Barnes & Noble Marketing

Why diversity campaigns sometimes go wrong, even for us black folks

By Deadra Rahaman, Founder and president

February 10, 2020 | 5 min read

Deadra Rahaman, founder and president of Society Redefined, explains why campaigns such as the Penguin Random House/Barnes & Noble 'Diversity Editions' can sometimes backfire within the community they're designed to empower.

Barnes & Noble covers

It seems as if something like Black History Month (BHM) is always a last-minute chore or the thing that makes everyone feel good about themselves – except the people it’s supposed to be about.

It is never planned in advance like a real strategy or, for that matter, part of a brand’s existing culture. It often leads to something carelessly thrown together that backfires, like Penguin Random House and Barnes & Noble’s diverse book cover campaign.

Here was the idea, an actual audible thought: "What if we found a bunch of classics, public domain titles, that didn't specify white skin? Kids of color could project themselves into the books."

This is why it went wrong.

First of all, if this is for BHM it should have featured kids of the black diaspora not kids of color.

Second: classics. Which classics? White classics, featuring white people from 100-plus years ago when black people were slaves?

Many children’s classics are problematic and have a history of racism and discrimination – even classics such as Peter Pan, which was written in 1904 by a Scottish dramatist born in 1860. Imagine reading to your child, getting to the part about the Indian tribe and going, “Oh wait, that’s racist."

Parents have to take the time to read along and address those parts as 'teachable moments', deciding when they want to introduce that discussion.

Third: are we seriously talking about putting blackface on the covers of books written by white authors, about white people? That there should have been a full stop and cause for pause.

In these instances, our first go-to saying is, “Well when you don’t have black people making the decisions, then this is what happens”.

However, in the case of Barnes & Noble, they were there. Executives that is – four of them, so no junior-level newbies afraid to speak up. Even the artists that designed the covers were people of color.

I get it. When we get so far up the corporate ladder we too can be blinded by the white gaze. As Sanyu Dillon, one of the execs admitted: “We folks from communities of color contribute sometimes to the problem: internalized racism, self-colonization, sub-oppression [are] very real.”

I can see how many trusted and did not question the direction because four POC executives were leading the initiative. But even we can get caught up in an idea and not take the time to go through the basic fundamentals of approaching a project. It goes back to intention, thoughtfulness and time.

1. Intention – what is our intention? What are we doing? Who are we doing it for? What do we want to achieve?

2. Thoughtfulness – how are we doing it? Are we doing it right? Is it right? Can this go wrong? Could we do better?

3. Time – let’s ask ourselves and others who represent the communities we’re targeting if this is a smart and purposeful approach.

If those involved had gone through those exercises, a light bulb would have gone off and one of those execs could have seen this seemingly simple, easy way to honor BHM would go down in flames quickly.

BHM should be just that, about black history: you can’t project what is not there or not created for you or by you.

But there is no shortage of Black classics. Charles Chesnut, Harriet Wilson, Ralph Ellison... I could go on. One book on the list of the Barnes & Noble debacle was The Three Musketeers. Not many adults, let alone children, know that the author of The Man in the Iron Mask, The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers is a POC, Alexandre Dumas.

We all need to see authentic representation. And can you imagine a child knowing that the author is just like them and that they very well could be d’Artagnan, the magnificent sword fighter?

Oh, how I can see their imaginations flourishing and wanting to read more.

Deadra Rahaman is the founder and president of Society Redefined and contributor to Nielsen's Diverse Intelligence Series 2019. She tweets @DeadraRahaman

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