In recent days, Karissa Lewis has been fielding calls and messages from senior management at clothing retailer Aritzia after she took to Twitter to suggest the company’s public support of the Black Lives Matter movement was “all for show.”
Lewis, 27, who is Black, says she left her job as an associate manager at one of Aritzia’s Toronto stores earlier this year because she was undervalued and “treated differently” than the other managers.
While she appreciates the outreach from the company’s top people, she says she can’t help but feel their desire to learn more about her experience is an attempt at “damage control.” Her original tweet spawned a flurry of supportive messages on social media and other complaints about the company.
“It’s bittersweet that George Floyd had to die for people to take some accountability for the stuff they’ve said and done to us,” she says, referring to the Minnesota man whose high-profile death at the hands of police triggered a wave of protests around the world decrying police violence and anti-Black racism.
Lewis is not alone in sounding a note of skepticism in response to the rash of political and corporate leaders who, in recent days, have pledged to fight racial injustice. To some observers, the donations to Black charities and commitments to diversity and inclusion are “performative” acts that ring hollow because the makeup of so many corporate boards is still predominately white.
In 2018, people who identified as visible minorities accounted for only five per cent of directors of companies publicly traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange, according to the University of Toronto.
“They may be saying words that they haven’t said before, like anti-Black racism, but they have to be pushed to say that,” says Beverly Bain, a University of Toronto professor of women and gender studies and anti-racism activist.
“It is critical for us to keep the momentum up.”
There is no question that this moment in history is significant, in terms of the scale of the protests, the pace with which certain terms — anti-Black racism, white supremacy, defund the police — have become part of everyday conversation, and the willingness to embrace the notion that racism isn’t committed by a few “bad apples” but is systemic in many facets of society, Bain and other experts say.
They compare the past couple of weeks to the watershed #MeToo movement that was founded by a Black woman, Tarana Burke, and reached a crescendo a few years ago when women around the world demanded accountability in cases of sexual abuse and harassment by powerful men.
“So much of the history of the last few decades of anti-racist work has really been about, implicitly, white people waiting for Black people to do the work to raise the issue, to talk about what needs changed. In a way, people have either been disengaged or passively involved,” says Ellen Berrey, a University of Toronto sociology professor whose research focuses on race, inequality and the law.
“My sense of this moment, what I feel is happening, is that more and more white people are seeing this as a white person’s problem.”
No longer are companies merely espousing their support for positive values such as “diversity and inclusion,” they’re coming out and saying they support the fight against anti-Black racism. It’s a notable shift, she says, because it puts the emphasis on the problem.
So how did we get here?
Experts say it’s likely a confluence of factors: data showing COVID-19 was killing a disproportionately high number of Black Americans; the searing bystander video showing a Minneapolis police officer pressing his knee against Floyd’s neck; plus the visceral images of riot police using aggressive tactics against mostly peaceful protesters.
In response to the outcry, major North American brands have come out in recent days to proclaim their support for anti-racism initiatives.
Nike released a video ad with simple written messages on a black screen: “For once, Don’t Do It,” it begins. “Don’t pretend there’s not a problem in America. Don’t turn your back on racism.”
Amazon announced that it was donating $ 10 million to organizations that work to improve the lives of Black Americans, saying that it was “committed to helping build a country and a world where everyone can live with dignity and free from fear.”
But this moment of collective reckoning has also drawn backlash with critics accusing some companies of hypocrisy. Nearly 60 per cent of Amazon’s managers are white and only eight per cent are Black, according to an Associated Press analysis. However, more than 60 per cent of its warehouse and delivery workers, who have been working through the COVID-19 pandemic, are people of colour.
Similarly, at Nike, 77 per cent of the company’s vice-presidents are white, while just under 10 per cent are Black, The Associated Press reported.
Sharon Chuter, the founder of California cosmetics company Uoma Beauty, launched a social media challenge dubbed Pull Up or Shut Up in which she called on companies to prove they were equal-opportunity employers by publicly releasing the racial makeup of their workforce.
Meanwhile, several high-profile executives have lost their jobs after being called out for racially insensitive behaviour. Greg Glassman, the CEO of CrossFit stepped down after asking why he or his staff should be mourning the death of George Floyd, other than it is the “white” thing to do. Adam Rapoport, editor-in-chief of Bon Appétit magazine, resigned after it was revealed he had shown up at a costume party in 2013 in brownface.
It is in this climate that Lewis says she felt compelled to respond when Aritzia posted an Instagram message saying it was using its platform as a “call to action” and donating $ 100,000 to Black Lives Matter and the NAACP.
“I worked for @aritzia for 5 months and I was the only black manager on my team,” she wrote. “During my time there, I was treated differently than other managers.”
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She went on to say that her mistreatment included being assigned to working cashier shifts and being excluded from important decisions, including one that resulted in a Black employee being fired.
In a statement to the Star, Jennifer Wong, Aritzia’s president and chief operating officer, said while the company disagrees with many of Lewis’ assertions it is “focused on listening, learning, and taking action, recognizing we ourselves must lead and inspire change.”
“The fight to end racial inequality deserves our attention, support, and most importantly, real and significant action. Real change starts from within, and as such, we have already begun investing $ 1 million to expand and strengthen our Diversity and Inclusion programs. We want to make certain that Aritzia is creating positive change, and that we are part of the solution.”
Jefferson Darrell, Toronto-based founder of Breakfast Culture, a marketing and communications firm specializing in diversity, equity and inclusion, says if companies want to be sincere supporters of Black Lives Matter, they need to ask themselves key questions, such as: Are there Black people employed at all levels in your organization? Does your organization reflect the demographics of the community you’re serving? Does your organization support Black employees year round or just during Black History Month? What are your organization’s rates of promotion and retention for people of colour?
“If you are going to make a statement, make sure you have something to back it up if people do call you out,” Darrell said.
“Walk your talk, throw in some action with your words.”
Toronto entrepreneur Wes Hall, executive chairman of Kingsdale Advisors, a shareholder advisory firm, agrees. He says he’s encouraged by the show of support for Black lives, “but I hope it’s not a head fake.”
“If you put out a statement you’re against anti-Black racism, what will you do about it? Tell me. Don’t just say you’re against it. Of course you’re going to be against it,” he said.
There have to be measurable results.
“We know as companies we like numbers. We want to set targets and objectives so we can measure results,” he said.
“If I say, ‘We’re going to ensure Black people are in these positions by this date,’ that’s a different statement.”
Hall recently founded the Canadian Council of Business Leaders Against Anti-Black Systemic Racism. Its goal is to increase representation of Black people in boardrooms across Canada.
“We’re corporate leaders. The only way to solve a problem is all of us gets together collectively, just like we did with COVID-19,” he said.
In an opinion column in this weekend’s Star, Hall writes: “A system that oppresses Black people is not a problem for Black people to fix, it’s for the gatekeepers of the system. And those gatekeepers who fail to act must be moved aside.
“We need to chart a new course where the need for voices like mine is obsolete. Where there is no need for our youth to march in the streets to demand our attention.”
Lewis, meanwhile, said she continues to engage in conversation with Aritzia’s top brass. She’s worried though about what will happen after the news cycle ends.
“After this blows over like every other trending topic, we still have to wake up for the rest of our lives … and live the Black experience. It’s not something we can just turn a blind eye to a couple weeks from now. It’s a constant thing we have to battle with.”