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Liu: Why IMC classes need to prioritize inclusion

Jessica Liu, Op-Ed Contributor

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Before my marketing class, my professor posted two links on his Canvas site. One was an 82-slide PowerPoint file called “African Americans: Cultures, Values and Practices,” and one was a link to a 1965 debate on structural racism between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley. Through these resources, my professor was supposedly giving us the requisite information and skills necessary to understand the black lived experience. Then, our group of mostly white Northwestern students proceeded to mimic a professional advertising agency that wanted to market hypothetical products to “the African-American subculture,” holding an informed discussion on how to best represent African Americans in their marketing strategy.

Not.

During this class, our white professor explained to the class that according to marketing theory, the main subcultures in America are African Americans and “Hispanic Americans.” There are also other smaller subcultures, “like Star Trek fans and Asian Americans.” He explained that while stereotyping is (supposedly) frowned upon, its use in marketing is actually beneficial to these subcultures because it better represents their members’ wants and needs. Once given the Canvas resources, the class split into two groups so we could discuss how to sell products to the African-American and Star Trek subcultures.

I walked into a room of mostly white students half-heartedly listening to Baldwin’s speech while skimming through pages of the PowerPoint that described black family values and the “African-American psychology.” The professor then cut the speech short and encouraged us to begin work on our marketing strategy so that we would have enough time to present our findings at the end of class. The students shifted uncomfortably and sat in complete silence.

One student suggested we try to market sweaters, to some agreement, then another suggested emphasizing an environmentally-sustainable process, because one value listed was “harmony with nature.”

The only black student then walked into the classroom and offered his own views on marketing to African Americans. Based on his personal experience, he agreed with many of the PowerPoint’s assertions and suggested the company appeal to the listed family values. He then turned to the rest of us and asked for our own interpretations since we “must have seen black students on campus.” And that’s when I had to put my foot down.

As an Asian-American woman who grew up in a predominantly white community, I have long learned to minimize the space I take up in order to create a more comfortable learning experience for the majority. My usual silence in response to classroom microaggressions isn’t because I don’t notice or don’t care; complicity is my survival strategy. And in many of my Northwestern classes in which I am a minority, I am able to keep my head down without ruffling any feathers.

But when confronted with a situation in which a professor’s curriculum openly encourages Northwestern’s mostly white student body to exploit stereotypes for capital gain, I could no longer silently stew in my anger.

What followed was an intense debate about the ethical ramifications of racial stereotyping between an Asian-American woman and a black man in front of a white audience. I made it clear that I thought the premise of our discussion was wildly inappropriate, especially given the class demographics. He said that in the real world, employees must follow the orders given by their superiors. As our public argument continued, my feelings shifted from angry to betrayed.

While I had originally expected that the white students would be the ones to embrace the professor’s approach, I did not expect that it would be another person of color who would so adamantly defend the exercise — an exercise that, to me, seemed so obviously racist and reductionist.

After class, the professor approached me and thanked me for bringing up an issue he had never considered before. He still saw marketing to subcultures as an important skill to learn but seemed open to changing his approach in future classes. I still left feeling disappointed, but not surprised.

While Northwestern often boasts about its diversity, it permits discriminatory thought to be perpetuated under its name. And Medill’s Integrated Marketing Communications program is no exception. My experience in this marketing class was not a singular offense. Time and time again, the IMC program has shown that its commitment to diversity only goes so far. An IMC professor with several CTECs accusing him of sexism is still allowed to teach with little reproach. Another IMC professor recently guest lectured about marketing history to a media history class, glossing over the industry’s use of blackface and racial discrimination, leaving numerous students of color in the audience incredibly uncomfortable.

If the IMC program continues to make subculture marketing a key portion of its curriculum, its tactics must change. While the subcultures assignment can’t be eliminated altogether, a few changes could help. For instance, there should be a trained facilitator present during discussions like these as well as a marketer of color who specializes in subculture marketing. There must also be a sufficiently diverse classroom so as to not burden students of color with sharing their personal experiences in order to educate white students. I firmly believe that the racial makeup of the classroom dictates what conversations students can have and the ways in which they approach it.

Jessica Liu is a Medill sophomore. She can be contacted at jessicaliu2021@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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