The murder of the unarmed George Floyd by a white Minneapolis policeman has triggered fresh outbreaks of anger over systemic racism. Global protests, conflict between police and the public and heated, often confused local debates on social media invite us all to think deeply about the world we live in.
When there are political upheavals - for example Brexit - it’s common for small businesses to feel worried about taking a side on a public platform. On the face of it there are many reasons to keep quiet.
Perhaps the most common fear for business owners is that if your customers disagree with your stand they may shop elsewhere.
You may be worried about being misunderstood - what if you don’t express yourself clearly enough?
You may also be so busy managing the multiple challenges of a business ??" perhaps family too - that there is little time to follow the unfolding of political and cultural events or consider your views.
Perhaps you feel you simply don’t know enough about the issues to take a considered position - how could offering your view help?
Perhaps you don’t want to fan the flames of existing tensions in your family or friend group.
Keeping quiet is easier - it’s non-confrontational and requires no explanation. Or does it?
It’s just not that simple. In my view, keeping quiet on this issue is as controversial as taking a stand. Martin Luther King said:
“Our lives begin to end the day we stay silent about the things that matter.”
The time is here to elevate the conversation, educate ourselves and each other and speak up clearly for equality of all humans.
Mainstream corporate businesses have begun to take a clear and decisive stance against racism. Ice-cream brand Ben and Jerrys’ inclusive values are creatively summarised on their website in this short video here. What a great idea to speak your values to your customers in this way! Having seen this it comes as no surprise that their CEO Matthew McCarthy was one of the quickest to speak out. He said ‘business should be held accountable to setting very specific targets, specifically around dismantling white supremacy in and through our organisations’.
Do you feel more likely to buy Ben and Jerry’s ice-cream after hearing this? I know I do.
It will come as no surprise that not everyone feels this way. You will all have noticed in your newsfeeds that this apparently simple question of whether it’s right to stand up to racism has sparked toxic and vicious debate. This conversation started on Twitter by a far right vlogger brought Harrogate based company Yorkshire Tea into the debate and obliged them to speak out In the tweet the vlogger stated that she was 'chuffed' with Yorkshire Tea for not posting publicly in support of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
But the brand responded swiftly: "Please don't buy our tea again. We're taking some time to educate ourselves and plan proper action before we post. We stand against racism. #BlackLivesMatter" PG Tips joined the fray with this post: "If you are boycotting teas that stand against racism, you're going to have to find two new tea brands now #BlackLivesMatter #Solidaritea"
The message to business is clear here ??" don’t wait to be called out on your silence. Silence is being interpreted as racism. Stand up now. This tweet from the thread made me smile...
It's fair to say Yorkshire Tea has benefitted from the attention online - customers have voiced their support and their original response was liked more than 50,000 times. However, standing up for your beliefs can attract criticism and the charge of hypocrisy which is one of the many reasons businesses choose to stay silent.
Nike posted this rather beautiful meme in support of the peaceful demonstrations:
The campaign immediately attracted bite back , with Nike being called out as hypocritical for not having any black people on its executive board. PG Tips didn’t escape criticism either - as soon as they jumped in to the conversation on Twitter they were called out for their unacceptable exploitation of Kenyan tea plantation workers. And of course criticism comes from all directions: here is a typically aggressive rightwing Twitter reaction to the original Yorkshire Tea post.
But we enjoy a right to free speech and these challenges provide essential feedback. They pave the way for real transformation. If we are part of the problem we need to know! if the challenger is part of the problem, now we have an opportuity to engage with them. Inward reflection and consideration on all our parts is probably the most important part of the process. If Nike or PG Tips rise to the challenge and act on the feedback their posts attracted, only then will they become part of the change.
"Be the change you wish to see" Mahatma Ghandi
So what do we think at SiGNAL?
Racism should never be tolerated. It must be eradicated. Skin colour does not confer superiority, or inferiority in any way. Ever. SiGNAL is inclusive and welcoming to all regardless of ethnicity, colour or any other characteristic. We also realise that the conversation is an incredibly complex one. However desirable it may be, eradicating racism is not a simple goal. It exists within and supports economic, academic, cultural and social structures all across the globe. There are many differences in opinion even among activists as to the best way to take down these structures and achieve the end goal.
So no, we don’t have all the answers. And you aren’t expected to know all the answers either. Just don’t be a part of the problem. Don’t stay silent.
If you are worried about attracting negative comments or feel unsure how to respond when your viewpoint is challenged, we can offer this advice:
Try turning the tables on those commentators and ask “why do you think that way?”
By asking those individuals to defend their position you ask them to question their beliefs and justify their racist opinions. It’s an effective way of engaging in the conversation when you don’t have all the answers.
Whether you are a big brand or a one man band, what you think matters. Be bold and share it. Defend your perspective. Make time to do this. Be part of a wider conversation that may drag humanity a little further along the path of progress. As the leader of a small business you should be prepared to stand up. Lead the way. Others will follow.