Selfridges isn't ignoring our emails on purpose
The U.S. have pledged 15% towards greater POC representation – should the UK follow suit?
In early 2020, as demonstrations against racial profiling and police brutality erupted across America, Aurora James, founder of sustainable fashion brand Brother Vellies, created an online campaign called the “15 Percent Pledge” to help raise awareness of Black-own businesses and the importance of representation. The campaign states that, as Black Americans make up 15% of the country’s population, retail stores should pledge 15% of their shelf space to Black-owned brands. The pledge quickly went viral on Instagram, and James was profiled by Vogue magazine in June 2020, where she explained the origin and mission of the campaign.
James’ pledge – now a registered charity with its leading petition having accumulated thousands of signatures – began in the wake of the George Floyd protests, as many retail stores voiced their support for those who sought a conviction for the officers who arrested Floyd. However, vocal support alone does nothing to ensure a long-lasting change. For James and many others, the only way to adequately combat racial injustices was to open the doors for wider representation. As James asserted in Vogue:
“If they agreed to do that in a major way, which isn’t even that major—it’s kind of the bare minimum, in fact—then a whole ricochet effect could take place. Why not try?”.
A systematic shift
Through the campaign, James called upon Big Businesses to show up and show out for their Black communities. Less than two weeks later, Sephora became the first company to sign the pledge. Since then, online retailers such as Canadian-based Indigo, Rent the Runway, West Elm, Violet Grey, Heyday Skincare, Nox Shop, Who What Where, Threads Styling, and The Goods Mart have all pledged at least 15% of their shelf space to Black-owned brands.
Vogue magazine has also joined the 15 Percent Pledge to increase diversity within the company. James’ hope is that creating more space for black entrepreneurs in the business and entertainment sectors will contribute to a wider shift in the perception of Black Americans – working to both empower and protect Black communities.
Not just a U.S. problem
The success of the 15 Percent Pledge across the pond has inevitably led to challenging and often controversial conversations of race and representation over in the UK. While thousands of Britons joined in solidarity with the US-based “Black Lives Matter” movement, detractors echoed long-drawn dismissals of the Black-British experience. There is a pervasive idea that Britain exists as the height of civility and tolerance – that we, as a country, did away with the slave trade in 1807 and never looked back. But as any Black-British citizen can tell you, that’s far from true.
Black people make up 3% of the population of England and Wales, yet they represent 12% of the prison population; the last time a British police officer was charged for killing a black man was in 1971, a charge that was later reduced to manslaughter before being dropped entirely. Even at the very echelons of our academic institutions, there are only 25 black British female professors in UK universities – the smallest demographic of professors in terms of both race and gender.
However, perhaps the starkest reminded of the prevailing bias towards people of colour in Britain was the reaction to Sainsbury’s 2020 Christmas TV advertisement, which showed a black father and daughter talking over the phone and reminiscing over Christmas day. The ad was one of three slated for release by the retail giant, meant to promote diversity, and show the reality of living in a multicultural Britain. However, Sainsbury’s ultimately had to make a statement of solidarity with their black customers following a wave of online harassment and racist abuse. The hyperbolic reaction to Sainsbury’s ad demonstrates, more than anything, the ubiquity of racism both abroad and here at home in the UK.
A chance for a brighter future?
Despite the negative reactions of some Britons, Sainsbury’s statement on the racial backlash was met with near-universal support – from both everyday consumers and fellow retailers. Major super-market brands such as Aldi, Asda, Co-op, Iceland, Lidl, Marks & Spencer, Tesco, and Waitrose all ran their own adverts back-to-back during two primetime slots on Channel 4 shortly after Sainsbury’s Christmas ad, featuring the hashtag #StandAgainstRacism. Typically, direct competitors go out of their way to avoid running their adverts close together, and this small gesture of solidarity speaks towards a promising new practice.
If large market-holders are able and willing to take such a hard-line stance against intolerance, then surely it can only be a step in the right direction towards greater and more accurate representation for non-white Britons? Just as Aurora James’ 15 Percent Pledge called for big businesses to be held accountable for fair and even distribution of their shelf space, perhaps a similar initiative in the UK could prompt wider and more actionable change from our own retailers?
As mentioned, Black Britons make up around 3% of the population of Wales and England, however, in more diverse cities such as London black and ethnic minorities account for as high as 44% of the population (foury- four percent) . If we take a UK average of 23%, guidelines which allocate a corresponding percentage of shelf space to Black and ethnic business-owners could be a vital strategy in closing the racial and wealth gaps throughout the country and promote a more accurate picture of modern-day Britain. If we truly want to stand alongside our American counterparts – if we truly want to #StandAgainstRacism – then it’s surely time for our biggest and most powerful conglomerates to put their money where their mouth is.
Note from Michelle
I used to believe it was unnecessary and unfair to ask for 'special treatment'; I went to a 'good school', believed I was given equal opportunities and have, I'm ashamed to say, uttered
"but All Lives Matter" (to my children's horror) EVEN having lived in the States for a while. It was clear there, that equality was a figment of my imagination.
Amy, author of this blog post, from Stirling, Scotland, pointed out that maybe I, along with many black Brits, have a sense of pride at having to work smart and sometimes hard, don't want to wear a victim of the system tee shirt, don't want to make a fuss ... but the events of last summer (alongside the pandemic) has called for us all to look at the bigger picture.
Good friend Jessica H, founder of Colour Blind Cards put my son on her range of ethically diverse greeting cards, 12 years ago ... it still feels a bit risqué, there's something wrong with that.
I've come to realise, we're not asking for 'special treatment', just equal treatment.
I truly don't believe that when Selfridges ignores an email, they are thinking
"That's a black owned business, let's ignore this one" obviously that's not a thing; but with our eyes a little more open now, is it wrong to ask for more purposeful decision making?