Some Anti-Racism is Like Lipstick on a Pig, Part 1

Papering over the cracks with performative anti-racism “action”

Hello friends,

There’s a phrase that’s been popping up everywhere for me recently: lipstick on a pig. It’s about trying to make something look good without making meaningful change. (Here’s more detail on the origin of the expression, if you’re interested.)

While I’m delighted that systemic racism has been in the spotlight, some of the actions people have taken have seemed like cosmetic attempts. Here are some of the things I’ve seen happen within the last year:

Posting a black square with no behind the scenes change

There were a LOT of black squares on social media for Blackout Tuesday last year. But fast forward a bit and many had been removed. Promised action wasn’t forthcoming, either, meaning it was performative for many of those who posted. Ask yourself how many of those who posted black squares are actually taking action today and you’ll see that the numbers don’t stack up.

Putting your one Black person in charge of DEI with no real power

If you’ve ever been the lone Black person in the office, you know that all eyes turn to you whenever diversity is mentioned. And if they set up some sort of committee, you’ll likely be on it. You might even be put in charge of creating and implementing a policy. But as many Black people can attest, this is totally performative. It’s a way to say a company is doing something about diversity without actually doing anything. Because often anything the DEI person comes up with won’t get the support, funding, or let’s face it, teeth to make real change. It’s pretty frustrating.

Firing 55 year old white men but not changing your hiring practices

Black people said “hire more equitably”. Black people didn’t say “fire old white dudes”. But the latter is what the BBC - and likely other organizations - did. You know, many Black people have empathy so we weren’t necessarily looking for non racist white people doing good work to be on the breadline. We just wanted those doing the hiring to hire more of us for jobs we are more than qualified for - yes, it’s important to note that.

Making a big payout without admitting liability or arresting the killers

The outcome of the Breonna Taylor case was a slap in the face. So many Black people die at the hands of the police. Sure, I’m happy that her family got some coins, but is that a compensation for a human life? And did it do anything to change the system that got her killed in the first place? While some jurisdictions have cut down on no-knock warrants, they still exist in a LOT of places.

Bringing in a token

Sometimes there’s a “look we hired a Black person” moment, but there’s no support for that person. As we know, the prevailing narrative in places where Black people are minoritized is that we’re less qualified and capable, even though we have to be more qualified and more capable, stellar in fact, to get through the door. A person hired as a token won’t get support from management, and may not get it from colleagues either. That person isn’t allowed mistakes for fear of being the person who proved it was a mistake to hire Black people. It’s a lot of pressure and an unfair situation.

Talking about professional behavior and the importance of anti racism while still hiding the voices of true anti-racists

This is a social media failing primarily, especially LinkedIn, as the main professional network. Over the course of the year, I’ve seen LinkedIn post repeatedly about their support for diverse voices, keeping people safe and so on. But those seem to be just words. My experience - and I’m not the only one - is that people posting about anti-racism get little protection from trolls and content suppression, and if they’re Black women it’s even worse. Meanwhile the trolls and racists are having a free for all. We need to do better.

These are just a few example of “lipstick on a pig” moments - look out for more of those in my next email.

What acts of performative antiracism or performative allyship have you seen? How would you like to see people do better? Let’s discuss, and learn and grow together.

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Thanks for reading,


© Sharon Hurley Hall, 2021. All Rights Reserved.

Cover photo courtesy of Canva.

I am an anti-racism writer, a professional B2B writer and blogger, and co-host of The Introvert Sisters podcast. If you value my perspective, please consider upgrading to a paid subscription.