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How Brands Can Go From Performative Allyship to Actual Allies

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October 21, 2020 7 min read

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

In these times of divisive politics, social unrest, and massive protesting, brands are taking note and including more diversity in their messaging. Many businesses are putting out social messages that are intended to show allyship, but if we were to look deeper, we’d find that many of these brands don’t have the internal organization or actions to align with their messaging.

This is called Performative Allyship. Essentially, performative allyship is when you “talk the talk” but don’t “walk the walk.”

Brands and businesses know the power of marketing and intentionally creating positive social perceptions. But brands should be careful when pushing out these messages. They can create a false perception that weakens a ’s trust and respect amongst their clients.

Of course, there is power in sharing diversity messaging. I leverage that power in my own business messaging. But I think there’s an opportunity for brands that want to jump on the bandwagon to jump mindfully. Here’s how you can be more intentional about your diversity messaging to avoid the pitfalls of performative allyship. 

What is performative allyship anyway?  

After May 25th, the unfortunate and iconic day when George Floyd was killed, it seemed like everyone felt a sense of urgency to do something and say something to be on the right side of justice.

Brands and organizations started to catch on to the social justice conversations happening in the business world and society as a whole. People all over the states started seeing changes. Buildings were renamed, statues came down, murals went up, and of course, brands started changing their messaging and marketing.

Related: 5 Ways Entrepreneurs of Color Can Determine an Ally’s Authenticity

Don’t get me wrong — nothing in and of itself is bad about that. But the conversation I want to start awakening people to is about the pros, cons, and considerations you should be having when messaging in support of DEI and allyship. You and your business should avoid “performing” in the public space and not doing the work internally.

In DEI, there is no such thing as a perfect response or piece of writing to address racism. It’s more a reflection of what you’ve done prior to that and more importantly, what you’re going to do after the fact.

It’s important to realize that when organizations or businesses make a public statement, whether internal or external, they are in essence inviting people to hold them accountable. The whole world can now scrutinize the actions of their past, how their business operates internally, the culture they’ve created, and how they will continue to act in the public eye.

This year, may have felt like they needed to act with a knee jerk reaction so they would be perceived as being on the right side. However, many people are seeing through brands who do not “walk the walk”. People are seeing the inauthenticity of certain brands as being performative in nature. Leaders must realize there are implications and consequences that come with performative allyship. 

What are the issues for my business if I engage in performative allyship?

Performative allyship can weaken trust and in your business. Not only can it be hurtful for communities of color, it can also put the messaging into a context that can feel like your business is tossing some money at the diversity issues and hoping they will go away.

Related: The Supreme Court’s Ruling on LGBTQ+ Workplace Protections …

When people see performative allyship, they feel like you might be avoiding the hard and important work. This performative work can feel good on the surface and give us a glimpse of hope, because there’s some level of solidarity. But at the end of the day, those of us who care about DEI work are left wondering where the deep work is and what practical steps are present to help us dismantle systemic racism.

As entrepreneurs who care about DEI, we don’t want this work to be window dressing or simply checking a box. We don’t want it to be a costume for the actual problems at hand. We want to see society emerge stronger and not repeat the injustices of the past. We want organizations to align their words with their actions. We want our businesses to act and communicate with integrity and credibility.

Brands are making a fatal mistake with performative allyship. It’s about intent versus impact. Just because you didn’t intend for something to land a certain way shouldn’t mean others have to suffer the consequences. Insensitive DEI messaging can result in negative word of mouth, poor response from the market, or people boycotting your business.

What can you do to be an actual ally?

Here are some tips for brands to become actual allies and avoid performative allyship.

  • Count the cost. Before you feel it appropriate to write a statement, make a verbal pledge, or change your messaging, you need to “count the cost” and know what it means to deliver upon it. In other words, dig into the work or consult with a DEI specialist to see what being aligned with diversity, equity, and inclusion work will cost you, your team, and your business. Analyze your resources so you can live up to the DEI messaging you want to enact.
  • Do an internal evaluation. It’s particularly important to evaluate your DEI efforts through the lens of the leadership team. You must think through what will help your business have a strong, solid foundation upon which success can occur around DEI. Ask yourself and your team questions such as:
    • Are you actually ready for DEI work?
    • Do you have the infrastructure to support it?
    • Do you have the capital to support it?
    • Do you have processes in place to drive sustainable change?
    • Are you doing an assessment to gather important data to inform the path forward?
  • Have a readiness conversation and conduct an assessment. To build upon the last point, I encourage brands and leaders to ask questions around the Meyer’s DEI Spectrum Tool 12 Dimensions of DEI work. These 12 dimensions include assessing policies, leadership, infrastructure, training, and more. This assessment includes seeing if you’ve done the hard work of having those conversations to see why you are doing this work, analyzing the business case for it, and ensuring there is alignment for vision across leadership. 
  • Create systems for equity and justice. If you want to empower Brown and Black people, ask yourself, do you have systems in place for that? Even if your proposed systems are small in stature, make sure you can deliver on them—if not, then don’t market it. After analyzing and assessing, you can consult with DEI professionals to create these systems and implement these ideals for external messaging.
  • Avoid being woke-washed. People want to support brands they feel really are “woke” and not “woke washed”. They want to support brands who are actually aligned with their values and are doing the hard work. Ben & Jerry’s is a great example of a brand that is woke and working towards justice in the world. They were demonstrating allyship well before the death of George Floyd and continued to support DEI efforts afterward. They earned the trust of their audience and avoided the pitfalls of being superifically woke-washed. In other words, they talked the talk and walked the walk.

When you are aligned, prepared, and honest about the messaging you wish to share, you will be taking critical steps towards actual allyship.

As we move forward into the world and more racial and social equity issues show up (because they will), make sure to dig deep and truly do the work to avoid any performative allyship.

Make sure you can back your messaging up with the systems, culture, and infrastructure change in your organization that creates actual impact. Make sure you are actually doing the allyship work to help you and your business contribute to a more just and equitable world.

Related: Be Intentional About Diversity

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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.

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The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.

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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.

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The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.

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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.

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As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

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