We can avoid perpetuating myths and begin to portray Black people in truly diverse detail only by recognizing harmful racial biases and understanding the cultural context of Black identity. We’ve built these U.S.-focused insights with input from community partners – use them as a starting place to help you create marketing that positively and authentically represents people who identify as Black in marketing and media.
Developed in partnership with ADCOLOR
The following topics and thoughts are by no means exhaustive and should act as a springboard for your own research into how to authentically depict Black American experiences.
Understanding media’s everyday impact
While most American media has generally shifted away from perpetuating harmful stereotypes based on overt racism, subtle and implicit biases continue to impact the everyday experience of Black Americans. These “microaggressions,” a term coined by Dr. Chester Pierce, frequently show up in the media and beyond, normalizing implicitly racist behaviors.
- Recognizing the reality of systemic racism, and its impact on the lived experiences of Black Americans, is essential for countering discriminatory tropes and stereotypes and creating informed and resonant marketing.
Partner with Black creators
It’s not enough to simply present the optics of diversity. Authentic representation of Black people must be reflected both on-screen and behind the camera. All too often, there is a glaring disparity between a commitment to inclusion at the level of casting actors and models, and the representation of Black people in creative decision-making roles. True commitment to diversity must be reflected at all levels of marketing and organizations, from public-facing communications to C-Suite roles.
Reflect the nuance of Black experiences
The lives of Black people in the U.S. are shaped by a countless variety of individual, ethnic, and socioeconomic factors. While almost three-quarters of Black adults in America say that being Black is extremely (52%) or very (22%) important to how they think about themselves, being Black encompasses a broad range of ethnicities. Don’t underestimate the diversity of this group, and recognize how language, self-expression, and cultural-specifics may vary.
Understand the nuances between African Americans and Black immigrants
The term “African American” often refers to U.S.-born people who are the descendants of people who were once enslaved. “Black immigrants,” on the other hand, are descended from a broad range of different regions, and may prefer to identify with their respective ethnicities or national origin. Roughly one in ten Black Americans is foreign born, hailing predominantly from Southern, Central, East, and West Africa, but also from the Caribbean, South and Central America, and Europe. Don’t assume to know the identities of the people you’re working with. Ask how they prefer to be identified.
Familiarize yourself with intersectionality
While race is a defining feature of how Black Americans self-identify, it’s important to understand that different factors including gender and sexual orientation also impact the day-to-day experiences of Black people. Kimberlé Crenshaw, an American law professor, coined the term “intersectionality” in 1989 in response to the dual oppressions faced by Black women — racism and sexism. She defines the term as “a prism for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other.” Black women and Black LGBTQ+ people are disproportionately impacted by intersectional oppression.
This video from the NMAAHC is a great resource for understanding the concept of intersectionality.
Represent a broad range of family structures
Media portrayals of Black families have long misrepresented and pathologized Black family life. The stereotype of the Black absentee father has particularly been discussed in political discourse as a scapegoat for institutionalized oppression. It’s important to showcase the breadth of Black family life, representing same-sex parents and multi-generational family arrangements alongside heterosexual couples and single-parent households.
Represent Black LGBTQ+ people
Media representation of Black LGBTQ+ people is lacking. One study by GLAAD found that 70% of the LGBTQ+ characters on streaming and cable were white. It’s important to remember that much of the progress of the LGBTQ+ rights movement in the last century stems from the lives and work of Black LGTBQ+ people. After the Stonewall Uprising, Marsha P. Johnson, a Black transgender activist, and others started organizations that led to substantially more visibility for LGBTQ+ people.
Represent and champion a wide range of skin tones and hair textures
It’s important to understand that not all Black people experience the same degree of racial discrimination. Colorism, the prejudice or discrimination against individuals with darker skin tones, is prevelant among Black people and American society as a whole. It’s why light-skinned Black people who more closely fit with Eurocentric beauty ideals are more likely to be cast in media roles. Ensure your work portrays and champions a variety of skin tones, both light and dark. It’s also important to showcase a spectrum of hair textures and styles. Some hair textures and styles have historically been left out of advertising, leading consumers to take companies to task for not representing everyone.
Remember to celebrate “Black joy”
Systemic racism and discrimination should be recognized, and can inform marketing, stories of struggle, oppression, and trauma. While important, they can actually be limiting, too. Stories and expressions of “Black joy” can often be overlooked, where positive emotional representations of Black people are overshadowed by political or historical events. Consider what “Black joy” means in the context of your marketing and representation of Black individuals.
Recognize when Black culture has been appropriated
The wider American (and global) cultural experience has long been shaped by Black excellence. Often, this cultural overlap is the result of appropriation, both historically — Elvis Presley was hailed as the King of Rock and Roll, for example — and in present day internet culture: “Yas Queen,” “On Fleek,” and “It’s Lit” are commonly used without acknowledging their original Black context.
What is “cultural appropriation?”
- When members of a more dominant group take elements from another culture of people without permission or acknowledgement of the origins of these cultural symbols. It is particularly problematic due to the power dynamic in which dominant group members take from a culture that they have systemically oppressed.
Go beyond “woke washing”
Social media has created a culture of brand activism — where engaging with important social imperatives is often reduced to a superficial statement or post. It’s all too easy for brands to publicly speak out against issues facing Black people without demonstrating genuine commitment to creating change in this space.
Watch out for adding to the noise around social movements without translating your social posts, campaigns, or other communication into meaningful action. Help consumers go further than click-activism by creating opportunities for consumers to tangibly support Black people.
Partner with and support credible organizations and advocates
Brands who address sensitive topics like racial inequity can receive criticism if the engagement feels vague or inconsistent. Instead, anchor commitments to social justice through partnerships with organizations that have more credibility and reach in this space. This helps ensure that content and programs are culturally relevant and inclusive. In the wake of recent mainstream focus on the Black Lives Matter movement, many brands were quick to give a platform to Black founders and creatives, but doing so must be done over a prolonged period, in order to avoid feeling reactionary or tokenistic.
Case study: Equal Justice Initiative
Solidarity and support is an ongoing endeavor
Consumers today are hypervigilant and outspokenly critical of brands that capitalize on social movements and cultural events with inauthentic and opportunistic engagements. It’s important to show up for Black people all year, rather than popping up during Black History Month or when racial injustice is grabbing global headlines.
It’s important not to shy away from difficult conversations about race and address gaps in education. That way, opportunities for long-term support and tangible solutions can be more easily identified. Demonstrate a deeper commitment to inclusion by showing meaningful representation and solidarity inside your organization, and externally through marketing creative and products. It’s important to undertake these actions all year long, not just during Black History Month, and to embrace a position of humility when it comes to Black identity.
Build work without stereotypes
The responsibilities of marketers to understand Black audiences goes beyond representation in advertising. Internal practices, structural changes, and diversity programs are all part and parcel of the process of creating more effective and inclusive marketing. This set of resources offers a starting point but there is always more that marketers can do to learn about the depth and nuance of Black life and identity in the U.S. and to change and recognize their own biases and behavior.