The erasure of blackness continues with some Black-owned businessmen and women.
Last week, the Chicago Tribune released an article where Black business owners admitted to hiding their racial identity or playing down their role as owners in order to grow their businesses.
In the piece, Duane Draughon, who owns a patio installation company, revealed that he hired a white person to conduct in person interviews to build a white sales team. The white sales team members served as the faces of the company, while the public thought of Draughon as just the project manager. Other Black business owners admitted to leaving their pictures off their company’s website and social media channels. They also admitted to hiring white spokespeople to publicly represent their company. These clandestine tactics may scale profits, but it also propagates racism.
Starting and sustaining a successful business, regardless of race, is onerous. Most people either don’t attempt out of fear of failure or fail because…well, business start-ups are fail friendly. That failure gap widens for minority owned businesses.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, of the 2 million Black-owned businesses in the U.S., only about 107,000 of them have actual paid employees – that’s barely over 5%. The mere fact that Draughon and the other Black business owners mentioned in the article have a business where they can hire a support staff is a success and an anomaly. But they’re great white hoping their businesses and success.
The deliberate employment of white people to retain business and profit is problematic, hurtful, and racially defeatist. It’s wrong and racist when white employers do it and it’s just as wrong and racist when done by Black employers. This hiring scheme sends the message that in order to be successful as a Black business owner, you have to be represented by a white person. Arguably, this strategy could be seen as a means to an end or survival.
Black folks are no strangers to making their blackness digestible in the workplace, spaces predominately occupied by white people, and in life. We all play the game.
Currently, I work for a multicultural ad agency. And the way I relate and work with my current coworkers, who are mostly Black, is a lot different from how I interacted with my former white coworkers at my previous job. There’s an unspoken level of comfort among Black coworkers that just isn’t there, or at least takes time to build with white coworkers. So, I understand making your blackness digestible. But Black business owners who practice race-based hiring aren’t making themselves digestible; they’re being digested by racism, and thus contributing to it.
One of the traits of racism is the visceral devaluing of Black lives or in this case, Black talent. Black business owners don’t owe Black people anything. But what they do owe their community is reverence and acknowledgement. Their business doesn’t have to be Black Panther approved. But whitewashing a team is just another way of undermining Black talent and the power of the emerging blackonomy.
Nielsen’s report, “Increasingly Affluent, Educated, and Diverse: African-American Consumers – The Untold Story” explored just how impactful the Black dollar is for businesses. 87% of Blacks feel ethnic recognition is important compared to 59% of the general population. 77% of Blacks age 18-54 with a household income greater than $50,000 indicated their heritage was an important part of who they are compared to 58% of the general population. The report also revealed that the income growth of Black households exceeded those of non-Hispanic whites at every annual household income above $60,000. There’s market and profit found among Black households.
Giving a Black-owned business a white face to secure financial capital elicits a success-by-white association sentiment. This goes against Nielsen's findings, which show that Black households have a great purchasing power. Not to mention, there are other Black business owners who are the face of their companies and are still widely successful.
Walker and Company CEO Tristan Walker is the face of his company. Last year, the African American entrepreneur announced a $24 million Series B funding round on the same day that they announced a partnership with Target to sell Bevel in select stores. Travel Noire founder Zim Ugochukwu was recently featured in Forbes as a 30 Under 30 and Fast Company featured her business as one of most innovative companies of 2016. Travel Noire is noted for tapping into the culture and lifestyle of Black jetsetters with Zim as the face of the company.
Black erasure is a manifestation of whitewashing. We see whitewashing in Hollywood movies, with the music industry, in high fashion, and even with history, and we don’t need it from other Black people, especially those in positions to create jobs. Catering to racist white people in order “to survive” or to grow a business is a reductive excuse. It’s not surviving, it’s selling out.
Terrence Chappell is a Chicago-based writer. He covers an array of topics ranging from social justice to more brain candy content such as pop culture and infotainment. Terrence has been featured on JETmag.com, Huffington Post, Advocate.com, Windy City Times, Vocalo 91.1FM, ChicagoPride.com and the Black Youth Project. When he isn't writing, Terrence works as a social media manager at Burrell Communications. He enjoys traveling, live DJ sets and White Castle sliders.