Commodifying The Cause Pt 2: Woke-Washing
The summer following the murder of George Floyd was widely viewed as a summer of racial reckoning. As companies and brands seized on the PR opportunity offered by the wave of calls for social justice sweeping the world, those efforts to chime in, in many cases, began to look a lot less like outreach and a lot more like advertising (if not preemptive crisis management). Of all the corporate claims of allyship, mea culpas, and promises to “do better,” what was genuine and what was just marketing? More often than not, the answer was the latter, a practice otherwise known as “woke-washing”
The story of Colin Kaepernick and the demise of his football career is well-known: he protested racial injustice by quietly taking a knee during the pregame national anthem. Conservatives were more outraged by the protest than what was being protested, and the NFL sided with the conservatives. As a result, Kaepernick hasn’t been welcomed back as an NFL player since. Not only did the subsequent murder of Floyd validate Kaepernick’s statement, it also made the NFL’s stance untenable, which led to an apology from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. "I wish we had listened earlier, Kaep, to what you were kneeling about and what you were trying to bring attention to," the commissioner said. A public pledge by the NFL to “help stop racism” soon followed.
So what changed? Nothing was stopping them from listening before, which makes it quite clear that their willingness to listen came not out of moral clarity, but rather out of fear of backlash. The NFL may play dumb on matters of racial equality in public, but the practices they engage in in private reveal disdain and even a deliberate disregard for the idea. A standout among those practices is that of “race-norming,” which saw the organization deny millions in payouts to Black retired players for brain injury claims, based on the racist premise that Black people have lower cognitive function. A scandalous practice that was only recently ended after being brought to light through numerous court cases. Not only does this put their much-publicized 2020 pledge to “help fight racism” into perspective, it exposes it as an exercise in image laundering (or wokewashing, if you will).
Furthermore, while the NFL was busy “fighting racism” by partnering with Jay-Z to put on concerts and sell apparel as part of their “Inspire Change” campaign, it was also aware of racist emails being shared between coaches and higher ups in the organization. Those emails led to the resignation of Raiders coach Jon Gruden, but only once they were leaked, which is one of multiple reasons why many view the situation as proof of a more widespread problem. It also explains why the NFL’s “Inspire Change” campaign inspired backlash from its own players. Eric Reid of the Carolina Panthers was among the players who viewed the campaign as disingenuous “Let’s diffuse the uprising of Black voices demanding justice with concerts to ‘inspire change’ that have nothing at all to do with real ‘action’” the player tweeted. When all of this is taken into account, a pattern becomes clear, and the accusations of woke-washing become increasingly difficult to deny.
Yet the NFL is far from being the only company whose promises to fight racism in the world serve as a distraction from the racism they’ve yet to fight in their own backyards. And their belittling of Black intelligence can be found in plenty of other industries as well, albeit in different forms. According to a study on tech industry diversity, tech companies that vocalized support of Black Lives Matter with methods such as the infamous social media black squares (which some say did more harm than good) had on average 20% less Black employees than those that didn’t. Across S&P 500 companies (the largest companies traded in the stock exchange), two-thirds made statements in support of racial equality during that summer of unrest, yet 187 don’t have a single Black board member, while the number of Black members of senior leadership in the rest remains mostly under 5% - not to mention that the few Black people these companies do employ often earn less than their white counterparts. Some may be tempted to point out that at least some of these companies have pledged actual dollars - a combined total of $50 billion - towards combating racial inequality. However, those people should be reminded that, a year later, only 5% of that money has materialized. As the news coverage along with the outrage dwindled, so did the “corporate allyship” along with the money promised. The good publicity gained from these pledges, and the profits that undoubtedly come with it, however, are surely still being enjoyed.