If you’ve never been a member of a marginalized community then you might not know what it feels like to experience the joy of inclusion. I remember squealing with glee watching the “Puppy Episode” of Ellen in 1997 when she mustered the courage to declare “I’m gay” — accidentally on an airport PA. The audacity of such an awkward yet proud pronouncement drew criticism. Some sponsors of the show pulled their sponsorship — including J.C. Penney. Over a decade later in 2012 J.C. Penney tapped Ellen DeGeneres to be their new spokeswoman — even standing by her amidst protests from One Million Moms (whose membership numbers were actually only around 40,000). What a difference 15 years can make on a journey to redemption.
During these unique times it feels like the great American melting pot is boiling over. Peaceful protests in the streets all-too-frequently turn into deadly riots when armed vigilantes, bad actors, and law enforcement seek to instill fear and violence to snuff the spark of enlightenment and progress — often with vocal or tacit support by the White House.
When the COVID-19 crisis first took hold in the U.S. both the death tolls and the unemployment numbers hit minority communities at higher rates. Forced to Shelter In Place and underemployed, Black Lives Matter — a movement birthed in 2013 by 3 radical Black queer feminist organizers in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer — gained its fiercest momentum with intersectional support.
Much of corporate America has stepped up Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives in meaningful ways with the intent of it taking hold in the very DNA of the company. Notably, companies like Microsoft and Salesforce have ensconced themselves in cities like Atlanta with higher Black populations, ensuring a more diverse talent pool. Diversity without Inclusion is like having your cake but not eating it, too (a proverb that I just cannot get behind). Inclusion driven from within the business in a way that authentically celebrates different cultures drives an evolution of thinking, enabling innovation in a way that cuts through.
This has become a much bigger phenomenon that has caused me to actually start watching commercials recently. I dare you to watch an Old Navy commercial and not be-bop and jaw drop. The inclusiveness of the songs and children in the commercials is empowering. It is lock and step with what is happening in the world around us with welcoming arms. The simple statement ‘gender norms are so passé’ made this gender non-conforming heart of mine skip a beat. My nieces and nephews can count on some Old Navy gift cards around holiday time.
In truth, this isn’t anything new. In 1971 Coca Cola took the world by storm declaring “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.” People from different cultures, races, etc. sing upon a hilltop with innocence and warmth. The harmony resonates with joy. “That’s the real thing. What the world wants today.” So simple. Authenticity is the real thing. It is a message of hope and unity.
At the end of the day — no matter your sameness or otherness — most of us are… consumers. We don’t just vote in November for political and local leaders. We vote every time we spend our money. When possible, I support Black, minority, and queer owned small business in which I believe — primarily in the fashion world. It helps ensure a certain uniqueness to my style while evolving their product line and reach. Typically small businesses have higher operating costs at the start because of small batch orders and a personal connection with each customer. I encourage those who can afford it to support these businesses so that they can eventually become more accessible to a larger audience at lower price points — or at the bare minimum — to ensure that their products and goods remain available to those of us who aren’t fully served by the binary nature of the fashion industry.
The other night I was getting ready for bed when a CVS commercial came on the television. All of a sudden I looked up and I saw my friend Joss — then her partner Irie — then both of them together as Joss tries to plant a kiss on Irie’s cheek! The commercial included women of varying ages, races, and sexual orientations. I was so proud to know the interracial lesbian couple in the commercial and hoped that ‘othered’ people would feel a certain kinship as well. That’s what inclusion does. It makes marginalized people feel seen and like all things are possible.
The best kind of advertisement depicts the world as it is while pushing to aspire to what it can be. Yet so many still feel like nails on a chalkboard — rooted in fear over hope, hatred over love.
There is so much to fear these days. A quick Google search of COVID-19 numbers reports more than 190,000 deaths and ~1,700 new cases a day in the U.S. The Labor Day weekend is likely to cause another spike. The number of times I have left my zip code in the last 6 months can be counted on my hands — and I never leave without a mask. The freedoms we celebrate as Americans have come under attack. Freedom of assembly and speech are beaten back by law enforcement and armed vigilantes. The words ‘cancel culture’ are wielded to derail a sense of unity in how we vote with our dollars. Organized boycotting is an act to financially demonstrate that we exist and will not be erased. But when J.C. Penney cancelled their support of the Ellen show in 1997, wasn’t that the same thing just from the point of view of a corporation?
It still remains an act of bravery to ‘come out’ or to speak up for the rights of the disenfranchised, especially when you are a member of that community. I am humbled by intersectional activist and leader Renee Montgomery who chose to sit out the 2020 WNBA season in order to support social justice via the Renee Montgomery Foundation. As a Black lesbian basketball player of excellence this decision was not taken lightly. She even braved speaking out against the CEO of her former basketball team — the Atlanta Dream — and Senator of Georgia, Kelly Loeffler for adamantly opposing Black Lives Matter. “Don’t end up on the wrong side of history — Black Lives Matter and this movement will press forward with or without you,” she pleaded.
Courage is a choice. It is the willingness to step up and speak truth to power at the risk of agony, pain, danger, uncertainty, loss, or intimidation. Sometimes that takes the form of living your love out-loud (I am still celebrating the wedding of Niecey Nash and Jessica Betts last week), and other times engaging in discourse, and/or showing up in the hope of influencing change. Those of us who do so understand the burden we are undertaking because the risk is worth the reward. We seek to erase the fear and secure the hope of a future in which our most vulnerable communities can achieve equity and equality.
And remember — the best way to honor those brave and courageous souls who fought for the freedoms we have today is to vote.