The Big Business of Being an Ally

diagram: The antiracism industry is booming. Will it actually make us antiracist?

© Getty Images
The antiracism industry is booming. Will it actually make us antiracist?

The Big Business of Being an Ally

© Getty Images
The Big Business of Being an Ally

On May 29, Chrissy Rutherford set up her phone in her bedroom and pressed Record. A beauty and fashion expert with over 145,000 Instagram followers and a decade-long career working in fashion media (including at Hearst), she was accustomed to using social media to express herself. But this time was different. “I don’t know George Floyd and the many that came before him,” she said to the camera. “But understanding that someone has been murdered for having the same skin color I have, it’s a lot to deal with. And the last 36 hours, I’ve just felt so overwhelmed trying to process what’s happening.”

Rutherford, 34, described the physical toll the news was taking on her: stressed body, stiff neck, lack of sleep. She went on to explain the differences between covert and overt racism and stressed the importance of speaking out on social media, rather than letting the news cycle pass. “It’s not enough anymore to just be like, ‘I have good intentions. I’m not racist.’ You need to actually take the time to educate yourselves to be antiracist. And that’s where white people are falling short right now,” she told her followers. “Antiracism is the name of the game right now. And that’s it.”

As the video racked up millions of views, Rutherford began to receive a flood of DMs, texts, and calls from non-Black friends and acquaintances in the fashion world, most of whom were unsure of how to proceed on social media during such a critical moment. They needed guidance on continuing to live life online in a way that was both tactful and impactful. And many of their peers had made missteps they wanted to avoid. “A lot of influencers I’m friends with—and these are top girls—were all blowing up my phone, wanting to get my advice,” Rutherford tells me. “ ‘Should I post? What should I say?’”

Chrissy Rutherford et al. posing for the camera: Chrissy Rutherford (left) and Danielle Prescod, photographed in Brooklyn in October. On Rutherford: Belted dress, Thebe Magugu. Sandals, Brother Vellies. Her own Bychari hoop earrings. On Prescod: Sweater and skirt, Victor Glemaud. Earrings, Mateo. Rings, Almasika. Boots, Brother Vellies.

© Makeda Sandford
Chrissy Rutherford (left) and Danielle Prescod, photographed in Brooklyn in October. On Rutherford: Belted dress, Thebe Magugu. Sandals, Brother Vellies. Her own Bychari hoop earrings. On Prescod: Sweater and skirt, Victor Glemaud. Earrings, Mateo. Rings, Almasika. Boots, Brother Vellies.

Her close friend Danielle Prescod—a 32-year-old Black woman with a large following and a long career in fashion and beauty—was in a similar position. The two had spent years trying to advocate for Black representation in fashion and beauty, often struggling to make their voices heard. But during this summer’s Black Lives Matter uprising, there was a widespread social media reckoning that pressured many, from giant corporations to small brands, from influencers to civilians, to finally publicly grapple with racism in themselves, in their companies, and in society as a whole. Overnight, everyone needed to “do the work”—a call for antiracist education and action that became so widespread it felt like a cliché within weeks. But the reality was that most couldn’t do the work alone—they needed help trying to figure things out.

“Danielle and I were DMing each other, commiserating over how everyone was coming to us and it was overwhelming,” Rutherford says. They wanted to help disseminate antiracist messaging, but they couldn’t exactly spend all their waking hours giving friends free advice—reviewing statements, offering up antiracist resources, gut-checking content. She and Prescod had a mutual epiphany: “We need to teach them—and charge them.”

The ideals of equality and social justice, along with bursts of activism in the wake of police brutality, are not new. But after the murder of George Floyd, something shifted dramatically. With tens of millions of people unemployed, and much of the country sitting at home in quarantine with little to do besides check social media and read the news—and with a presidential election rapidly approaching—there was an unprecedented collective opportunity. And it was not just police brutality that drew attention; the downstream effects had implications across every professional and social dynamic. Criminal justice reform, workplace discrimination, the pay gap, and hiring practices that systemically disadvantage Black Americans, to start. There were also more abstract issues to consider: representation of Black people in advertising and pop culture; tokenization in media; and more covert expressions of racism, like microaggressions, tone policing, and spiritual bypassing.

shape, rectangle: words to live byy

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words to live byy

If you looked, there was more and more evidence of underhanded or overt racism to be found—and people were keeping track. Spreadsheets began to circulate, tracking how major brands or businesses had responded to George Floyd’s death. For some, there was a deafening silence. Others drew ire by making statements so vague as to be meaningless. Predominantly white industries and non-Black individuals were compelled not just to coast on the assumption that they couldn’t possibly be racist, but to provide proof that they were proactively investing in an antiracist society. And to do so, they needed professional assistance.

America’s economy is crumbling, but the business of allyship is booming. Antiracism, once just a passive stance, has become both an aspiration and an outlet for ambition—for some, it is yet another realm in which to prove one can excel in a self-improvement-driven culture. “I don’t think there’s ever been this kind of outpouring from millions of people in this country to acknowledge, ‘Hey, I really don’t know enough about racism.’ I don’t think there’s ever been millions of people within a compressed amount of time saying ‘Yes, I am willing to do some of this work,’ ” says Crystal Marie Fleming, PhD, a professor of sociology and Africana studies at SUNY Stony Brook and the author of How to Be Less Stupid About Race. In June, she saw her book sales soar and received an influx of media and public speaking requests—an exciting turn of events that also felt overwhelming, given the emotional turbulence she was experiencing as a result of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others.

Fleming was not alone in the increased spotlight she gained as Black Lives Matter activity ramped up. Publications began producing lists of Black-owned businesses to patronize. By late June, the New York Times best-seller list was dominated by titles about race. Print editions of How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi and White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo (who is a white woman) were sold out, with readers eager to post photos of their new reading materials on social media. If they wanted to get more serious, they could pay for an elective training program.

The antiracist educator Monique Melton, for example, offers an antiracism 101 course ($97 for five audio lessons), a 12-week interactive online course ($3,500), and a four-day in-person antiracism intensive. Her Instagram following jumped from 17,000 to 220,000 in a single week. “I would refresh, and it would be another thousand every couple of minutes. It was overwhelming,” Melton says. The prominent antiracist educator Rachel Cargle offers a sliding-scale model for access to The Great Unlearn, her program dedicated to deconstructing historical narratives and relearning them through the eyes of educators of color.

For those with less time or a limited budget, there were hundreds of free spreadsheets and documents filled with antiracist resources being passed around on social media. More inventive initiatives began to sprout up, too, like a new program from the text message–based platform The Nudge. For $5, participants could sign up for something called The Ally Nudge, a monthlong antiracism education program developed in collaboration with longtime diversity and inclusion consultant Akilah Cadet. During its first month, over 10,000 people signed up for The Ally Nudge in 1,700 cities.

Even Black people who previously hadn’t been positioned as formal educators were suddenly receiving an influx of attention: “Chrissy and I both got this surge of followers in June,” Prescod says. “Because people realized they weren’t following anyone Black.” As Patia Borja, who compiled a popular antiracist resource guide, said in a podcast interview, social media suddenly began to feel like “America’s Next Top Ally.”

Cadet says she has spent the last five years advising leaders at major corporations on how to make their workforce more “diverse” and “inclusive.” Before May, those were the kinds of neutered, corporate-friendly terms she needed to use. To many white higher-ups at the companies she worked with, concepts like antiracism and dismantling white supremacy were too confrontational. Cadet says she even struggled to suggest that workplaces should foster a sense of belonging for all their employees.

Then, everything changed. “On May 27, there was an influx of requests, saying ‘What can we do?’ ” Cadet says. “What you saw, which was really fascinating, was a lot of big brands and companies saying ‘Dismantle white supremacy.’ Or ‘Being part of the problem, we need to change our leadership. Black lives matter.’ ” Cadet quickly made some revisions to the language she uses. “I was able to put ‘antiracism’ on my website,” she says. And now “when people are interested in engaging and putting together a contract, I’m bringing up white supremacy and antiracism.”

Not only did brands understand there were new standards of accountability on social media, Cadet says, but “a lot of these companies are recognizing the importance of the Black dollar, the $1.3 trillion that Black people spend.” Emily Heyward, a cofounder and chief brand officer of the branding and business development company Red Antler—responsible for the brand identities of Casper and Allbirds—says that antiracism must be part of the DNA of any new brand or company. “Every human, every business in America is playing a role in social justice,” Heyward says. “I would put antiracism more in the category of something like sustainability. Part of launching a modern business is caring about sustainability, and it is also looking at your own hiring processes.”

a close up of a woman: Danielle Prescod, a 32-year-old with a long career in fashion and beauty, hosts antiracism seminars with her friend and fellow fashion and beauty expert, Chrissy Rutherford. Dress, Victor Glemaud. Earrings, Mateo.

© Makeda Sandford
Danielle Prescod, a 32-year-old with a long career in fashion and beauty, hosts antiracism seminars with her friend and fellow fashion and beauty expert, Chrissy Rutherford. Dress, Victor Glemaud. Earrings, Mateo.

Within a week of Rutherford posting her viral antiracism video, she and Prescod had their first brand clients. Soon they launched a weekly antiracism seminar, geared toward fashion and beauty influencers. For $300—a third of which is donated to a Black charity—an influencer could participate in a two-hour Zoom call that was part race studies class, part consciousness-raising course, part career coaching session. “It is very much tailored to the influencer space, [essentially showing] them how they have benefited from and upheld the standards of white supremacy,” Rutherford says.

Each session is divided into two parts. First, there’s an hour-long presentation about race and antiracism. “We give tips for navigating conversations around race, and tips on how to hold brands accountable. We talk about how to be a good ally,” Rutherford explains. The second hour is a Q&A during which participants are invited to ask everything from broad theoretical concerns about race to tactical, targeted queries about social media. “We’ll get questions like, ‘How do I apologize without making it about myself? How do I navigate this, balance my normal content with my activist content?’ ” Rutherford says.

Katie Sturino, a body acceptance advocate and founder of the cult skin care brand Megababe, had known Rutherford and Prescod personally for years. When she saw that they were doing seminars, she quickly enrolled. “My main goals in attending were to listen and learn on behalf of both myself and my business,” she tells me. “I read all of my comments and DMs, and I receive a lot of feedback. But you have to be careful about how you value, interpret, and act upon that feedback. Chrissy and Danielle talked about what voices to listen to, and that resonated with me.”

There was even interest from outside the U.S., from influencers who wanted to get a better grasp of what was happening in America. “Since I don’t live in the U.S., hearing what is going on firsthand was very important for me,” says Xenia Adonts, the founder of Paris-based clothing brand Attire The Studio, who has 1.5 million followers. “Of course, Europe is not very different; we have similar challenges with racism and the systemic disadvantages faced by minorities. As a white, privileged girl, it’s easy to overlook those issues.”

Of course, participating in an antiracism seminar may give influencers a line of defense against their worst fears: cancellation and public shame. “Shame is a powerful motivator,” Prescod admits. In the early Zoom seminars, when dozens of major brands and influencers were being publicly called out, anxiety levels were high. “Most influencers and brands are pretty paranoid about the potential that they might get canceled,” Prescod says. “This is the largest anxiety we see: how to avoid cancellation, what to do if you get called out, how to respond, and how to apologize.”

“For a lot of these girls,” Rutherford says, “it’s the first time they’re really even considering the privilege they have.” Paying $300 for tutelage was certainly a start. The bigger question was whether they—along with all the businesses and individuals newly awakened—could continue to absorb the lessons beyond the Instagrammable moment. “These seminars give us a formal place to ask questions, listen, and learn in a way that is far from casual conversations,” Sturino says. “[But] I know the burden is on me to continue learning.”

People have been listening and learning for decades in a way that hasn’t always led to meaningful change. The business of diversity, allyship, anti-bias—whatever you want to call it—has cycled through many waves as corporate America has woken up, fallen back asleep, and reawakened. Bias and diversity training took prominence in the late 1990s and 2000s, after a spate of discrimination lawsuits required major financial firms to shell out hundreds of millions of dollars. (In 2013, Bank of America Merrill Lynch alone paid out $160 million to settle a race discrimination suit.) Shaken by the idea of such massive payouts, companies began to expand diversity initiatives. Anti-bias training became de rigueur at seemingly every corporation in America (training that, this summer, many corporations refreshed, made mandatory, or overhauled).

Yet these initiatives did not result in meaningful change in boardroom representation. A landmark study in 2016 in the Harvard Business Review by Frank Dobbin, PhD, professor of sociology at Harvard University, and Alexandra Kalev, PhD, associate professor of sociology at Tel Aviv University, found exactly the opposite. “It turns out that while people are easily taught to respond correctly to a questionnaire about bias, they soon forget the right answers,” they noted. “The positive effects of diversity training rarely last beyond a day or two.”

This year, a few months removed from the surge in antiracism, some educators have already noticed deflated levels of commitment. “People are on to talking about blueberry muffins,” Melton says. “It was an eight-week time span of demand. And now it’s like, ‘Oh, we’ve checked that box.’ ”

According to Dobbin and Kalev’s research, companies that institute diversity training to avoid lawsuits found that “force feeding” employees could actually activate bias, thwarting progress. What does show lasting impact are programs that spark engagement, increase contact among different groups, and draw upon people’s desire to look good to others. Voluntary behavior—like the elective reading so many have sought out since June—may also impact attitudes long term. “We tend to respond more favorably when we believe we have agency,” Fleming says. “When we feel we have an opportunity to learn, but we’re not being forced to view the world in a particular way.”

Chrissy Rutherford standing posing for the camera: By July, Rutherford (pictured) and Prescod had received so much interest that they formalized their antiracism training, launching a new business called 2BG (Two Black Girls) Consulting. Belted dress, Thebe Magugu. Sandals, Brother Vellies. Her own Bychari hoop earrings.

© Makeda Sandford
By July, Rutherford (pictured) and Prescod had received so much interest that they formalized their antiracism training, launching a new business called 2BG (Two Black Girls) Consulting. Belted dress, Thebe Magugu. Sandals, Brother Vellies. Her own Bychari hoop earrings.

Prescod and Rutherford note that once their influencer clients have acknowledged the social justice movement publicly, many have asked, “How do I go back to my regular content?” “Even for girls who’ve taken our course, it resonates with them in the immediate moment, but it doesn’t really have the long tail we’d hoped it would,” Prescod says. “It isn’t like there’s an expiration date on this,” Rutherford adds. “Sure, they don’t need to be posting 10 slides on antiracism for the rest of eternity. But you know, make sure you’re doing the right things. Build relationships with Black creators.”

But some newer elective programming that offers a starting point for a more sustained mindset might be more effective than stodgy corporate versions. By July, Prescod and Rutherford had received so much interest that they formalized their antiracism training, launching a new business called 2BG (Two Black Girls) Consulting. Even if the changes spurred by the post–George Floyd activist movement do not prove to be long-lasting, at least Black educators are being paid for their work. Three months after they began, Prescod and Rutherford are still conducting Zoom antiracism seminars. They now also offer a version for noninfluencers at a discounted rate of $75.

One Friday in August, Prescod and Rutherford hold their first noninfluencer seminar. They begin the class by addressing 21 women on camera. They share a slick PowerPoint primer on racism and antiracism: They discuss the terms and offer a set of dos and don’ts for social media and beyond, folding in personal anecdotes. Crucially, they also give examples of brands and influencers who’ve gotten it right, and wrong.

After about an hour, it’s time to pass the mic to the students. Most questions are not about these attendees’ own racism. Many need help navigating racist circumstances at work, or they want to help guide colleagues or family members. One woman says her company decided to feature a number of Black creators on their social media in June, only to receive backlash from non-Black clients. “Is it best to just ignore them, and write them off as racist?” she asks. Prescod advises her to respond to these clients openly, explaining why they were taking the initiatives and saying “We hope you’ll join us.”

Many women preface their inquiries by apologizing for asking “a really dumb question.” “Nothing is too dumb. This is a safe space,” Rutherford assures them. Then Prescod chimes in: “We literally had someone ask why it’s not okay to say All Lives Matter.” The group laughs, comfortable in their collective understanding of why this was actually a dumb question.

After one query about dealing with racist colleagues, Prescod gives the group—a collection of obviously earnest, well-meaning women—a disclaimer. “I would not encourage anyone to do something that is going to put your job in danger,” she says. “It’s almost not worth it. One day you might have the power to hire whomever you want. But it doesn’t sound right now like they’re receptive to noticing where they have blind spots.

“Some of the antiracism work has to be recognizing the limitations you have,” she continues. The relief among the group is palpable, as if they’ve been told they can relax for a moment, and that the future of racial justice in America does not lie squarely on their shoulders.

As the class winds down, one woman asks a tricky question. She’s in charge of a campaign at work featuring creators of color, and feels it’s necessary to get feedback from a colleague of color on another team. In other words, she wants to ask the lone Black person to do extra unpaid work. “When is it appropriate to ask a person of color their opinion on something?” she asks. Prescod and Rutherford take a long pause. After all, doing the work of antiracism doesn’t mean shifting more work onto Black people. Unless you’re paying them, that is. “It sounds like your company should hire us,” Rutherford says. “Because that’s what we do.”

This story appears in the December/January 2021 issue of ELLE.

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