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.
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.
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.