The heart of BEE is our own minds
by Jarred Cinman (@jarredcinman) This piece is not for people who are outraged by black economic empowerment (BEE) or who actively believe that black people do not deserve any kind of redress. Those people aren’t even in the starting blocks. They require both a history lesson and a serious examination of their conscience. This piece is for those who desire transformation but for whom it keeps feeling just out of reach.
Needs to be said
What I’m going to say is going to make a lot of people uncomfortable. In discussions of race, this is inevitable — but it needs to be said, anyway.
I write this under the shadow of another race-driven debate, namely that of the recent Jacques Pauw book and the reactions of so-called “Black Twitter”, some of whom have accused him of racism and conflating blackness with corruption. This is no place to debate such things but I mention it because it bears noticing how rapidly and easily issues of race emerge in this country. It is a lens that demands wearing and it colours many situations in our shared lives.
Like the men who have stepped up to acknowledge their role in harbouring (or being) sexual aggressors, I need to step up to acknowledge my complicity in perpetuating a lack of opportunity and recognition for black people in the advertising business. That there is nothing deliberate or intentional in my actions doesn’t change the truth. I was born with white privilege and it has shaped my life and benefited me every day that I’ve been alive.
BEE — for me — is a structured way of trying to right some of the wrongs committed in this country. However, it can only ever redress the visible signs of prejudice and disadvantage. The real problem is deep in our psyches. The most dangerous form of racism is the subtle kind, the kind that escapes even your own contemplation. There is a test you can do online that detects hidden prejudice — toward women, Jews, black people and other historically oppressed groups. It’s sobering to take because even I, who has tried to eradicate my prejudice for my entire adult life, scores the same as the less enlightened.
The real BEE problem
And so we come to the real BEE problem. Not changing your company or your practices, but changing your mind.
It starts with acknowledging the trap that we’re all in. Raised apart, with different languages and cultures, but thrown together in artificial communities we call workplaces. My company’s formal time (meetings, work areas and so forth) looks like a beautiful New South African utopia. Informal time (lunch or Friday drinks) looks like relics from a segregated past. There is little overt racism in this. People have nothing against each other. When I speak to people in the business, they tell me that in downtime they want to speak to people with whom they have a lot in common, who get where they come from and share their life experiences. It is sad to see that, even in 2017, comfort rarely crosses racial lines.
There is real work to be done in breaking through this very natural and human response. It can’t be as saccharine as diversity training and forced team-building. But, as business owners, we do need to create shared spaces and new memories that break down biases.
Next, you have to confront your own privilege. This is a complex matter because privilege is not unique to white people. These days a lot of black people have grown up across the class line with as much wealth and opportunity as any white person. But — sadly — the affinity between class and race mostly holds; if you’re white, you have a near zero probability of living in Alexandra or Tembisa or Soweto and relying on minibus taxis for transport.
My father was a working-class man by any country’s standards; he fixed trucks, didn’t have much education and never found great success. Still, I lived in a comfortable home in a tree-lined street, my family always had two cars and were within easy driving distance of shops, parks and schools. When I wanted to go to university, I was able to access bursary funds without much trouble — and always had enough money to support myself over those years. I don’t feel like I came from privilege — but the truth is I did. My parents got jobs that black people couldn’t get for no reason other than their skin colour. We had a network of other people who could help in a myriad ways — and that network was extended when I went to university and started my own career. I have worked in this industry for over 20 years and made few close black friends. As a corollary, black people never made a close friend of me.
No-one wants to feel that you are a product of unfairness. Even people who inherit billions want to believe (I’m sure) that they are legitimately wealthy. If not, they would — and sometimes do — give their money away. And so people who are the products of privilege want to fight that label. Apartheid is over, no-one blocks the progress of black people anymore — in fact they now have an advantage when going into the job market.
This is just not true — and the ad industry, as with so many others, must come to accept that. By extension each person in this industry must come to accept that. When you’re sitting around a senior meeting surrounded by only white people, that’s not because everyone had a fair shot and the white people just happened to win.
This kind of prejudice is hard to beat. Being able to understand how your background, language and experience gives you an advantage, and how someone else’s holds them back, is of paramount importance. Gaining an understanding of those details is a product of deep introspection and a lot of engagement in uncomfortable and awkward conversation. But there is no substitute.
Lastly, you have to be willing to make sacrifices. When people who have stuff hear about a group that wants to take it away from them, they get nervous. Nationalisation scares people because it’s stupid and will fail, but it also scares them because they worry that their things are going to get taken. Ex-Zimbabweans are rightly horrified by the Mugabe regime’s redistribution of land and plunging of the country into destitution; but they are also just angry that they lost their stuff.
No-one wants less. If you have a nice car and a nice house and opportunity to travel and enjoy fine food and wine, you don’t want that to end. The great fear in the middle class — and the wealthy class — is that, by sharing more equally, we will lose what we have.
When poor people — and let’s face it, they are disproportionately also black people — talk about changing the economic environment, what they mean is: we have too little, and it’s unfair. And while pure capitalists want to cling to the notion that everyone has a chance to fight their way out of the swamp and into the big leagues, there are real structural disadvantages that prohibit it.
Humanity hasn’t invented a good economic system that prioritises fairness and equality. The current system is concentrating wealth in a tiny number of hands. That’s also not something one can fix in one business or one country or one year. But, at the heart of BEE, and at the heart of non-racism (and all the other nons), is a willingness to sacrifice some of what you have so that others may also thrive. This attaches to everything from what one’s pays one’s staff to how you help people advance their careers, who is promoted, and who isn’t, and many other things.
Long way to go
None of this is simple. What is clear is that we all have to burst the bubbles we’re living in. There are many voices out there in the world — and in here in our own businesses — that are saying enough is enough. It’s time to actively support people of colour, the disabled, LGBTQ, women, religious minorities and so on. Their anger is palpable and the opportunity is clear. If you want to win in advertising or any other business, you have to figure out how to decode your own predispositions and become truly inclusive.
I have a long way to go. And, BEE Level 1 or not, so does my business. I hope I can change enough in the remaining years of my career to see the real transformation happen. And I hope the industry that I love and which has been so generous to me can change with me.
- Jarred Cinman:
- Khethiwe Makhubo:
- Lynn Madeley:
- TJ Njozela:
- Big Q Transformation series:
- Mxolisi Goodman Buthelezi: Transformation isn’t dancing for chicken, airtime or policies
- Monalisa Sibongile Zwambila: Transformation needs buy-in on the demand side
- Grant Sithole: Transformation — the proverbial workhorses have bolted
- Zibusiso Mkhwanazi: Transformation — clients must take road less travelled
- Masego Motsogi: What we need to achieve true transformation
- Sbu Sitole: Concept of transformation not embraced by our industry
- Ahmed Tilly: “Some” transformation is simply not good enough
- Ivan Moroke: Transformation apartheid plagues SA ad agencies
Jarred Cinman (@jarredcinman) is a longstanding member of the South African digital industry, having founded one of the first professional web service firms, VWV, in 1995 and the chair of the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) South Africa until 2016. These days, Jarred is co-chief operating officer at VML Y&R Africa Group.
“Motive” is a by-invitation-only column on MarkLives.com. Contributors are picked by the editors but generally don’t form part of our regular columnist lineup, unless the topic is off-column.