, the common sense test. Why? Racism and the disrespect of Blackness in South Africa is a way of life… I’m talking multi-gold medal winning athletes in the racism olympics.

Clicks turned to social media to apologise… obviously. Let’s unpack their messaging for a quick second because I’m a stickler for language.

Before I tackle their messaging, remember that organisational culture doesn’t create or sustain itself. It takes a very particular level of confidence, arrogance and disregard to confidently launch a racist campaign that disparages Black women’s hair. Now, the tweets…

“We have removed the images which go against everything we believe in.” If that was the case, the representation within the organisation in terms of Black voices and organisational power that enables Black employees to veto racist campaigns would reflect in the content and imagery you put out.

“We do not condone racism and we are strong advocates of natural hair.” If that was the case, Black natural hair and white natural hair would not be treated so differently. According to the imagery, white hair is just normal or colour-treated. Black hair is the problem.

“We are deeply sorry and will put in place stricter measures on our websites.” I’m sorry, did the website develop the campaign and post it itself? No people were involved? It’s not the anti-Black culture (because of anti-Black people who make decisions) in your organisation that needs to be addressed and transformed? Make it make sense?

“We are deeply sorry we have offended our natural hair community.” Who is this natural hair community? Do the white folks on the campaign not have natural hair, too? You claim to not condone racism but cannot actually say, “We sincerely apologise for offending all Black women, and Black communities in their entirety, for publishing content that promotes racist stereotypes. It was careless of us and we will address the matter in the following ways…”?

Corporate South Africa is so quick to tell us about diversity programmes that promote the development and advancement of Black women, but wheeerrreeeee are they? Where are their voices? Where do you show that you have an active (genuine) interest in them, so much so that you understand them, their experiences, their needs, especially as it relates to your industry?

And while we were busy processing that mess, this happened…

Image: Twitter

Seriously. “Unconscious bias”? Schools and organisations literally have very clear, very conscious rules about Black hair. Zulaikha Patel and her phenomenal peers protested at Pretoria Girls’ High because of the racist treatment of Black hair and the violent determination to mute Black women’s agency and expression of their identity. This is not new. This is not nuanced. It is blatant racism.

I posted this tweet yesterday before seeing the below video which left me with my jaw on the floor. Let’s unpack the language for a quick sec, shall we?

Video: eNCA/Twitter

Professor Thuli Madonsela: “…even when we did those four conversations of unconscious bias, people kept saying, “Call it what it is – it’s racism, it’s sexism, it’s xenophobia whenever these things happen.” So, people have repeatedly requested Professor Madonsela to be intentional about the language she uses when speaking about acts of discrimination or violence based on race, gender and nationality. She has opted to continue on her chosen path.

Professor Thuli Madonsela: “We call it unconscious bias when a person shoots themselves in the foot because, you and me, Sally, should agree that Clicks is a trading company. It was not its intention to offend Black people or to offend Black women. Its intentions was actually the opposite, to attract them to Clicks to buy.” Very reductive to refer to unconscious bias is shooting yourself in the foot. It is not. Unconscious bias is a manifestation of practices rooted in often emotionally, physically and psychologically violent beliefs related to race, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, living with disabilities. Stating that Sally, the news anchor, should agree with her that because Clicks is a trading company, it’s intention was not to offend Black people or Black women is an attempt to garner support for a narrative that effectively seeks to diminish the valid complaints from Black women and the harm caused by Clicks’ campaign. The pursuit of profit should never trump the protection of people.

Professor Thuli Madonsela: “The reason it has offended us is because unconsciously, it has assumed that what is abnormal is normal. All of those things about what is damaged hair, what is normal hair, what is good hair, what is bad hair…those abnormal things which, because we come from an abnormal past, they were normalised and it’s unconscious.” What has offended us is that blatant racism still has space to occur in South Africa and we break our backs to excuse it. We cannot effectively address issues of social, systemic and institutional inequality and discrimination by tip-toeing around them. We must call them out by their names. Discomfort is necessary. I‘m also quite astounded by the number of times Professor Madonsela said “abnormal” instead of “racist”.

Professor Thuli Madonsela: “But, how do you fight unconscious biases? For me, you educate people to examine their unexamined assumptions about life and there is evidence that shows that when people are alerted to their unconscious biases, they do change.” Put your hand up if you know about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission? Put your hand up if you’ve sat through at least one “sensitivity/diversity” workshop? Put your hand up if you know of at least one white person who has, upon their own volition or due to “business needs” studied Mandarin, Chinese culture, what is appropriate/disrespectful? Put your hand up if you’ve raised complaints about race-based discrimination and been ignored, retaliated against or forced out of an organisation? Put your hand up if the Diversity consultants at your organisation are/have been white? Put your hand up if you’ve seen Black people share their experiences of racism and white people have accused them of playing the race card and just wanting handouts?

Professor Thuli Madonsela: “…this video…is one example of showing people that you’re harming real human beings and you are violating their human dignity, it doesn’t matter what your intention is, that’s the impact.” Please. Black people have never not been human beings. It is not our job to prove our humanity or perform our pain with the hope that white people will suddenly empathise and change their ways. Just as all the videos

If you haven’t seen the video Professor Madonsela refers to, you can access it here. I am all for Black women and other marginalised groups using their voices and platforms to affirm themselves and stand up for what they believe in. It concerns me when these initiatives are positioned as the solution to racism. South Africa has shown us, repeatedly, that it is not the land of kumbaya.

Image: Twitter

I’m not even going to get into Clicks not addressing their own internal culture which was a breeding ground for this kind of work to be briefed in, developed and posted. Yes, TRESemme (a Unilever brand) must absolutely suffer the consequences (as reported today, Checkers has removed TRESemme products from its shelves), especially after developing a range that now shows sought only profit and not care for the Black natural hair market. Throwing employees under the bus as part of a faux accountability reputation builder… Nah.

Author avatar
Sihle Bolani

6 comments

  1. Bias and superior racism is a pattern continually used to ridicule black identity and dignity. Corporate South Africa is not really coming to the fore to initiate actioned conversations on black transformation, they are no where, have not even said anything on many issues affecting black women in business and transformation. “Unconscious bias” really? how did we get here? The pain of many young black girls and women are casualties of superior racism because of the unconscious bias that is known, has been seen and practiced but was never called out simply because to them dignity of black does not carry much weight so contentious insults are ok, this unconscious bias has taken a lot from the black society; their dignity, opportunities of growth in their workplaces and mental stability. I appreciated this blog, thank you for sharing your views on such an important and pressing matter. Power to You!

    • Sihle Bolani

      Thank you so much, Bakang! We certainly have a long road ahead of us because there is still an intense commitment to avoiding the confrontation and discomfort that is actually required in order to kickstart change.

  2. I am emotionally exhausted. Thank you Sihle for your thoughts. We really appreciate this.

  3. When the story broke, it reminded me of our crisis communication exercises in our KonnektedWomen session. Language is important. The whole response smacks of damage control.

    The bias is obvious, throughout the value chain from creative concept to final content. The agency that created the ad is probably owned or run by white people, the Creative Director is probably white and he or she approves the creative concept and content that is sent to the client – owners of the Tresemme brand who were happy because their brand is for Caucasian hair. They are now trying to break into the African market by suggesting that African women’s hair is dry and damaged and therefore “needs” their product and saw nothing wrong with that concept.

    In my previous roles, I have challenged the use of Caucasian lifestyle concepts on an African market by black-washing i.e. just using black models and African languages to portray the concepts. It takes guts to do that because the pushback is often hard because white execs don’t see anything wrong with the fact that an African audience may not be able to relate to what is natural to them and some of the content is offensive or insulting.

    • Sihle Bolani

      Absolutely, Noma! There is a committed stubbornness to acknowledging that white does not equal right/the global standard. And when you challenge them, they get aggressive real quick. I’m happy to hear that you keep pushing for meaningful change and an investment in actually understanding and providing for the ACTUAL needs and desires of Black people.

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