Performative slacktivism or true allyship? — Corporate America’s take on Black History Month

The nation has taken up arms and finally begun to battle a disease that has plagued its history for far longer than COVID-19 — racism. An affliction of the mind and the heart, its side effects include but are not limited to: implicit bias, sexism and acts of social injustice. 

As the pandemic spread in the United States, many Americans decided to turn what was once a blind eye toward the fight against this “disease,” attempting to begin to mend the generational trauma that has afflicted people of color, namely the Black community, for centuries. 

Following a string of deaths by acts of police brutality, an increased acknowledgement of white privilege, a rise in the importance of accountability and peaceful protests nationwide, I believed that we were heading in the right direction as a country — in some ways, I still do. But when I compare what has actually come to fruition in response to the raucous call-to-action that was voiced by communities of color last year, especially in terms of Black History Month, I find myself stuck in a catch-22. 

On a large scale, companies have been scrambling to increase representation in their advertisements, on their websites and in what they sell in their stores. There has been an increased interest in shopping from Black-owned businesses, and increased representation in fields such as film as outlined in reports like the annual UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report. But at the same time, actions from these same companies often fall into the category of performative activism, or slacktivism. 

Just one example of many is Target’s “Black Beyond Measure” line. This clothing collection is one that they curated to… well, honestly I don’t understand what the goal was with this one. Featuring shirts that read phrases I suppose were meant to be empowering, such as, “To my Black people, I love you,” and “Racism tried to steal my joy. Ha! Tried,” I’m sure that the team on this project really thought they knocked it out of the park. What were seemingly meant to be cute catch phrases present as corny at best — not what I would picture anyone wearing to show solidarity with the Black community. But is that all you’ll do to celebrate the richness of Black history? Sell a few shirts and call it a day? What initiatives promoting diversity and inclusion were created in that process? 

Herein lies the catch-22. While I appreciate the spotlight that we’ve finally decided to shine on the Black community, and admire the nation’s efforts to highlight the Black experience during Black History Month, what I do not appreciate or even marginally admire is the commercialization or commodification of the Black experience itself. 

Following the momentous events of the past year, this Black History Month provides companies a chance to show the world that they are openly and actively making strides towards social change, and finding a “cure” within their own company cultures to the “disease” that has plagued this country for as long as it has called itself “united.” Do it right, or don’t do it at all.