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How Companies Can Avoid Black History Month Blunders

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty/Barnes&Noble/OneUnitedBank/BedBathandBeyond
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty/Barnes&Noble/OneUnitedBank/BedBathandBeyond

During Black History Month each year, companies come up with a variety of ways to uplift the lives and culture of Black Americans.

Of course, in a nod to capitalism, many of those organizations use the 28-day celebration—29, when we’re lucky to get a Leap Year—as a marketing tactic to lure in buyers, then ditch the call for diversity once March rolls around.

Others miss the mark entirely with grandiose statements that come across as over-the-top and insincere, performative for the sake of appearing inclusive. Then, there are other companies that are too scared to even try, and completely disregard Black History Month in their marketing plans.

Here’s some Black History Month kerfuffles, fails, and faux pas that The Daily Beast finds unforgettable.

Bath & Body Works

Bath & Body Works—known for its lotions, soaps, and candles—rolled out a line of some fan-favorite scented items, but decked out in Kente-print wrapping. So, instead of finding Champagne Toast in some arbitrary pink design, buyers could purchase it in the Ghanaian-inspired plastic.

But some folks on social media weren’t happy with the move and felt it was overly performative.

“Well this is VERY tacky,” a social media user wrote. “Y’all couldn't even give new scents? Just redressed the same old stuff we been buying all year? Not cool. Not cute. Not ok.”

“Culture appropriation at it’s [sic] finest,” another user wrote.

‘Culture Appropriation at Its Finest’: Internet Slams Bath & Body Works’ Black History Month Line

Marketing expert Natalia Eileen Villarmàn with Seen@Work says one of the most important things companies have to keep in mind is their intent year-round.

“I like to see a comprehensive approach to Black History Month, one that you can tell has been thought about from months before and that, for bonus points, continues so it’s not just about Black History Month,” Villarmàn told The Daily Beast. “There are maybe community service opportunities that are launched in Black History Month and then continue on through the rest of the year, or maybe there’s an education series.”

She said that adding Kente cloth to the Bath & Body Works’ wrapping, for example, could appear culturally appropriate if the entire process about who was involved and its historical context is not explained.

“This goes beyond Black History Month, right?” Villarmàn said. “You can think about that [mindset] as a tactic or strategy or as a best practice with any community that’s historically marginalized.”

According to Bath & Body Works’ marketing rollout of the campaign, a number of Black employees assisted with the initiative and were proud of what they accomplished.

“The collection to me is powerful, inspiring, uplifting—and rooted in our values,” a district manager said in the company’s newsletter announcing the release.

OneUnited Bank

OneUnited Bank had good intentions when it released its Harriet Tubman debit card for Black History Month 2020. But the fact that the Black-owned bank seemingly depicted Tubman doing the Black Panther-“Wakanda Forever” salute was deemed over the top and unnecessary.

Since at least 2016, Tubman, notoriously known as “the Moses of her people,” has been a contentious choice to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill. In 2020, OneUnited Bank made a statement, dedicating its new debit card to Tubman. The human rights activist received a fair deal of praise for her work as an abolitionist, but the move to get her face on the $20 bill keeps getting delayed.

So, OneUnited Bank stepped in with its debit card, showing Tubman with arms across her chest as if she was about to rumble on a Marvel Universe battleground.

“The Harriet Tubman Visa Debit Card is the first limited-edition card offered by OneUnited Bank and will only be available in 2020,” the bank said in a press release. “The card image is from the painting ‘The Conqueror’ by the internationally acclaimed artist Addonis Parker. If you obtain the Harriet Tubman Card in 2020, you can carry the card design for life.”

Forget about having the card for life, some people didn’t want it at all.

“Between that horrifically subpar film and the tacky Harriet Tubman debit card from One United Bank, Mother Tubman is probably ready to come back and free some of y’all up for an ass whoopin’ for Black History Month,” a social media user wrote on X.

Meanwhile, others didn’t mind it and were, in fact, proud of the card.

“Banking black feels so good and yes this Harriet Tubman VISA card gives me so much life! Thank you One United Bank,” another social media user commented.

Cultural Insights Strategist Tarya Weedon with Horowitz Research said companies need to “evolve and become more sophisticated in how they engage in Black History Month.”

“The message has to be more meaningful,” Weedon told The Daily Beast. “Overall, Black consumers want to see year-round action, beyond February.”

Adriana Waterston, the Insights and Strategy Lead at Horowitz Research, said companies need to do more than highlight figures of the past.

“There are real successful Black entrepreneurs, leaders, movers and shakers that are doing great stuff today,” she said. “We are not in a post-racial society yet in the United States of America. Far from it.”

Even though many speculated Tubman was down with the mythical culture of Wakanda due to the image on the debit card, OneUnited Bank said the freedom fighter is actually shown on the card saying “love” in American Sign Language.

Barnes & Noble

For Black History Month in 2020, Barnes & Noble had a New York City event planned that would showcase “Diverse Editions” of classic novels, featuring cover art with ethnically-diverse characters. Despite the characters on the outside cover being of color, nothing changed about the characters actually in the stories.

Critics accused the bookseller of promoting blackface and suggested that the company should’ve promoted Black writers instead.

“You’ve got to ask yourselves why you wanted to drive black engagement toward books by mostly white authors instead of choosing to drive white engagement toward classic books by black authors,” science fiction and fantasy writer Dianne Williams posted on social media.

“One of the most valuable, important things for brands to really understand about Black consumers is that we’re paying attention—all the time,” Weedon said. “We’re paying attention to who brands are including versus who they may be excluding in their ads or their content that they’re pushing out. We’re paying attention to whether or not they’re following through on their DEI commitment they made back in 2020 or 2021. But more importantly, we’re also paying attention to a company’s values and really how they align with our own social-political beliefs because, ultimately, those become the deciding factors of where we decide to spend our dollars.”

Barnes & Noble canceled the event and cleared the air about the company’s motive behind “Diverse Editions.”

“The covers are not a substitute for black voices or writers of color, whose work and voices deserve to be heard,” the company stated on X. “The booksellers who championed this initiative did so convinced it would help drive engagement with these classic titles. It was a project inspired by our work with schools and was created in part to raise awareness and discussion during Black History Month.”

According to amNY, books said to have received “diverse” covers to spark “discussion” included The Wizard of Oz, Frankenstein, and Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Gucci

Social media threw virtual tomatoes at Gucci in 2019 for releasing quite an insensitive sweater resembling blackface during Black History Month. The longsleeve, black sweater with an ultra-high neck featured an opening for the mouth that was outlined in bulbous red lips. The item was not featured specifically for February but the timing of it during Black History Month made the slight even worse.

Villarmàn said this is the type of blunder where the company needs to accept full responsibility and understand what went wrong.

“Then, there’s obviously a need to move forward with commitments to shifting and changing their products moving forward or their campaigns,” she told The Daily Beast.

Villarmàn added that if a company is truly committed to righting its wrong, it has to go beyond making an apology.

“Ideally, [the company is] doing something and sharing or communicating what they’re doing,” she said, adding that listening to consumers’ concerns is important. “Letting people know… maybe… what they’re learning in the process, and then also be transparent about some of the policy changes they’re making and how they’re moving forward.”

Following the backlash, Gucci released an apology for the “offense caused by the wool balaclava jumper.”

“We can confirm that the item has been immediately removed from our online store and all physical stores,” the luxury brand posted on X (formerly Twitter). “We consider diversity to be a fundamental value to be fully upheld, respected, and at the forefront of every decision we make.”

According to NPR, the hideous sweater sold for an amount just shy of $900.

Katy Perry Collections

Singer Katy Perry’s shoe line also came under fire for releasing a horrendous design that many likened to blackface. Following on the coattails of Gucci’s ill-timed kerfuffle, Katy Perry Collections did something similar by releasing a pair of loafers and sandals—which came in either black or tan—that had a face on the front of the shoe with large, red lips during Black History Month. People were not happy.

“Leave it to my girl Katy Perry to elevate the blackface game,” music critic Myke C. Town tweeted. “At least she chose to be inclusive and have blackface shoes as well as light-skinned face shoes.”

Weedon said Black consumers have “no problem” holding companies accountable that have been accused of offensive products or past marketing. She said consumers would see “right through” those companies if they attempted to make Black History Month campaigns.

Perry’s team said the singer was disheartened that the shoe was likened to blackface.

“Our intention was never to inflict any pain. We have immediately removed them,” the team told TMZ.

According to Perry’s team, the design on the shoes was supposed to represent “modern art and surrealism.” But a buyer didn’t have to bid at an art gallery to purchase them; the shoes could be found at Walmart.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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