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Brands keep apologizing for racism. Why do all their posts look the same?

The predictable and formulaic design of an Instagram apology.

Brands keep apologizing for racism. Why do all their posts look the same?
[Illustration: FC]

Over the last few weeks, as protestors have taken to the streets to advocate for racial justice, brands have felt compelled to be part of the conversation. It hasn’t always gone smoothly.

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In many cases, people have pointed to the hypocrisy of the bland Instagram statements, questioning the makeup of their executive teams or their efforts during the rest of the year. When Book of the Month published a post encouraging followers to “Read Black authors,” many asked why the club itself hasn’t featured many black authors.

In other cases, employees have offered detailed accounts of the racism and discrimination they say they experienced working at those brands. Gabriella Sanchez, who worked at Bando for two years, described how founder Jen Gotch took employees to lunch and spoke in what Gotch herself described as a “plantation accent.”

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Yesterday I was called out on social media by multiple current and former employees for being racist, for creating and helping to propagate a racist company culture and for building a brand that espouses  inclusivity but doesn’t consistently reflect that. I am guilty and not only am I guilty, I have been so ignorant and so insulated by the ease and comfort of my white privilege, that up until just a few days ago, I would have passionately and sincerely denied negatively impacting others.  It took a public outing for me to get the message but I got it and I am incredibly grateful for that. I am sorry and I am ashamed. I will do the work to change.  Right now I realize my credibility is thin and for both myself and ban.do, actions speak louder than words. It won’t happen overnight but I’m committed to educating myself on how to make meaningful change and contribute to solving the problem rather than being a part of the problem. Within 24 hours the first phase of action will be shared on the @shopbando instagram account. We will do the work, you will see us doing it no matter what but want you and those that helped to inspire this change to have the option to hold us accountable.

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Now, companies are trotting out apologies: Among them, the founders of Reformation, Dollskill, Refinery29, and Bando, who have all acknowledged that they’ve messed up in the past and pledged to do better. (The latter two have said they will step down from top roles at their companies.)

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I’d like to start by saying that I’ve read and taken in the raw and personal accounts of Black women and women of color regarding their experiences inside our company at Refinery29. And, what's clear from these experiences, is that R29 has to change. We have to do better, and that starts with making room. And, so I will be stepping aside in my role at R29 to help diversify our leadership in editorial and ensure this brand and the people it touches can spark a new defining chapter. A chapter that demands a new voice—both for our team and our audience—one that can shape and guide the critical stories that have the real power to shift and disrupt our culture, helping to eliminate institutional barriers that separate us and hold our society back. We will begin the search for the next Global Editor-In-Chief of R29 immediately. It's time for a new generation of leadership that’s truly reflective of the diversity of our audience with divergent points of view, one that builds and expands on our original mission to amplify and celebrate a wide range of voices, perspectives, and stories…stories that need and deserve to be told. That is still at the heart of this company and why its community has loved it so much for the past 15 years. Because they ARE Refinery29 today—and what it will become—which is even more important in this moment than what inspired us to create it in the first place.

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These apologies are popping up every day, and the visual language is so similar, it’s starting to look formulaic. Many choose to voice their remorse and contrition through words on Instagram, without any images. Instead, there are lengthy written statements that often take up many slides, describing all the ways the brand or founder has failed, and all the ways they’re planning to do penance, including making donations and diversifying their teams. Posts on founders’ personal accounts are no less bland and impersonal than those on the corporate accounts.

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These posts appear to be trying to make a visual impact through minimalism and simplicity, contrasting the color of the words against the background. But given that they’re all starting to blend together, it’s unclear how effective this approach is. “It all falls really flat,” says Bobby Martin, founding partner of Champions Design, a branding and design agency. “From a design perspective, a quote can feel very removed from humanity. I want to see a person’s face: I want to look into their eyes and see that they actually mean it.”

Martin points out that this approach of printing a few works against a white or black background has been common over the past few months, as brands have tried to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. Brands communicated with their customers in a similar way, describing their response to the crisis with a few words against a simple background. “We were bombarded with brands thanking healthcare workers and saying that we’re ‘in this together,'” he says. “This has rolled right into what we’re experiencing now with the protests. ”

The problem with this approach, Martin believes, is that it’s too safe. Reformation CEO Yael Aflalo, for instance, came under fire for declining to include a black model in a shoot, saying, “We’re not ready for that yet.” In her apology, she acknowledged that she had “failed.” But it didn’t communicate any real vulnerability. This and other corporate apologies make it seem like the companies are simply going through the motions and caving to public pressure to speak up. None of this inspires confidence that the company is on track to create real change by hiring more black people and grooming them to become leaders. “They can’t make the world better if they don’t hire better,” Martin says.

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I’ve failed.

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And perhaps most importantly, it’s worth asking, as writer Helen Donahue did on Twitter, which graphic designers have been asked to design apologies but keep them “on brand”? According to the 2019 Design Census, only 3% of designers are black. Martin makes the case that part of the reason this communication about Black Lives Matter, and the ensuing apologies, feels so flat and inauthentic is that there are so few black designers contributing to the conversation. “If black designers were part of the process, it would be a much richer message,” says Martin. “There would be more vulnerability and more action that would come out of it.”

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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