Closson: Why we need people of color in the room

Troy Closson, Opinion Editor

I was talking with a friend this weekend when he showed me a Facebook post — a Dove ad depicting a black woman being replaced by a white woman seemingly as a result of using Dove body wash, appearing to illustrate her “becoming white.” Although we just looked at screenshots of the three-second video clip, I understood the message. Regardless of whether it was what Dove meant to convey, the ad seemed to represent a black woman being “cleansed” to become white.

I didn’t really know how to feel when I saw it.

I wasn’t really unhappy. I definitely wasn’t surprised. And I wasn’t even mad so much as I was just exasperated. Who actually thought this marketing campaign would be a good idea? How did nobody see its historical implications on top of present realities of U.S. beauty standards and instead think it’d win audiences over? In response, Dove released a statement saying it “missed the mark in representing women of color thoughtfully.”

I don’t know how anyone with any understanding of black history could actually believe this ad was thoughtful. Were any black people members of the teams who designed, reviewed or eventually gave the OK for the ad to be published? Probably not. And that’s exactly why situations like this happen.

Dove’s campaign illustrates the importance for black people — and people of color in general — to be in the room when decisions are being made. It’s not like this ad was just low-key offensive and maybe some people wouldn’t pick up on it. One would think most people would at least pick up on the fact that the ad could potentially be controversial. But that didn’t happen.

This isn’t the only example. It feels like these issues regularly arise — at least in part — because not enough people of color are in the room. Nivea’s “White is Purity” deodorant campaign earlier this year received similar backlash. I feel like media coverage of black communities lacks nuance and greater thought, largely because black people aren’t represented in U.S. newsrooms. Even at NU, University administrators faced pushback in 2015 after proposing to move administrative offices into the Black House and Multicultural Center — and only seemed to understand why this was an issue after actually speaking with black students themselves.

Inclusive content, actions and projects aren’t possible without first ensuring there’s diversity in the people behind them. When people of color aren’t involved in these decisions, people are left to “guess” whether what they’re doing would be offensive — and as Dove’s ad shows, they clearly don’t always guess correctly. Microaggressions can easily slide by and remain unnoticed when everyone in the room holds agent identities. Even if nothing “bad” happens, entire points of view are still left out.

In response to Dove’s ad, I heard people say things like, “I can’t believe this is still happening in 2017.” Yes, this obviously shouldn’t be happening, but in no way is it surprising. Prioritizing diversity has always just been viewed as an option, rather than a necessity. A NU study recently found that between 1990 and 2015, no change occurred in hiring discrimination of black job applicants. And according to a New York Times article, black and Latinx students are more underrepresented at top colleges and universities in the U.S. now than they were over three decades ago.

So it goes without saying, this is bigger than Dove’s marketing department. The importance of having black people in the room goes beyond one specific industry or environment — it’s not just needed in advertising, but in newsrooms, writers’ rooms, government, University offices and so many other areas. And just one person isn’t enough. If instances like Dove’s ad are actually going to be prevented, we need to realize having people of color in the room isn’t just a “respectable goal.” It’s essential.

Troy Closson is a Medill sophomore. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.