It didn’t take long for the Black Lives Matter movement to reach the workplace. As uprisings began following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade, brands clambered to post messages of support for the fight for racial justice. However, the messages rang tepid and hollow for the former and current Black employees who had spent years being stereotyped, undermined, passed over, underpaid, left out or placed in awkward situations at the very companies that were now purporting to be supporters of racial justice, and those Black Lives Matter posts were also hypocritical and made them feel like they were being gaslighted.
For people of color, handling workplace racism, from daily microaggressions to hiring discrimination, has long been another part of holding a job. Although creative work is often romanticized, Black creatives can encounter the same structural and interpersonal racism that Black professionals in other spaces face. What does that mean for the young Black creative who is just starting out?
No amount of advice could come close to fixing this problem. Creating antiracist organizations and policies is going to require a lot of honesty and intentional, systemic change. But as we wait to see how the events of this year play out in the long run, here is a road map for navigating racism within creative fields, with advice from people who have been there.
HAVE CONFIDENCE IN WHAT YOU CAN DO
At the urging of one of his art class friends, Eddie Opara decided to study graphic design. His father, who had worked in advertising in London, United Kingdom, was supportive and knew what would be required of Opara if he were to seriously pursue a design career, and his mother was actually his first client, paying him to create a design for her Nigerian women’s association. “They came back with comments, and I was like, ‘What the hell are comments,’” says Opara, laughing.
When he was around eighteen, Opara was accepted into the London College of Printing, and his father told him, “This is where your life starts.” With the support of his family and friends, Opara went on to become a partner at Pentagram, where he has been working since 2010.
“Part of me was a bit lucky, as I think I would have had some barriers in Britain. But I moved here, and I’ve got to say, when I walk into a room, I can identify that, yeah, I’m Black right? But when I open my mouth, I’ve got their attention. I’ve been in rooms where [clients] actually thought my employee was the boss, and I’m like, ‘It happens, but let’s get [to work],’” says Opara.
“You have to be strong-headed, strong-minded,” he says. “You’re going to feel anger a lot of the time, but channel that anger into articulation. Really articulate very clearly what you can do, and how you can prove what you can do.”
GIVE YOURSELF THE FREEDOM TO EXPLORE—AND GROW
As a teenager, photographer Joshua Kissi worked at an amusement park to save up for his first camera. He went on to cofound the creative agency Street Etiquette, which became a tastemaker for style and fashion.
“Street Etiquette gave us the opportunity to play around. Not necessarily to become a boss. Not necessarily to play by the rules. Not necessarily to look into the infrastructure that was in motion when it comes to fashion, style, blogging and media. We got the opportunity to create our own playground and just test things out,” says Kissi.
Creating your own safe space can be a way to explore and to work on your craft without as much pressure to be perfect and to represent your people well.
“When I think about what Street Etiquette provided, it was the freedom to create. To do it well or to do it OK. It was really like, hey, Black mediocrity needs to exist as well. Even if we feel excellent at the moment, there’s always growth, right? A lot of times, we try to be at level ten, when there’s so much value from two to nine, not just ten,” says Kissi.
Find your community
When consultant and Black cultural storyteller Melissa Kimble graduated from college in 2009, the Great Recession was well underway. She took odd jobs in order to sustain herself financially, but creatively, she was looking for more. So, she launched My Creative Connection, the site that would become today’s #blkcreatives.
“Rather than being another brand selling and co-opting Black ideas without supporting Black people, we aim to help you unpack what you’ve been taught about what’s possible so you can remember the creative freedom that is alive within you,” Kimble says. “I think that’s important because a lot of us are first-generation college [educated], the first generation of doing something that’s not considered a blue-collar job.”
“I think that’s what makes us such a safe space because [even] if nobody else gets it, we get it. We understand the specific challenges and issues that we have to face as Black creatives in America, specifically,” Kimble says.
Photographer Joshua Kissi knows firsthand the importance of having a support system of people who not only understand you, but also challenge you. “A lot of the work I did early on was because I was inspired by the people around me who held me accountable in the same way I held them accountable. I think that’s really important because it doesn’t happen in just an individual funnel, at least from my experience. Everything I’ve ever created was at the benefit of people outside of myself,” says Kissi.
In order to find community among your peers, Pentagram’s Eddie Opara recommends networking directly. Earlier in his career, he reached out to graphic designers whose work he admired, and requested informational meetings and tours. He also underscores the importance of joining the nearest local chapters of creative professional organizations. “Please do it: join your chapter, get to know people, communicate with them, [listen] to lectures and network. If you can, make friends,” says Opara.
Finding community might also mean seeking out a mentor. One popular method has been cold emailing prospective mentors, but chances are, you want to connect with people who already get plenty of emails. You can stand out by being respectful of their time, intentional about the questions you ask and well informed about what they actually do. Illustrator and author Andrea Pippins says, “Do your research about them. Google them and mention specific reasons why you would like to connect with them,” like bringing up a technique or tool they use well, or what they’ve done that you find inspiring.
Tynesha Williams, a self-described “advertising nerd” and creative director of lifestyle marketing collective Cashmere Agency, warns against having a narrow-minded vision of who can offer you help and guidance. “It’s great if it’s a person of color, but it doesn’t have to be,” she says. Your mentor might not even be in the same industry as you. “Look for people who inspire you. People who you’ve seen forging a path that you want to be on. Someone that you think is like, ‘Wow, they have a way of navigating that I want to learn more about,’” she says. “Reach out. It doesn’t hurt.”
RECOGNIZE WORKPLACE RACISM FOR WHAT IT IS
“I think the key call to action for [Black creatives] now is to utilize our community in order to really discern what’s what,” says #blkcreatives’ Melissa Kimble, emphasizing that, as a Black person who has spent years in the United States, you’re probably an expert in accurately identifying racism for what it is.
She advises ensuring that your managers and superiors know what you stand for and what your goals are, as well as advocating for yourself and others, and connecting with trusted peers to compare your experiences and get feedback on how to navigate the issues at hand. “Sometimes, we get stuck in our own heads, or our own experiences, like our sense of self-worth, cloud our judgment, and that can manifest in the workplace too. Have people around you inside and outside the workplace who you trust and who can listen to you and create the space for you to unpack those [issues] and navigate those experiences,” she says.
She stresses that it’s important to take control of your own professional advancement and well-being. “If you have to make adjustments or need to do things just for your overall professional wellness, then do it,” she says, suggesting that Black creatives try to remember Toni Morrison’s always poignant quote about racism: “The function, the very serious function of racism, is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.”
“You didn’t enter this job to teach White people about race,” says Kimble.
Cashmere’s Tynesha Williams says that if you do choose to have a conversation with human resources (HR) about your concerns, whether it’s about a specific episode or about systemic problems in the company culture, you can still opt to take your talents elsewhere. “I can have this conversation with HR, but if this is the type of person who is in this company, this company might not be for me, because how did this person get in this company?” says Williams. Your HR complaint may help the next person, but she says you should still explore the option of going where your talent and skills will be appreciated.
The key, according to Williams, is not to internalize workplace racism and to know when it’s time to leave. “There are going to be people who don’t believe in you. There are going to be people who say weird things and have weird microaggressions. It happens all the time,” she says. “But you have to believe in your talent and your ability. That is always your North Star.”
WORK TO CREATE CHANGE
You can find more fulfilling ways to direct your career toward making a difference in your respective industry. Andrea Pippins originally started working in graphic design, but discovered that she was more interested in illustration and improving representation for Black people through her work. It was what inspired her to create the coloring book I Love My Hair and the interactive journal Becoming Me, and to write We Inspire Me, which is, according to her website, “a collection of essays, interviews and advice on cultivating and empowering one’s own creative community.”
It was the same kind of drive that led Joshua Kissi and social entrepreneur Karen Okonkwo to cofound the diverse stock photography company TONL. Moved to action by the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile in 2016, Kissi was looking for tangible ways to use his craft to support his values. Given that stock photography is so present in our daily lives—on billboards, in print media, on posters, in social media posts, on websites—the lack of diversity in stock photography is a major issue.
In this moment of so much change, Black creatives may feel pressure to respond to everything happening in the world, but Melissa Kimble advises that you continue in your career and life at your own pace.
“If you are valued in the way that they say you are valued, you can set the tone and set the pace, and it doesn’t have to be based on whatever is trending,” Kimble says. “We should continue to play the long game and know that it’s not enough to just have these symbols and these statements and these campaigns and things. That we’re really working toward long-term, sustainable change so that things are not like this for our children.” ca
SIDEBAR: WHAT CAN WHITE CREATIVES DO TO HELP MAKE THEIR INDUSTRIES BETTER?
“Microaggressions happen so much in the workplace because people don’t get it. There’s a learning curve,” says Tynesha Williams. “It’s a hard conversation because it goes to that implicit bias, and [people] don’t recognize they have it.” For that reason, she’s been advising her non-Black friends to start by educating themselves, like reading White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Dr. Robin DiAngelo. “In that book’s opinion, and in my opinion, it is always better when it comes from someone who is in your group because the defenses are down. Nobody’s going to say, ‘You’re just being too sensitive,’” she says.
Acknowledging your own bias also requires internal reflection. For example, Williams hones in on the use of the word aggressive in the workplace, a label usually levied at Black women who express an opinion at work. “Ask yourself, ‘Why did I think that was aggressive, and would I feel the same way if so-and-so said it?’ And then, if you feel that you have done something unjustly, bring it up [and apologize],” says Williams. While self-reflection and correcting interpersonal interactions are needed, the only way to create real, lasting change is for it to be a company-wide effort, complete with bias training and open communication.
“People have to be able to let somebody know when something’s not right. It can’t just be people of color correcting others,” says Williams. “There’s got to be other people who believe the same thing, who don’t w ant to work in a place that feels like that. And once that becomes the culture, we’re all better off.”