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Derek Walker: advertising has no stomach for a fair fight

Does advertising has the stomach for a fair fight? Derek Walker at the 3% Conference

I’m about to butcher this joke. I apologize to comedy for what I’m about to do. I’m not a comedian. I wish I could remember the name of the comedy team that did this but I can’t. Still, I want to give all credit to them. This is not my joke, I am only trying to retell it.

For the record, I despise the offensive word in this joke. I loathe using it. But this is one of the few times I will.

To be very clear, my use of this word is not approval for using this word.

One day two comedians (one Black, one white) were sitting around talking about how much things in the South had changed.

White man: Man, things in the South sure have changed!

Black man: Yeah, but it sure hasn’t been easy.

White man: What do you mean? I remember when we let that first Black boy into the university!

Black man: Yeah, but not before you gave him an entrance exam no scholar could pass, but he passed it!

White man: Well we let him in didn’t we?!

Black man: Not until you submitted him to a physical exam that no pro athlete could pass, but he passed it too!

White man: Well, we let him in didn’t we?!

Black man: Yeah you let him in, but it wasn’t easy.

White man: What? We let him in, didn’t we?

Black man: Oh yeah, but first you took that boy down to the stadium, and filled it with 70,000 screaming white folks.

White man: But we let him in didn’t we?

Black man: Not before you took that boy to the end zone, and handcuffed his hands behind his back, shackled his feet, tied him up with rope and wrapped him in chains so that he could barely move.

White man: But we let him in didn’t we?

Black man: Then you took that poor boy and dropped him in a hole you had dug in the end zone, and buried him with only his neck and head sticking out the ground.

White man: But we let him in didn’t we?

Black man: Then in the other end zone you rolled out a cage a tiger in it.

White man: But we let him in, didn’t we?

Black man: Not before you told that Black boy, “Boy if you want to get into this university all you have to do is beat this tiger that we’ve been starving for the last seven days.

White man: But we let him in, didn’t we?

Black man: Then you open the cage and let the tiger out.

White man: But we let him in, didn’t we?

Black man: That tiger saw that Black boy’s head, and took off! He was at the 10, the 20, the 30, the 40, the 50…

White man: But we let him in didn’t we?

Black man: …the 40, the 30, the 20, the 10…

White man: But we let him in didn’t we?

Black man: the 5-yard line that tiger leaped at the poor black boys head.

White man: But we let him in didn’t we?

Black man: And as the tiger was flying at him that poor Black boy took and ducked his head.

White man: But we let him in didn’t we?

Black man: And as the Tiger flew over him, the boy reached up with his teeth and grabbed the tiger by the balls.

White man: But we let him in didn’t we?

Black man: Yeah, you let him in but as he had that tiger by the balls what was those white folks screaming?!

White man (embarrassed): Fight fair, nigger, fight fair.

“Fight fair, nigger, fight fair.”

I heard this joke the summer before my freshman year of college. I never laughed so hard. I listened to it over and over again, making sure I would always remember it. However, I would almost never tell it to anyone. But I would hear that line over and over the rest of my life.

Soon, I stopped laughing at the punchline, and a glimpse into my experience may help you understand why.

A creative director was supposed to pick me up at the airport. He walked past four times because the art director who recommended me for the job forgot to tell him I was Black. Was the giant portfolio case and me in a suit not enough of a hint?

“Fight fair, nigger, fight fair.”

What about having people tell me that I work in the mailroom or are a delivery person? Or being asked countless times by the same person what department I work in because the agency doesn’t have any Black creatives?

“Fight fair, nigger, fight fair.”

How about being the most productive and award-winning creative - the one clients praise the agency for because my work got results — and also the first laid off.? Then, days later, the agency calls asking for the ideas I was working on for upcoming campaigns.

“Fight fair, nigger, fight fair.”

There's also having to hear several times that your creative director or some member of management or potential employer not believing that Blacks could be creative or clients weren’t ready for a Black creative.

“Fight fair, nigger, fight fair.”

Then there's knowing that you are underpaid for your position.

“Fight fair, nigger, fight fair.”

Oh, and, having the quality of your work challenged because you “aren’t nothing but an affirmative action hire.” By the way, that was said to my face.

“Fight fair, nigger, fight fair.”

And now, despite churning out blog after blog, demonstrating my knowledge and understanding of advertising, being told by event organizers that they aren’t sure if I can present on the subject of advertising.

“Fight fair, nigger, fight fair.”

Here's a rich one: being told I need to hire a “white face” to pitch businesses. Or being told by potential clients that they don’t have an African American effort, when responding to my reaching out to them, not realizing that my agency doesn’t focus on African American marketing.

“Fight fair, nigger, fight fair.”

A newer one on the scene is listening to people talk about “diversity of thought” as a way to side-step addressing the diversity of people. We listen to them assume that Black and Brown people in America are just like them in thought but only with a tan, realizing they seriously don’t see us.

“Fight fair, nigger, fight fair.”

Being fed the same old, tired excuse that minorities don’t know about marketing and advertising as a career choice and that the solution is educating young people while ignoring all the older, experienced and talented people who have been fighting for a fair shot.

“Fight fair, nigger, fight fair.”

Having to listen, read or watch people talk about diversity in the context of quotas or lowering standards as if those excluded are less qualified or less talented — enduring their arrogance that they have gotten to where they are through hard work and talent.

“Fight fair, nigger, fight fair.”

And finally, watching careers and agencies build reputations for creative greatness by “borrowing” from every aspect of the cultures of people of color yet refusing to hire people of color.

“Fight fair, nigger, fight fair.”

Yes, it is all in my head.

No one would ever tell me aloud to “fight fair.” But they do with their actions and inaction.

Are marketing and advertising expecting people of color to fight fair as we are handcuffed, tied up, shackled and buried up to our necks? Of course it does.

The thing is that despite all we’ve overcome, some of us have done just that, and pushed through. I’m slow to call it success because it doesn’t feel like winning. We’ve only managed to grab that tiger by the balls and prevented it from eating us. We still know that we aren’t genuinely welcome.

I wonder what advertising would look like if the careers of so many people of color were not so restrained? I look at entertainment as a point of reference — the music, movies and TV industries — and see the answer: the work would be so varied, different, and unexpected. I can only imagine how great it can be.

This isn’t a pity party for Derek. I’ve had a fantastic ride, met some cool people, and done some amazing work — and that offsets all the crap I’ve had to put up with over the years.

Oddly enough, I feel sorry for advertising as an industry. I mourn for what we as an industry could have been - especially the work we could have created for clients. We should be ashamed, and clients should be pissed. The work could have been so much better.

I just realized that in handcuffing, shackling, chaining up and burying people of color, advertising buried itself up to its neck relative to the quality of the work it delivers.

We need to stage a fair fight and let the chips fall where they may. Then we will realize diversity and inclusion in advertising.

But, in the end, I wonder if advertising has the stomach for a fair fight? My guess is no, and that's the biggest shame of all.

Please prove me wrong. Stop and think harder about your actions and thoughts. Challenge yourself to consider if you’re really fighting fair. Let’s question the status quo, dare to be uncomfortable and willing to have a fair fight.

Read Derek Walker's past op-eds in The Drum — including his look at the history of Black advertising professionals in iconic advertising.