Prompted by ongoing national George Floyd protests, big brands have been rushing to put out statements of diversity and Black Lives Matter solidarity — only to face swift backlash as past employees, citing their own past experiences, come forward to call out what they say is behind-the-scenes hypocrisy.
Companies that have posted messaging on their websites and respective social media accounts, and have sent emails to employees denouncing racism and discrimination, have ranged from Amazon to Zara. However, a number of these same companies have received backlash from former employees who have criticized an alleged culture of bigotry within each one — and in some cases effecting change as a result.
Starbucks promised to “confront racism” in a June 1 Instagram post, for example — and on Thursday, one employee took to Twitter to call out what she described as the company’s double standard. “I might get fired for this, but I’m calling Starbucks out,” she tweeted. “How are y’all gonna say we can’t wear anything BLM because it’s a personal issue, but have us wear and profit off pride month shirts, cups [and] gift cards. BLM and Pride were created to fight injustice, what’s the difference?”
In response, Starbucks tweeted that it will be collaborating with the Black Partner Network to send out shirts “in support of [its] Black partners, customers and communities”; on Friday, the company went even further, reversing its stance to now allow employees to wear items in support of Black Lives Matter.
Also this week, ex-employees of Vogue magazine blasted the brand for its alleged racist practices.
Following a staff memo from Anna Wintour, apologizing for “hurtful and intolerant mistakes," employees of color took to social media to share their upsetting experiences. Shelby Ivey Christie, who worked as a media planner for Vogue in 2016, tweeted that working there was “the most challenging and miserable” time of her career, citing experiences of alleged racism, bullying from white colleagues and inadequate pay. She wrote, “There was an instance where a white male exec on the digital biz team dressed up in a chicken suit, with gold chains, sagging pants + rapped to our entire biz org as a meeting ‘kickoff.’ HR was present and laughing.” She offered more in a thread with details about purported nepotism and black co-workers who were overqualified and yet overworked and underpaid.
Another former employee, Zara Rahim, spoke out as well, noting that in 2017 she was hired as communications director for Vogue, where, she says, she was the only woman of color in a leadership role. She recalls being given “diversity responsibilities” on top of her job requirements, which didn’t result in extra pay, but equated to having a whole other job.
“I was told in the end I was ‘complaining too much,’” she tweeted. Rahim explains that she has trauma connected to her past employment at Condé Nast and claims that, at one point, she was being “paid nearly 50k less” than the white woman who held the director title before her — and that, since leaving, her salary has jumped by $60,000. She tweeted, “There are people who hold these keys and have held them for decades. They know what they are doing, fire them.”
Additionally, journalist Noor Tagouri, who was never employed by Vogue but was photographed for a feature in the magazine’s February 2019 issue — only to be misidentified in the magazine as Pakistani actress Noor Bukhari. In attempts to rectify the mistake, she was offered a written feature, but was prohibited from addressing the mishap. Instead, Tagouri offered to do a separate feature on the topic, but was allegedly told that Vogue wouldn’t publish two diversity pieces in one year. Further, she says she was offered to lead a free diversity event and was turned down because it might be interpreted that “Vogue has a problem.”
This week, Condé Nast CEO Robert Lynch reportedly sent an email to staff, pledging to investigate and act “on all current and historic claims of pay inequities and inappropriate workplace behavior.” Additionally, he committed to holding a town hall series and creating an “external advisory council focused on anti-racism and inclusion topics,” in order to ensure “equitable representation within our content across our print, digital and video.”
Starbucks and Condé Nast, however, were not alone in being called out for racism and hypocrisy.
Last week, Los Angeles retail brand Anthropologie posted a Maya Angelou quote on Instagram, calling for equality — only to have its comments flooded with claims of egregious discriminatory practices, including, but not limited to, having secret code names for black customers.
That comment section soon became overrun by retail workers detailing the code names for black customers allegedly used by other major retailers. Over the years, many of the names used to racially profile shoppers have surfaced in claims by ex-employees and lawsuits against companies including Zara and Versace; now former Anthropologie employees say that the use of the code name “Nick” was used to refer to black shoppers, and that they were told to surveil black shoppers.
Another allegation noted that, just days before posting a black square in support of Blackout Tuesday, Anthropologie asked queer black model and writer Lydia Okello to participate in Anthropologie’s “Slice of Happy” Pride Month campaign — in exchange for a free outfit, nothing close, she says, to the usual rates.
The company soon responded with an Instagram post promising to support the black community by pledging $100,000 to the United Negro College Fund and by diversifying its workforce.
Another major company, Publix supermarkets, is also being taken to task following an announcement of its “commitment to diversity.” At least three employees, in locations in Alabama and Florida, have spoken out about being told to flip or remove their Black Lives Matter masks — or be sent home. Publix did not respond to Yahoo Life’s request to comment on the matter.
The list of companies being cited for behaving badly behind the scenes while making seemingly anti-racist public statements is large and growing:
On June 1, L’Oréal shared an Instagram post that said, “Speaking out is worth it,” prompting some to remind the cosmetics brand of the time when it fired a model for doing just that: In 2017, the company fired U.K. model Munroe Bergdorf for calling out "the racial violence of white people" in a Facebook post. In response to the company’s recent statement of solidarity, the model did not miss the opportunity to hold L’Oréal accountable for its past practices. “Excuse my language but I am SO angry,” Bergdorf wrote. “You dropped me from a campaign in 2017 and threw me to the wolves for speaking out about racism and white supremacy... You do NOT get to do this. This is NOT okay, not even in the slightest.” In response, the company has offered her a seat on its U.K. diversity and inclusion advisory board.
Also on June 1, in response to a Facebook employee “virtual walkout” over President Trump’s recent posts, Mark Zuckerberg wrote in solidarity with protesters. “We stand with the black community,” he wrote before committing to a donation of $10 million to “groups working on racial justice.” However, many took the opportunity to remind the social media giant that it doesn’t have the best equality track record. Over the years, Facebook has been accused of failing black employees and censoring black users. Just days after the backlash, Facebook removed almost 200 social media accounts linked to white supremacy groups.
On May 30, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said, “The NFL family is greatly saddened by the tragic events across our country,” offering condolences to the families of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. Additionally, football teams have been posting black squares in support of Blackout Tuesday. But back in 2017, the league shut out Colin Kaepernick for “taking a knee” during the National Anthem to protest police brutality, and Twitter users jumped at the chance to remind them. Since the backlash, Goodell has admitted that they were “wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier” and the league has announced that it would pledge $250 million over the next 10 years to help fight systematic racism. But some say it’s not enough.
On June 2, Refinery29 blacked out its homepage and Instagram and has been sharing posts in solidarity with the black community — prompting an ex-employee to speak out. Alese Edwards tweeted, “Hey @Refinery29, cool blacked out homepage! But you know what real allyship looks like? Paying your Black employees fairly, having Black women in top leadership positions & addressing the microagressions your Black employees deal with from management on a daily basis.” Edwards’s tweet was met with a slew of replies from former employees who had also had enough. In response to the allegations, Christene Barberich, co-founder of Refinery29, announced that she would be resigning.
On May 31, Amazon posted a tweet saying it stood “in solidarity with the Black community... in the fight against systemic racism and injustice.” The ACLU looked into its practice of selling facial recognition technology. Amazon Ring, a video doorbell that has received criticism from civil rights organizations for partnering with police departments and creating a way “for police to request or access footage without a warrant, and then store it indefinitely.” In response, Amazon announced it will impose a one-year ban on the sale of its face-recognition technology to police.
On June 2, TikTok also participated in Blackout Tuesday — disabling all playlists “to observe a moment of reflection and action,” but in the past, it’s been criticized for allowing racist content, blocking the Black Lives Matter hashtag and inequitable treatment of black content creators. Earlier this year, they were called out after teen dancer Jalaiah Harmon was not given credit for the dance craze she pioneered called the Renegade. Some say TikTok’s algorithm may be to blame, “elevating White creators while limiting the visibility and reach of creators of color.”
TikTok later apologized for the suppression of Black Lives Matter posts, calling it a “technical glitch.” It’s also since acquired a new CEO, Kevin Mayer, who said it was an “important time to support Black employees, users, creators, artists, and our broader community,” committing himself to the cause. Additionally, the growing social media platform said it is donating $3 million to nonprofit organizations that help the black community and promised $1 million toward “fighting the racial injustice and inequality that we are witnessing in this country.”
On June 3, McDonald’s posted a video to its Twitter page captioned, “They were one of us,” referring to victims of police brutality such as Michael Brown, Atatiana Jefferson and George Floyd, for whom “the entire McDonald’s family grieves.” The video further explained that the company is standing for “victims of systemic oppression,” but many were quick to call the company hypocritical, with Color of Change tweeting a video that reads, “McDonald’s workers still lack a living wage, paid sick leave and union rights,” which are “a part of systemic oppression.” Echoing the sentiments, the ACLU tweeted, “Black lives are more than a marketing campaign. McDonalds, are you listening?”
On May 31, Reformation posted a list of organizations that they would be supporting, including Black Lives Matter and the NAACP, but it wasn’t long before the company’s alleged racially insensitive past resurfaced, with former employee Elle Santiago taking to Instagram to share her experiences. That included an occasion when the brand’s founder, Yael Aflalo, allegedly said the company was “not ready" to feature black models.
Users on Twitter quickly dug up photos from both 2014 and 2016, one showing Aflalo and the brand’s producer at the time, Elana Rosenblatt, eating fried chicken to “celebrate” Black History Month. The other photo is an Instagram post from Reformation captioned, “Hot out the factory,” while, in the background is what looks to be a sweatshop with employees of color hard at work, still making the very dresses being advertised.
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