Being a black feminist in advertising

I am an openly black feminist who moonlights as a commentator and dissector of the trending topics that come out of #blacktwitter, but presently being paid in my capacity as a digital strategist. I work in an industry that is still predominantly white and continues to treat black creatives as a checklist to appease BEE ratings.

We are still having to fight for our place in the spaces that seek to invalidate our presence and suppress our voices. We struggle for very little success in an industry that doesn’t often promote its black employees, thus meaningful growth prospects are quiet dim. Where black minds continue to be ‘devalued’ and subjugated in their capacity as copy translators of English-to-Vernacular, also known as ‘black slang’ generators. 

In my two years in this industry, I’ve had to struggle through often demeaning conversations that render my blackness inferior. Advertising is one of the many South African industries that continue to lag behind when it comes to diversity of hiring, and growth prospects of those who get in. As a young black woman with very strong opinions on gender and race working in an industry that is still predominantly white and male, I’ve found myself at a disadvantage. My opinions are often labelled as my being ungrateful because I allegedly ‘make everything about race’. I am the uptight black folk in a pool of whiteness that washes away the few black spots when I stand up to object when my white colleagues make ‘black jokes’ or ask to touch my braids. I am expected to keep quiet every time the white guy sitting next to me makes it his prerogative to say ‘my black friend who’s a doctor’ or to gloat about his ‘soccer team having black and Indian people in it’.

The experiences of those who navigate these spaces are not often told by mainstream media. Those of us whose stories never get publicised have been subject of criticism and labelled as too ‘radical’ and ‘uptight’ when pointing out the obvious flaws in the system. Where the young blacks that get in are expected to be ‘grateful’, at the same time not display the dreaded symptoms of being ‘too black’ for the comfort of the whiteness that surround them. The challenges of the industry lie in the lack of engagement between the old ill-informed creatives who in some ways feel entitled as they continue to hold on to outdated approaches, vs the new emerging black voices who refuse to be misrepresented by images that have whitewashed their blackness. It’s the everyday struggles of having our names mispronounced over and over by an indifferent crowd, it’s being asked if you have ‘a more white friendly name’ to accommodate someone else’s ignorance. Its having people talk down to and at us because a ‘survey’ conducted by a foreign country knows more about what our people are like, than those of us who live in these bodies. It’s having my blackness dictated to me, it’s having someone else being given the platforms capitalise and tell my people’s stories many young black creatives could have told them with authenticity and without compromise. The creatives who have integrity and are in the industry to not only do a job, but also give a voice to the voiceless who don’t often get to see stories of and about their lives they actually recognise.

Being young, black and a woman forces one to recognise all the barriers that still need to be broken, the default stereotypes that still need to be challenged and the mind-set change that still needs to happen. Many young people in other industries can relate to my personal struggles because they are now having to navigate untransformed ‘previously’ white spaces where they are expected to work twice as hard for very little money and no recognition. Such personal anecdotes are a common rhetoric that resonate across a rising generation of frustrated African millennials who refuse to be side-lined, who want to be taken seriously, treated fairly and paid equally in their capacity as skilled employees.

There is still very little effort made to create evolving images of blackness that truly represent the complex dynamics of African people’s lived experiences, thus doing away with historically gimmicky and caricature-like-representations of black people who dance and sing to everything in commercials. The role of a black creative is to share their experience about a world that is making little effort to understand the people they are targeting. As an individual, I want to highlight the struggles I face in spaces that have labelled me a ‘black panther’ for speaking my truth and trying to ascertain that we create multi-layered stories that black people can relate to. 

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