Race, Gender, Culture and ‘Mis’ Representation in the Communication Industries

Image courtesy of Bournemouth University

This conference took place on the 20th July at Bournemouth University to discuss key problems within the communication industries and how we should address them. On the panel were Stacy Kelly-Maher who is a recent BA Marketing Communications graduate. Catherine Grinyer – Founder and director of specialist inclusive communications consultancy Big Voice Communications & Chair of CIPR’s Diversity & Inclusion Forum. Aisha Richards, Founder of Shades of Noir and Afua Hirsch, journalist and Guardian columnist, writer, broadcaster and human rights development worker.

The event was chaired by Dr. Deborah Gabriel, who is a senior academic specialising in politics, media and communication and issues around race and equality. She is also the founder and director of Black British Academics. During her introduction she outlined the issues faced in the communication industry, particularly around images of black women; stereotypes such as ‘angry black woman’ or the hypersexualized black woman and the single black mother. She highlighted that tokenism didn’t just permeate advertisements but also the political arena, she cited the recent backlash of the media against MP Diane Abbott during the election campaign for which she had written the article ‘The othering and objectification of Diane Abbott MP in the 2017 UK General Election.’

There was a recurring theme during the conference, and that was one of cultural appropriation. Many of the panelists discussed the Pepsi ‘Moments’ ad campaign featuring Kendal Jenner which aired earlier this year. In it we see Jenner offering a can of Pepsi to a police officer on the front line of a faux civil unrest – which references Ieshia Evans’ now iconic image on the front line of the protest at Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The commercial was pulled shortly after it aired due to a huge negative response to the campaign. Stacy Kelly-Maher commented that Pepsi are guilty of performative wokeness, more concerned with ‘being seen’ to care about issues but not actually doing so. Indeed, the advert it seemed to ‘tick all the boxes’ around race, gender and religion etc but in a very calculated, superficial way. Afua Hirsch commented that advertisements such as Pepsi ‘Moments’ appropriates movements which have had profound social change, in order to gain financially. The message is appropriated out of the people who created it, making it devoid of any form or context.

How then, should issues around misrepresentation be addressed? Catherine Grinyer feels the advertising industry is missing a trick by creating campaigns based on demographics instead intersectionality. The advertising industry targets people who are ‘normal’ instead of looking at where we have things in common such as political views and life experiences that go beyond race and gender. The panel agreed that education is key to bringing about change. Aisha Richards set up Shades of Noir in 2009 initially as a support for academics after she discovered that the education system hadn’t really moved on since she was a student, there was a hierarchy of race within the curriculum which needed to be addressed. The Shades of Noir website has since grown to serve the needs of the academic, educational and much wider community.

The day was only the start of discussions which need to take place within the industry itself and in education. One might argue that the only way to remedy the situation is to have more people of colour working in the media industries, but it isn’t as simple as that. The very culture of these industries have to change, the dominance of which is white and male. As a person of colour working in the industry you are battling against a system and an ideology which has been put in place to maintain dominance and perpetuate the subjugation of the ‘other’. Anything new or radical in terms of ideas are just updated versions of what has always been. The road to change takes a huge amount of effort, commitment and awareness, as well working with others who are committed to change. The conference at Bournemouth is one that needs to take place not only in educational institutes but professional organisations in order to bring about a shift in consciousness, only then can the wheels of progress begin to slowly turn.