The George Floyd tragedy raises urgent questions for the industry about race
A view from Jo Arscott

The George Floyd tragedy raises urgent questions for the industry about race

How can the industry truly understand race when its boundaries are Shoreditch and Cannes?

The moment Derek Chauvin forced his knee into George Floyd’s neck represented a seismic shift. 

In our industry, do you remember the Dove moment? The Cheerios moment? The Justin Tindall moment? These are probably not engraved in your mind, but they are for me as a person of colour. Since returning from working in the US as well as the Middle East and North Africa, these were a few significant moments that stood out to me.  

"We" acknowledge these things just a bit more than most. We notice how at Christmas every commercial has a mixed-race person or family – the "acceptable" side of blackness. 

Now, to get to the point: after George Floyd, the industry will once again need to rebalance and rethink how it approaches race. 

It’s sad that we even have to have this discussion.

When I returned from Atlanta, Arkansas and Dubai, I was shocked. I felt rage, because it was alien to me and my creative journey. North America and MENA are two of the most polarising places there are when it comes to the colour of your skin, and my experiences working there significantly changed my mindset and attitude on race. It was an education that I wish everyone could have.

I am a black British creative, full stop. But I learned about slavery and the American narrative as I spent time in Martin Luther King Jr’s neighbourhood speaking to his neighbours. I worked for Coca-Cola brand Sprite on programmes specifically aimed at African-Americans. I learned how important it was to empower with role models such as LeBron James. 

On the other hand, I saw another side of America: middle America, or "Donald Trump’s America", when touring with Nascar. I saw how some people carried guns in their trucks and it was "normal". I was told "Don’t go out of the perimeter of Atlanta", as it wasn’t always safe. One of my art directors spoke about how the KKK was in her hometown that weekend. I also saw how there were agencies such as Burrell Communications that were specifically set up to tell a black narrative. A lot to contemplate for a naive copywriter from the Watford course.

Then in the Middle East, everybody was of colour: Emiratis, Saudis, Egyptians, Indians, Filipinos, Iraqis. That completely throws you in a different way. One day you stand out and the next it’s caucasians who are in the minority. You understand the importance of how every race is different.  

You grow to love the call to prayer from the two mosques either side of your apartment in the Dubai Marina. You understand how HR uses its office as a prayer room for Muslim creatives throughout the day. You see how Indians are building the roads, Pakistanis are taxi drivers, Filipinos are in service in hotels and hospitals. You see how Americans, British and Emiratis are "top of the table" and understand that you are living in a caste system for the first time. 

On top of that, you gain a new knowledge, such as how Iftar and Diwali are key business times for brands. Walking around Cairo, you see how power cuts affect your clients’ customers, then you return to a hotel that was a former palace and you are treated like a queen.

It’s a lot to get your head around, especially for someone who spent her formative years with Saatchi & Saatchi on Charlotte Street, with film premieres, parties and private clubs.

I understand race more fully from working abroad. So I wonder: how can the industry here truly understand it when its boundaries are Shoreditch and Cannes?

Often, initiatives that are set up for good are seen as mere tokenism or box-ticking, even if we are not brave enough to say it out loud. Our industry and brands need to recognise and listen to people who are doing this work authentically. People such as Helen Matthews and Amie Snow-Mayers at Ogilvy, Ali Hanan, Andy Knell, Trevor Robinson, Cordell Burke, Meena Ayittey and Cephas Williams. People of all colours, who are simply doing their best with what they know, see and hear. 

We will move on from this – that’s inevitable. But you know what? I hope the young people coming up in our industry don’t feel disabled before they start because of the colour of their skin.

Jo Arscott is a global creative consultant

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