The murder of George Floyd and the protests that followed have highlighted racial disparities in every corner of our society. In this month's blog post, Diverse founder, Anita Thorpe, looks at the greeting card industry and gives her view on the under-representation of Black cards - and Black people - in the sector.
A couple of weeks ago, I received a phone call from one of the greeting card trade publications. They wanted to know what I planned to ‘do’ in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests and what I thought the industry should be doing. I replied that I would be doing what I had always done: selling cards that reflect the diversity of the area in which I do business. I added that I thought the industry needed to take a long, hard look at itself and have the difficult conversation about its fear of selling cards that depict Black people. I then politely ended the call because I have been having this conversation with people in the industry for 20 years and I'm tired of not seeing any significant change.What prompted me to actually sit down and write about this was two Instagram posts I saw immediately afterwards – both from Black-owned card companies that supply us. In the first, illustrator, @nicolalespeare, described her dismay at being in a high street store that sold over 200 different cards and not one featured a Black image.
In another post, Naomi Robinson, book illustrator and the owner of @nyha_graphics, described the appalling way she is treated when pitching for wholesale accounts, and the way customers of colour are dismissed as a potential market by white-owned businesses.
The situation is no better for white creatives who produce cards that depict Black people. Here’s a recent Instagram post by @jostevensoncreative who is also one of our suppliers.
Why Don’t You Want To Serve Your Communities?
Good question. I always thought that business was about knowing your customer and providing products and services that meet their needs. Apparently not when it comes to customers who want cards that portray Black people. It’s not uncommon to go into card and gift shops in areas that have Black communities of 30% or more and not see a single card that depicts a Black character, yet these shops have Black people - and other people of colour - as customers.
A quick poll of my Black suppliers who have been rejected by some of these shops (which are often in areas with a diverse population) revealed the following reasons given by white shop owners/buyers:
‘There’s no market for it.’
‘Customers don’t ask for black cards’
‘They don’t fit with the rest of the stock we have in-store’
‘Do we really need multicultural cards?’
‘We don’t see colour.'
For me, all this is about more than having concerns that products you invest in won’t sell. The consistency of my suppliers' experiences shows a definite pattern among white shop owners. It's an almost a paranoid fear of being faced with material that depicts Black people, as if somehow it ‘taints’ their business or says something negative about it. Once, a white gift shop owner actually told me that he didn't stock Black cards because he didn't want to send out the 'wrong message' about his shop. I was too shocked to ask him what he meant.
I believe these objections reflect deeper reservations about interacting with Black people based on racist stereotypes, and an ignorance of, or wilful disinterest in, the racial dynamics of the unequal society in which we live. Consequently, Black people are invisible to the industry as customers, potential employees, skilled creative professionals, suppliers and credible entrepreneurs.
I also think there's a real fear of upsetting white customers who are offended by any image that is not white and who, weirdly, see Black cards as somehow being racist. Witness the white backlash against the Tory party's recent Fathers Day advert that featured a Black father and son. I've heard 'well-meaning' white liberals also object to Black cards, on the grounds that they're divisive!
These racist dynamics don’t just occur on the shop floor; they happen behind the scenes as well. Black suppliers often tell me of the discomfort white shop owners exhibit when they approach them, clearly ill at ease with their offer. I have heard more than once how white shop owners might place a small order but then not display the stock or ask suppliers to include white people in their imagery, or as Georgina Fihosy of @afrotouchdesign was once asked, make their cards 'less ethnic'.
Naomi Robinson of @nyha-graphics, describes how very few white buyers engage with her when she’s on her exhibition stand at trade shows but will happily chat away to her white colleague when she's not around.
Selling is hard for most suppliers but these experiences aren’t merely awkward; they’re demeaning and soul destroying.
Research has found that Black and minority ethnic people in the UK have a combined spending power of around £300 billion, and rising. I know from experience that a fair chunk of that change goes on cards. We have celebratory occasions just like the rest of the non-Black population and card-giving is still a very strong tradition in our communities. Cards that depict Black people are not only more appealing to many of us, they acknowledge us as consumers and the also fact that we are three-dimensional human beings with lives, relationships, personalities and feelings. It's important for the whole community to see this - not just Black people. As Lydia Amoah, author of The Black Pound Report puts it: ‘Representation not only educates, it positively informs and affects how a nation thinks, feels and behaves towards Black and minority ethnic groups’.
It’s also interesting to note that cards depicting Black people appeal to white people and people of other ethnicities too. They buy these cards for their Black friends, Black colleagues and Black family members – or simply because they like the images. So the common justification for not selling Black cards - ‘We don't have any black customers’ - simply doesn’t hold up.
Consumers of all backgrounds are making purchasing choices more consciously and in line with their values. For many, that includes a growing appreciation of the diversity of our society, and not wanting to live in an environment in which there is racial disparity, injustice and tension. As we move forward, I believe that more and more people will choose to spend money with businesses that reflect those values and aspirations, and move away from those that don’t.
Forces For Change
So what can be done to change things? Well, if change is to be long-term and sustained, it needs action from all sides.
Trade bodies and trade publications can use their platforms and influence to have the conversation about Black under-representation in the sector, explain the business case for change and advise on action their members can take. They also need to take a look at themselves and be good role models of diversity for their membership.
Buyers and publishing houses need to review their offer, purchasing policies, hiring and commissioning for diversity. A good place to start would be to take the 15% Pledge and commit to buying 15% of their products and services from Black-owned businesses.
Consumers: call it out, ask for what you want and if you don’t see change, protest with your wallet and take your business somewhere else, like you would for any other purchase. There are hundreds of Black card suppliers online, selling cards of all genres.
What is your experience when shopping for cards of colour or trying to pitch your Black cards to white buyers or shop owners? Perhaps you're a white shop owner or consumer - what's you view on this issue? Please feel free to leave a comment below.
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