What The Vanity Fair Article On Silicon Valley And Race Gets Wrong - and how to make it right
As a woman of color who has been in the digital game for quite some time and one who is now a leading analyst of the intersection of trends in cultural attitudes and digital consumption, I just have to respond to Vanity Fair’s Maya Kosoff’s recent piece “What Silicon Valley Doesn’t Get About Race.” If you haven’t read it yet, it’s a bit of a searing, though dead-on in parts, critique of some of the recent reactions from Silicon Valley titans to what is surely only the latest, and might I add only early, stages of what is to be a major social justice/civil, economics rights 2.0 movement in the United States. But the piece gets a number of things so wrong that if believed, could set all of us back even further.
So first, yes, some off-the-cuff, light-hearted, tech-saves-all-like tweets from certain CEO’s that accompany photos of individuals in more than precarious situations with the police, or concepts from yet another Master of the Universe VC type about apps that can somehow replace or supersede more respectful racial relations, heal deep scaring and sensitivities around slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, discrimination are definitely misplaced. Yet Kosoff’s conclusion of either checking with one’s PR team, donating to the usual suspects, “simply” diversifying one’s internal work force, or better yet, just being quiet seems very short-sighted (not to mention the fact that we could all ask what legs VF truly has to stand on in terms of the hues of its editorial team over the years, donations to the plights of people of color, and more - in fact, all of Conde Nast for that matter, save Anna Wintour’s tireless efforts to continuously diversify the pages of Vogue, but I digress...).
Let’s face it, social disruption in our country will actually come to create a new and much-needed industry. Those at the helms of tech companies big and small will need key guidance and cultural intelligence that, believe me, does not come from the average PR division (unless everyone up in there has a Doctorate in Race Relations/Sociology, which I highly doubt) nor from a firm that helps one find the best diverse applicants for a job and provides a sensitivity training course or two. This is not a pipeline issue. It’s obvious that it’s deeper than that. If it weren’t, we’d all have this solved as a country by now. It’s about understanding situations from the streets to the boardroom. It’s about complex, long-standing nuances and layers around race. And I believe the depth of which is why so many CEO’s seem either terrified at the prospect of addressing it, misstep, put out a mere “we stand with ya” tweet, or quickly recoil if a foot goes into the mouth never to be heard from. The fact is most tech heads typically have no real and deep personal point-of-reference on these things from which to pull. Brilliant, these CEOs may be; but they simply move within circles that are so insular, and replicate their values and lifestyle to such a degree that they end up moving larger cultural levels with a gross disadvantage.
Thus, none of the aforementioned approaches they have been taking will work in the new era - the information/tech Era - because everything and everyone will need to be about being culturally relevant in order to sustain. And by ignoring or being fearful of the most culturally relevant topics of the day, particularly as they and because they intersect with technology, one will lose market share and experience diminished brand sentiment. It’s just that simple. Further, and as usual, people of color are early adopters of most of tech and how to most appropriately and impactfully use it (i.e. FB Live, etc). Tech and social justice are forever connected for a variety of reasons for the last couple of years. Therefore, tech companies will just be expected to have a full, but fluid strategy - well beyond donating to a mayoral run or two - in the development phases pertaining to these changing cultural times.
So, how to combat? First, they will need a variety of those from under-represented areas as a social/cultural set of advisors and tastemakers continuously providing under-the-radar insights and in-depth cultural intelligence so that real-time communication and actions during such times is actually much more organic and substantial than it has been to date.
If smart, and I know they are, they will then use this intel to work with said advisors to create real and edgy initiatives that will create true impact, empower dialogue and change, over time. And not uninspired things like dull college campus town halls, or some one-time forum that goes no where, or a hashtag, or anything else that they wouldn’t find worthy of Elon Musk-level tech industry creativity and prowess. These initiatives must also include specific work with key entertainment/music figures/sports figures/platforms as well (because pop culture is massively tied to all of this when it comes to people of color, but that’s a subject for another piece) in order to create dynamic, balanced actions where the consumer/citizen, even officer, can see that tech company x actually “gets it.” This is where the money Kosoff mentions can be used, but careful here. Donations are cool but to what end and why always to the usual civil rights suspects who do not necessarily reflect the values, voice, and methods of those of us in the new era? I’ve never gotten any trickle down of any of those goodies and most would tell you they haven’t either. And more and more people are murmuring about this. The old guard, if you must; but in a decentralized era where sentiment can be driven one way or the other in a flash, the tech giants who will rank high on the cultural relevancy meter will also work in fresh, exciting ways with the millennial guard and influencers who actually use their tech products!
So now is the time to think in a new way and apply new tactics and expand to include new people. Baby steps are fine, if you must. Just, at least take some, and know that as you do you are backed up by a cool, fluid initiative that is well devised. There is no hiding possible - particularly as the millennial voice is demanding new forms of accountability on all sides, daily. Tech will be systematically expected to address these events as they increase given that the platforms the industry creates are inextricably intertwined with victim, observer, accused. As per Kosoff, Silicon Valley may not get a lot of things about race just yet, but it doesn’t mean it has to remain that way. We could all say that each of our lives, and our country, depends upon it.
# # #