Too Black for Black Friday

When you run up against intractable racism as an advertising copywriter and realize enough is enough.

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I make my living as a writer, and as such, I pride myself on versatility. You need a profile piece? Done. Gift guide? Easy. Brand distillation? On it. I even cofounded and edited a print magazine during my free time. But it's the corporate copywriting projects that pay the bills, ones that require a bit of ingenuity and a lot of endurance. That is to say, rarely are you asked to reinvent the wheel; instead, you are asked to sell the wheel at 50 percent off, for a limited time only, plus free shipping. And then do it again the week after that, except with different copy. Repeat ad nauseam.

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It's an acquired taste, but it's steady work, and I can typically do it from home, which I assumed might distance me from some of the nonsense I tend to encounter in overwhelmingly white workplaces. This has turned out to be a false assumption. Once, I made the mistake of replying to an inquiry over Skype by saying "hmmm" as I mulled over a coworker's question. "Lol," she replied. "I'm picturing you rolling your neck as you said that …" I chose to remain calm that day, even as my blood boiled, even as she went on to paint a vividly stereotyped picture with her words. Escalating the situation didn't seem worth it. I simply answered her question and closed the chat window.

I chose to be silent in review meetings when creative directors called for black models' hair to be "toned down," too. The way I figured it, it was mildly offensive, but, more important, a job for the design team and not me. My copy workload was too big for me to be quibbling over a few pixels of digitized natural hair. At least the model was still there, still black and selling fashion finds or signature scents or entertaining essentials to mainstream America.

***

In an environment that typically hums with the steady dinning of dealsdealsdeals, the only thing louder is the unmitigated roar of the holiday season: pre–Black Friday, Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday, Cyber Week, Green Monday. We begin working on these sales in early October and don't emerge until late January, after we've finished shouting about how this New Year is a great time to cultivate a new you — accessories not included.

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Naturally, these sales are taken quite seriously on the production side. Weeks can be spent hashing out messaging hierarchy, color palettes, imagery, and so on, which means I have to scour the comment threads on my open projects several times a day in order to catch last-minute edits. It was during one of these investigations that I found an odd note on an otherwise innocuous sale: "We are comfortable featuring an African American person in a Black Friday event. We don't consider this an issue."

Intrigued and slightly amused, I scrolled up but couldn't find any comments asking for the model to have been removed. Heading straight to the source, I asked the designer on the project what had happened. "They didn't want the black guy because we were mentioning Black Friday." That's absurd, why not? "Sensitivity." Sensitivity to whom, exactly? He didn't know. "One person called it out, and then everyone flipped," he explained.

Now irritated, I again grappled with silence. It was a design conversation, and they'd pushed back on the request, in any case. Stupid request, adequate response. The model was staying. But then, a week later, I logged on to review the latest edits and found a white male model beaming back at me. As if he knew I'd be circling back with him upon seeing it, the designer messaged me before I got the chance: "[Redacted] wanted to pull out of the partnership if we didn't update the imagery," he said.

Silence no longer felt appropriate. I weighed my options. My boss, a warm and earnest person prone to gushing about Twin Peaks or Insecure during our weekly check-in meetings, had proven to be a sympathetic ear in the past, stepping up to revise some tone-deaf Columbus Day sale messaging in recent weeks. I fired off an email describing the situation to them.

I told them I was used to being the only black person in the room, but I wasn't prepared to sit idly by while blackness itself was batted around as an inherently undesirable, controversial, or "sensitive" subject. I told them that blackness is not a tough spot or corner to wriggle out of. They replied that what had happened was embarrassing, but while they hadn't been included in these discussions, they weren't surprised by them, either. You're not? They asked if we could schedule a follow-up chat.

I imagined our talk would begin with a full assessment of what had gone down. There would be measured doses of righteous indignation on my part, commiseration and apologies on theirs. I didn't expect for the original model to be reinstated on this project — that ship had sailed — but I figured there would at least be a pledge to remain vigilant and step in should something like that happen again.

I didn't plan for the weariness behind their voice as they explained that, unfortunately, this wasn't an isolated incident. They had presented the issue to their boss, and they were in lockstep with my boss; as for that boss's boss … well, it seemed no one really planned on having that conversation. Oh, so the gatekeeper has a name. But: They were prepared to argue with the big boss the next time a black model got flagged! And, my boss explained, the company as a whole had been taking baby steps toward diversity, citing a black female model with natural hair who had made it all the way to our homepage without being called out. Baby steps.

I was being asked to take comfort in the notion that just once, a woman who looked like me had been allowed to represent the company. This was progress.

***

Having spent the vast majority of my life in white spaces, I have an entire defense arsenal to draw from when I feel my blackness is devalued or attacked. Growing up as the only black girl in my class, I learned early on how to deflect unsolicited commentary on my intelligence or perceived attitude, how to hold my tongue when insulted. As a general rule, however, tears need not apply — especially in mixed company. But this time, I couldn't stop them. I flicked inconspicuously at the corners of my eyes a few times before the deluge began, void of blubbering and gasps, just a steady, silent stream.

"I didn't expect to do this," I said, apologizing in spite of myself. "It's OK, and I'm sorry," my boss said. Sitting wordlessly for a few moments while I collected myself, they added, "I can tell you where I think you fit at this company, how much you're valued, but I know that's for you to decide."

My mother taught me the rule of twos when I was eight. "You're smart and talented and beautiful," she'd begin, "but you're black and you're a woman, so in this world, that will be seen as two counts against you." Therefore, I'd always need to be twice as good as everyone else in order to get half as far. The Rule of Twos had brought me to this place, but it could bring me no further. There is no amount of excellence that will convince someone to tolerate the mere sight of me.

Of course, it's an objectively good thing that the company is working toward more inclusive on-site visuals. I wish them well in the endeavor. I simply don't have the Teflon-thick skin necessary to be a part of that vanguard, knocking on doors and inquiring if it might be all right to present a black face to the world, just this once. I've mastered the art of sales copy, but I have zero interest in pitching my higher-ups on my humanity. This season, I'm removing my voice from the steady chorus of dealsdealsdeals. As it turns out, the paycheck isn't worth accepting myself as a cut-rate commodity.

Roxanne Fequiere is a New York–based writer and editor who might just make it after all.

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