Advertising While Black

Colonial coldness hisses past the aging air-conditioner and loops over
my head in perfect intervals I’ve learnt to anticipate. I’m sitting in yet
another advertising agency, my third in two years, and yet again I am guzzling
back toxicity in every form it could take. From the denialist paleness of whiteness
to the bizarre binaries of heteronormativity, the advertising industry in
Africa is built on the breaking backbone of marginalized people. Anti-blackness
is a global condition, one that has stuck its slithering tentacles into every
pie and in Namibia, a country desperate to uphold its glittery promises of
post-apartheid equality, the advertising industry has become a safe haven for
white privilege to thrive unhindered.

In advertising, blackness cannot exist outside the perimeters of racist
stereotypes. Creative brainstorming sessions are littered with jarring
regurgitations of problematic ideologies that are no doubt founded on outdated perceptions.
Blackness is labelled ‘urban’ and ‘street’ and without so much as a quick
inspection of context, emerging sub-cultures and language deviations (slang)
within the black community are commodified and used to spearhead tone-deaf
campaigns that do nothing for black people except perpetuate their
dehumanization. Informal settlements are used as location sites for the
production of high-end TV ads that glamourize and normalize poverty, a problem
that affects mainly black and brown people.

Advertisements that are targeted towards black people are considered ‘Lower
LSM’ (Living Standard Measure); these brands and their ads and are often guilty
of erasing black members of the LGBTQAI+ community, as well as disabled people
in the black community.

There is no accurate representation of diversity within the black community
in the advertising industry, not even in the agencies themselves.

For the few black creatives who land jobs at these hideously white
establishments, one can predict with precision that they will earn much less
than their white colleagues regardless of their qualifications. One can also
predict that black creatives will be subjected to microaggressions on a daily
basis on an almost fungal level. Black creatives are not afforded any real
humanity or autonomy in these work spaces. For instance, when I worked as a
copywriter, I would be expected to speak on behalf of all black people and come
up with ‘urban’ and ‘funky’ ways of saying basic things that really didn’t need
to be overtly peppered with blackness. I began to protest these suggestions and
maintain that retaining sensitivity to other people’s cultures would help us
find innovative ways to create brilliant ads that did not rely so heavily on
bigotry. This never went down well with the white creative heads that felt like
they were entitled to pick and choose what aspect of black African life they would
sell to consumers that day.

Being socially conscious and aware of the blatant inequalities and
gross power dynamics in advertising didn’t make for an easy or mentally
inspiring work environment. If anything, the constant reopening of racially
traumatic wounds nearly broke me. Whiteness washed over my blackness like
bleach. It ruined my hair, stained my clothes and smarted my skin into an empty
ivory shell. It is only in this way that I could exist in the advertising
industry as a queer black womxn…a washed out stoic version of myself that
existed only to pander to the detached insights of rich white people soaked in
the remnants of apartheid and white supremacy.

Living in Namibia, a country where the majority of people are black and
POC, one would imagine that white people living in Africa would be more sensitive
and aware of the needs of the people around them. In many ways, colonialism,
white supremacy and white privilege has allowed the exclusion of black people,
black women, black LGBTQAI+ and disabled black people from the advertising
industry. With black people often lacking social and financial capital, it is
difficult to analyze if true diversity will ever be accomplished in advertising
if black people and POC are not put in key positions that enable and empower
them to take over the narrative. But I’m not really holding my breath for the
day white people willingly dismantle their privilege and allow blackness an
equal creative platform.

Instead, in light of black exploitation, black erasure and caricatures
of an alleged black monolithic experience in the exclusively white advertising
industry, we (as black creatives) have alternatives. Rather than bake in the
rays of colonial splinters, we can undertake roles as the raconteurs of our stories
in creative and exclusive ways. Doing work for black owned brands that might be
struggling to penetrate a wider audience is always a great start. Conceptual
thinking, innovative design and brand marketing by extremely talented creatives
of color could catapult small brands into multi-million-dollar companies. This
act of radical selection when it comes to how we utilize our talents, and for
whom, could be a game changer. Black clientele pushing products for black
people could help us establish our own sphere of advertising that could
successfully dislodge itself from the cesspool of toxic whiteness.

Let’s begin to speak to other black people through our work in the advertising
industry – instead of at them - understanding that not everything about the
things that make up our culture needs to be commodified and sold, we are after
all, human. In a dizzy day dream under a baobab tree, I hope for a thoroughly
decolonized art and creative industry in Africa (and the world), one where
being black means more than just filling out a diversity quota.

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