On 30 September, the Economic Management Sciences (EMS) Faculty held a webinar – titled “At Crossroads: Reimaging Management Sciences and Inclusivity” – that sought to contextualise and reflect on the aftermath of the controversial Clicks TreSemmé advert that made national headlines for its racist depiction of African hair as “damaged and dry”. The webinar coalesced the broader implications of such an advertisement in the corporate field and raised several questions on the true level of diversity therein. The panel discussion was participated by Professor Alewyn Nel (Head of the Department of Human Resource Management), Doctor Tinashe Ndoro (Senior Lecturer in the Department of Marketing Management), and Dr Olebogeng Selebi (Lecturer in the Department of Business Management).

Following the welcome address given by Professor Elsabé Loots – Dean of the Faculty of Economic Management Sciences – Professor Stella Nkomo introduced the topic of discussion by contextualising the pattern of racist depictions through history. Prof. Nkomo alluded to the incident of Sarah Baartman, a South African Khoikhoi woman who was displayed as part of a freak show across European countries in the late 16th century. Bringing it to the 21st century, Prof Nkomo cited local and international incidents – such as the 2016 incident at Pretoria Girls High school that encouraged black girls to straighten their hair with chemicals, the 2017 Dove advertisement incident that depicted a black woman turning white upon the use of Dove soap, and the 2018 debacle that Swedish multinational clothing company H&M found themselves in after depicting a black toddler in an animal themed hoodie as “the coolest monkey in the jungle”. Prof. Nkomo asserts that all these incidents illustrate the tragedy that we do little to no learning from them, with the absence of any tangible change following these incidents with the broader implications of the recent Clicks Advertisement positioning “a white woman as the universal standard of beauty”. Prof. Nkomo cited that ads like these become societal markers of systemic racism, and the existence of a dominant hierarchy that perpetuates this. In addressing the aftermath, she notes that “apartheid fatigue” and happy-talk that sees to do damage control towards the issue, thwart efforts to address systemic racism. Prof. Nkomo ended her introduction by raising several questions pertaining to how much power individuals of colour have in the decision making processes of a corporation and whether there is adequate representation of these communities at the table where crucial decisions are made.

Prof. Nkomo cited that ads like these become societal markers of systemic racism, and the existence of a dominant hierarchy that perpetuates this.

Professor Nasima Carrim, Associate Professor: Department of Human Resource Management, facilitated the panel discussion that began by addressing how such an advertisement could be conceived. Dr Selebi asserted that the concept of racism is “not a white or black problem”, but that the mentality to herald white beauty standards are ingrained within black and brown communities. Dr Ndoro reiterated this sentiment by ascertaining that a consciousness of diverse audiences can only be garnered through diverse representation in the boardroom, citing that “if a marketing team is diverse […] different viewpoints can be seen”. This lack of diversity thwarts the marketing team from understanding how consumers will perceive advertisements. Dr Ndoro asserts that the use of two different racial groups to illustrate the comparison on hair evoked the negative emotions witnessed in its aftermath, and “through diverse marketing teams who understand the environment”, this can be thwarted before racist ads make their way to the public sphere.

Prof. Carrim drew the panellists’ attention to the status of employees who work for companies that have faced reputational damage. Prof. Nel ascertained that an employee is associated with the values that a company exudes, stating that “you can have all the policies [of inclusivity], but the actions speak louder than words”. Prof. Nel asserted that the negative repercussions that the company faced, will transcend to the internal environment of the company, affecting the sphere of the employees. He reiterated that the socioeconomic status of the employees generates a sentiment that solely promotes the pursuit of a livelihood which “is not conducive in the long term”, as “you want to belong to a company, but lose yourself in a company”.

In brainstorming ways to bypass the occurrences of racist ads, Prof. Nel noted that if a leader of a company embodies qualities of inclusivity, this will transcend to the different branches of the company. Dr Selebi asserted that business should look at the macrocosm of the implications of their decisions and understand that a loss of reputation will have negative impacts on profitability. She mentions that companies should not look at employing inclusivity as a laborious process, but undertake it with the broader implications it will instil. Dr Selebi reiterated that “inclusivity is an asset for an organisation” and that businesses “should capitalise on this diversity” and perceive it as “something that unites and not separates us”.

…if a leader of a company embodies qualities of inclusivity, this will transcend to the different branches of the company.

Prof. Nkomo concluded the webinar through key take-home points such as the question of representation, beyond the numbers that are represented, asserting that the representation of black women in the decision making process related to the Clicks advertisement would not have allowed the advert to enter public domain. She called for marketing teams to be more aware of their environments, “putting your ear to the ground […] and try to understand the tensions surrounding race and difference”.

Prof. Nkomo also drew attention to practical research that marketers have to undertake to understand the social setups of the consumers they cater to, and also reiterated the impact on the diversity climate of the internal employee sphere that such events have. Prof. Nkomo cited a question that was raised by Prof. Kupe during the course of the panel discussion on creating new institutional cultures for diversity to become meaningful and be more than just a surface phenomenon by imploring business to continue this dialogue with depth in their respective work environments.

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Susanna is currently stu(dying) genetics and joined the PDBY team in 2019. She divides her time between writing and playing with plant disease samples. Her contributions span across Science, politics and all things spicy. If you are or were in the SRC, she’s probably spammed you with messages for a story. She’s got a memory like an elephant – so she probably keeps track of student promises. Picture not to scale.