Racist Culture is a Factory Defect

One of the great struggles in trying to challenge racist aspects of culture is that we’ve moved from overt, obvious, overbearing racist practices to things that are much more nuanced, and which are often the result of bad habits or ignorance from otherwise well-intentioned people.

This complexity makes it more difficult to fight these instances of racism because we lose a lot of time, and endure a lot of time-consuming explanations, just to get people on the same page in talking about solving the problem. Obviously, this has been on my mind since writing about Popchips’ unfortunate ad campaign a month ago; Despite writing in bold that “I think the people behind this Popchips ad are not racist” at the top of my post, many of the responses came from people who could not distinguish between a company or individual carrying out a racist act and the fundamental identity of “being” a racist. Very, very few people identify as racist, but nearly all of us are guilty of racism at one point or another.

In ruminating on this point a bit, I stumbled upon what I think is the clearest way to express this idea for me: Racist culture is a factory defect. In the case of me criticizing a potato chip company for making a racist ad, it’s easy to understand this metaphor:

  • I believe the company has good intentions, and is run by people who do not want to be racist or to create racist contributions to culture.
  • Nevertheless, the company made a cultural contribution that was predicated on racist ideas.
  • It’s particularly egregious to trade in racist ideas when it’s not for artistic purpose or to comment on society, but to sell a product.
  • Therefore, the most helpful thing I can do is to help them fix the broken process within their company that produced this unfortunate result.

On the Factory Floor

Imagine, for example, that Popchips had sold a bag of chips that contained mouse droppings in it. We’ve all read news stories like this, and we’re familiar with how they go. The company apologizes to the person who bought the product, and optionally offers to replace it. Then they talk about how they’ll look into their manufacturing and distribution processes to identify how the problem occurred, and work diligently to prevent it from happening again.

But here’s what they don’t do. They don’t say, “We apologize if anybody is offended by the presence of mouse droppings in their potato chips”. Because all right-thinking people know that’s inherently offensive, and it doesn’t take interpretation to do so. They seldom fire someone for these kinds of errors unless there was willful negligence, instead preferring to train and monitor their employees to ensure that such slip-ups never happen again. They don’t say “We have some people on the team who keep mice as pets, and they didn’t think it was that gross, so we didn’t think anyone would object”. Because good companies take pride in doing the right thing for its own sake.

While I’m speaking of this as a theoretical, there’s a great real-world example of this in the case of Le Pain Quotidien, as detailed in this great Freakonomics podcast. The high-end bakery café faced a huge PR nightmare after a diner found a dead mouse in her salad. Though it took some time and they didn’t initially get it right, the company eventually stepped up and made a no-excuses apology, but more importantly they changed the way they work to try and prevent the problem from ever happening again.

The Assembly Line

Through this lens of the “factory defect”, we can look at other similar cultural insensitivities much more effectively, and focus not on blaming and shaming the companies that do these things, but on fixing what’s broken in these companies which allow these hurtful things to happen in the first place.

Take Mitu Khandaker’s brave and beautiful recent post about Dove’s hurtful description on their packaging, which implies people of our skin tone are abnormal. In this case, Dove had built up a lot of good will over the years specifically by promoting a message of inclusiveness, so this seemed particularly inapt for the company. But Mitu’s take on the issue addressed the problem specifically in terms of the personal impact it had on her, an effective and courageous way of making the company understand the impact of their error, in the same way they’d intuitively know the impact of an error that had to do with the safety or hygiene of their product:

I almost did not write this. I’ve felt apologetic about it to an extent where even bringing up my skin colour, and how angry all those experiences have made me, has felt uncomfortable for me. Writing this is uncomfortable for me. I don’t like drawing attention to it, even when it is on my own terms. I am trying very hard to get over that.

Who among us, though, would apologize for pointing out there was a fly in our soup? We know it’s gross, we know a restaurant doesn’t want to serve it. And a good restaurant would respond not just by being contrite, but by thanking a patron for pointing out the flaw so that they have the chance to remedy it.

Companies which accidentally create exclusionary, racist, sexist or hurtful advertisements or promotions should embrace the same opportunity. A good restauranteur knows that fixing a bad service problem can sometimes make a customer more of a fan than if they had never encountered a problem in the first place. Jason Alexander is experiencing something analogous as I write this, earning the respect of organizations like GLAAD by publishing a thoughtful and sincere statement that’s not just an apology, but an explanation of the process that yielded racist culture, showing that he understands why we have to talk about fixing our factories when they create defective products. Dove made a great first step in explaining the genesis of their error. Ideally, we’d encourage personal accountability along with these explanations, with individuals claiming responsibility within companies for these errors in the same way they have to when they’re responsible for financial misstatements and the like; This is only fair given the amount of vitriol and hatred that many of us face when we speak up to criticize these companies.

But until the time when they don’t need to issue these statements at all anymore, the best companies can do when they make something offensive in culture is to explain the method of manufacture for their broken contribution to culture. The tedious, familiar pattern of issuing a non-apology apology (“We’re sorry if anyone was offended…”) and then trying to bury the entire conversation doesn’t make things better, and it puts the burden on the victims of these misadventures to right the wrongs, instead of laying it at the feet of their creators, as should be rightly done.

And those of us who speak up on these issues have an obligation, as well. Too often, we fall back on the simple, lazy statement of accusing a company or institution of being racist, instead of assuming the best of the individuals within it and assuming that the inefficiencies and injustices within that organization resulted in its worst traits being demonstrated. Let’s critique them with actionable complaints when we can, giving them steps to right the wrongs they inflict. No, it’s not fair that we have to do it, nor should it be our obligation to do so. But we are the ones privileged with the understanding and education about these issues, and we owe it to the communities we represent to carry this burden sometimes even though it’s not fair. At least until we own the factories ourselves and can make sure they don’t produce defective products.