Photo: Alberto Vargas
In light of where things are in America, I feel the need to point out that if you're familiar with and have benefitted from my work, Creative Strategy and the Business of Design, and my #thinkhowtheythink philosophy, a sharecropper named Mr. Ben Frank Davis is where it came from.
The introduction from my book reads as follows:
My grandfather had a standing lunch date with a well-known conservative talk radio host. And that is how the host and I met, during lunchtime, standing in my grandparents’ kitchen in South Carolina.
I couldn’t have been more than eight, and by this time I had heard my grandfather chuckle when referring to the things that ol’ host would say for years. One day the host was ranting in a particularly offensive manner that registered as such in my still-forming second-grade brain.
In my shock, I couldn’t help but ask my grandfather, “Granddaddy, do you hear what he’s saying, how can you listen to this!?” And without needing a moment to collect his thoughts, our family’s wise gray-haired patriarch said with a smile, “I want to know what they think.”
Those seven words introduced my eight year-old mind to the simple concept of seeking to understand the point of view opposite my own, and that’s what this book is about.
It is wild that the lesson on racism and survival was not only with me my whole life but that the concept of how to survive in our community begins at such a young age.
It Is About Survival
Many of you reading this three months ago would’ve asked if the word survival was heavy handed, and though the statement Black Lives Matter is now accepted, the fact that we needed to state the obvious is about survival.
Think about how confusing it must be to be born American yet be actively hunted in the streets by fellow American-born White males. Think about how clear the message that you do not belong is when White women weaponize calling the Police on men, women and children living while Black. Think about the mixed signals of reading equal justice under law in the Constitution and knowing that the Police are repeatedly judge, jury and executioner in encounters that are almost exclusively involving Black Americans.
Realizing it literally is all about survival for us, even with the examples we’ve seen in the past 90 days, I know it’s still removed from your reality. Therefore I want you to think of how it felt when O.J. Simpson was acquitted for the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson & Ron Goldman. The emotion stemming from that horrific event where the judicial system and law enforcement failed to produce justice because the accused killer was a privileged murderer, well, that emotion is what we feel constantly.
So if you’re here reading this with an open mind, allow the sharecropper’s grandson to share more lessons on survival, that is if you really want to know what we think.
A Brand and Its Values Must Align
I’ll begin where everyone is comfortable. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” True. Where it gets interesting is what he said after that, where he went on to explain why protesters cry “no justice, no peace:” “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Though Black Americans were never fully woven into the fabric of society, when you see journalists being arrested, White people in Minnesota shot with paintballs on their own porch or peaceful protesters tear gassed, you know that powerdrunk points at us all one day. So if you thought in the back of your mind that this was a Black issue or that though this is bad it will never happen to my family, then keep the O.J. emotion and answer this:
As creatives, strategists, marketers or designers who understand how important it is for a brand to align and deliver on its stated values, who among you would advise America to continue doing the exact opposite of its core values?
If America was our client, we would all be emphatic and conclusive in our warnings about how long the brand could remain relevant if it continues to undermine its mission statement.
I put this piece down for a week and at first I didn’t know why. Then I realized watching the complete failure of America’s response to the global pandemic disproportionately affect Black people while watching America’s misalignment on values kill Black people, I had become angry. As I write this I realize that I had to feel that anger before I could explain it.
Disconnected from Reality
America loves Black Culture, Black Entertainers and Black Creativity, but Black People can’t believe the words in the Pledge of Allegiance, the words on the base of the Statue of Liberty, or the words equal justice under law in the Constitution.
That reality is what we have to exist and create in everyday.
We see what America says about equality but feel what it does to us in the streets. Likewise, we see how the industry taps Black Culture for language and style and fashion but feel excluded when the only C-suite level position was the box you checked when you hired the D&I champion as the “proof of your commitment.”
The signals are mixed.
We hear what the industry says but see no results.
The intentions are clear when the very industry that understands messaging, targeting and media repeatedly looks to you for inspiration but excludes you in the creation of the work–that is why the trust isn’t there.
Understand that when you ask people of color on your team or peers how many of them have had to wrestle with the decision to cut their hair or keep it and risk losing a job opportunity. Think of the level of distractions you would face if you, a qualified White man or woman had to decide to shave your head or were asked to do it as a condition of employment. Hard to imagine but even harder to live this as qualified Black people do day in and day out.
This is only part of the societal barriers that become barriers to entry in professions like ours and when White people look around and only see themselves it perpetuates the idea that if we aren’t diverse then you weren’t qualified.
Yet we all know that this isn’t true. I believe that exposure and opportunity level the playing field but subtract the exposure and you limit or miss the opportunities. Like powerdrunk points at everyone one day, my next point is this inequality of exposure and opportunity is systemic.
Exposure and Opportunity
Consider this observation in part of my origin story.
I went to Hampton University to study graphic design, and all my design professors at a Historically Black College and University (HBCU) were White.
Upon graduating, I went on to Pratt Institute for a master's in Communication Design, again all my professors were White.
After 8 years in the business, I attended NYU to study strategy and yet again all my professors were White.
Then I became a Design Professor.
I became Chair of a Communication Design Program.
I became a strategist who taught at that same NYU program.
Like equal justice under law, equal opportunity ain’t so equal if you have to become what you didn’t see. Imagine if your kids only had Black dolls to play with or if the idealized view of beauty was of African descent. This is how most Black women go through life. Go to Netflix and count how many non-White choices there are for your profile pic.
Imagine if the O.J. verdict was the expected outcome every time because of race. Imagine your daughter never even thinking about having all Black dolls or imagine your history missing from national K-12 education. Representation matters. It is my hope that this time, after the blood of so many Black people has been spilled, that one day we will plant the seeds of possibility in everyone at the point of possibility.
But hope is not a strategy.
Our profession, our country and our world would be so much better if we didn’t waste so much human potential on distractions like appearance, or spend so much energy saying we are one nation while having two systems. It's so tiring and yet my Grandparents and those before them endured this open racism and therefore so will I.
My first cousin told the story of how she and Mrs. Sarah Mae Davis—the sharecropper’s equally capable wife—had been shopping when the Klu Klux Klan began marching on Main Street. My grandmother stopped, looked at her frightened granddaughter, pointed and said “look.” When my cousin told her, “ I’m scared,” Sarah Mae said, “Oh no, these are not the ones to be scared of, they’re out in the open. It’s the ones that try to be your friends that you’ll need to watch.”
Grandma’s lesson on survival from before I was born and Dr. King’s words about “the silence of our friends” still rings true as we watch America’s fight to survive this moment and how White Americans deal with the truth that they can no longer be complicit in their silence but must be anti-racist.
It’s interesting that in these unprecedented times America is facing, lessons on survival from Black Americans most impacted by this double standard are what I’m using to help you see the point of view opposite from your own.
The Community I Come From
I was blessed to be from small town southern Black America where your education at night and weekends was the result of communities used to separate-but-equal—I-don't-expect-the-system-to-teach-our-children-who-they-are type of people. That’s my stock in Lexington SC: King & Davis & Moody & Satterwhite genes.
Then going to an HBCU taught me just how diverse we are as a people. We all grew up in a community of families and churches that provided for each other so well that I had a masters and was living here before I even knew we grew up “poor.” We were wealthy in love with more than enough because of our unity.
I've always wanted to be black.
I wouldn't change a thing.
I want the size of my nose and the scars on my face. I want the strong proud southern Black community I came from. I learned about family, unity, honesty, love, integrity, work ethic, grace, style and leadership from that Black community. I've never felt less than because of my Blackness. Not for a second. Not even now.
America's view of us has never been our view of ourselves. Not for a second. Not even now.
It Could Have Been Me
And yet even with that self worth, it is taxing to see the same story of a mundane interaction with police turning into death for some unarmed Black person who could have been you, or your brother, or your uncle. If all it takes to be killed is being an unarmed Black male, then one day it will be me.
I am no different.
Think about the power dynamic in “your-word-against-mine” situations involving an officer and a Black person.
Then think about everyday situations between White and Black people from Amy Copper to Emmett Till.
Then consider how dangerous it is to live life with assumptions of right and wrong based on color in every situation.
Then think about all the opportunities you’ve had to watch, read about or turn away from Black people being killed on video in just the past month much less a lifetime.
This is why it is necessary to state the obvious. #BlackLivesMatter
How Do We Evaluate Intelligence, Leadership and Judgement?
I think it’s time for us to question how we define intelligence, what qualities/measuring sticks we use to evaluate leadership, and how we choose who makes judgment calls.
To begin, I’ll again use myself as an example.
Example 1: My three tries on the SAT yielded 720 or 780 so by that measure, I’m stupid.
I’m glad I never cared about outward measures of my potential or what I could achieve, but there are so many who have allowed that number to define what was/wasn’t possible. Those numbers certainly didn’t predict how I would turn out. I will acknowledge the benefit of being overlooked when the reveal happens and you go from underestimated threat in the room to threat in the room (especially if you read faces and body language) ;).
Example 2: In a recent annual evaluation, I realized that I wasn’t even doing the job they were evaluating me on. They didn’t consider my list of accomplishments: a 2-year run of film festivals, double-digit awards including an Emmy, fundraising, increased stature of our program, global accolades including a Mandarin translation of my book, my extensive industry participation and influence. The first year, I was shocked that the reviews were not really reviews but thought this was the evaluator’s style. This year, a new person but the same Satisfactory/Needs improvement form from the 1950’s that is focused on what seems to be managing the office vs leadership. The form needs to be rewritten because according to it, on paper, and like the SAT, the results of my leadership like my intelligence are invisible.
Leadership defined and leadership in action need to be realigned.
How we measure potential and who should be allowed to make judgment calls in creativity, industry, and society obviously need to be redefined to ensure they don’t advantage those who show themselves to abuse the responsibility. Which brings me to the final example that will probably be how I die if things don't change.
Example 3: The existing psychological testing that White police officers go through cannot distinguish the differences between good and bad cops. This process supposedly assures sound judgement, grants the ability to use lethal force, is clearly broken and that is absolutely terrifying. The fact that it is a process produces the same result. I say that because the profile of the unarmed black man and the white male police officer correlate, pointing to society and the conditions in which white or black boys become men. American culture itself. As Jane Elliott showed us all, the assumed criminality or goodness based on physical attributes like eye color or skin is both wrong and stupid.
Black people not only exist in the moment like everyone else but we are simultaneously working through all the prior situations we felt overt mistreatment or suspected foul play but couldn’t put our finger on.
Those have to be cross referenced with warnings, consequences and stories from your family and community handed down as concrete examples of “this is what racism is and these are the consequences.”
The present and past then are triangulated with the muscle memory of what it felt like to be othered when anticipating whether you want to even go through with whatever you’re about to attempt.
All while doing the research on the fact that this all existed before anyone other than us was willing to acknowledge it, on top of being the fathers, mothers, cousins, professionals, essential workers and neighbors of black people who are all going through what you see above.
Yet White men are also the profile of mass or school shooters yet don’t get the same stigma/suspicion/judgment as a monolithic group that Black people get when someone who happens to be Black “violates the law.” These examples have me questioning if our “laws,” their application, and judicial systems were created to produce Black criminality. Just being alive while Black seems to violate the law and all too often ends in death.
What You Can Do To Help
So if you have influence in hiring/team composition, if you are an advocate in the boardroom when no person of color is present or when you’re the only one, or if you're posting #BlackLivesMatter on social, know that the measures you’ve used to evaluate intelligence, leadership, and judgment produced the environment you’re trying to maintain or change.
Look back on your judgement and the result of your decisions like our judicial system does when there’s new evidence or when corruption is found in the intentions of a prosecutor. It is possible to make things right.
If you’re a creative, here are the 12 things you can do today.
Here’s Where I Net Out on America
Freedom: Either It’s true for everyone or that shit ain’t true.
Justice: Either It’s true for everyone or that shit ain’t true.
Liberty: Either It’s true for everyone or that shit ain’t true.
Equality: Either It’s true for everyone or that shit ain’t true.
Free Speech: Either It’s true for everyone or that shit ain’t true.
America: Either It’s true for everyone or that shit ain’t true.