Nike and the Limits of “Positive” Representations of Black Women Athletes

By Dr. Jennifer McClearen and Lily Kunda

Naomi Osaka in a nike ad
Photo courtesy of NIke

In celebration of International Women’s Day 2021, Nike released a short film titled We Play Real honoring Black women. Just 60 seconds long, the film questions the myth of supernatural Black exceptionalism often attributed to Black athletes by featuring Black women excelling in sports through hard work instead of “magic.”

The film, narrated by actress Dominique Fishback, features a collage of famous Black women athletes, pioneers, and every-day Black women. As the images celebrating these women dance across the screen, Fishback recites:

It’s not magic. It’s organic from the curl in our hair to the tip of our toes, the sway of our hips, and the joy of our smile. We give our blood, sweat, and tears to be our very best. Even when the world tells us it’s never going to be enough….We worked for all this. You thought history just made itself? Nah baby, this ain’t magic. This, this is the real thing.

While Nike’s ability to connect activism with its brand might seem revolutionary to progressive consumers, what do these types of representations actually do for marginalized people such as the Black women in the ad? Representation and being “seen” might feel like progress but representation alone cannot redress capitalist business practices that exploit people of color globally.

This Ain’t #BlackGirlMagic

#BlackGirlMagic — the popular online movement created by CaShawn Thompson in 2013 — is a celebration of the resilience and “universal awesomeness” of Black woman and girlhood, according to Julee Wilson. However, its frequent use within contemporary society contributes to the many stereotypes faced by Black women. Black women are often stereotyped as strong so they can bear more struggles imposed on them by society. By challenging this trope, Nike is aligning themselves with movements aimed at empowering Black women (#blacklivesmatter, #sayhername, “Listen to Black Women,” “Believe Black women,” etc.) and increasing Black women’s representation.

As part of their We Play Real campaign, Nike has pledged to invest $500,000 in Black Girl Ventures, an organization that “provides Black/brown woman-identifying founders with access to community, capital, and capacity building in order to meet business milestones that lead to economic advancement through entrepreneurship.”

Commodity Activism

Nike’s We Play Real campaign is part of a growing trend of corporations attaching social causes to their brands to illustrate their commitment to combating racism and supporting marginalized groups. Scholars Roopali Mukherjee and Sarah Banet-Weiser call this phenomenon commodity activism, which is “the practice of merging consumer behavior with political or social goals.” By associating themselves with particular movements– such as empowering Black women– brands are able to gain loyal customers who feel as though their purchases support a company that cares about social justice. Nike is aware of this shift in consumer behavior and has a long history of enmeshing social justice within its marketing efforts.

The global apparel giant understands that using positive and progressive representations is a powerful brand strategy. Black women, in particular, can feel seen within the brand because Nike demonstrates that they understand the pressure that #blackgirlmagic places upon them. In a cultural climate where Black women are so often marginalized, stereotyped, abused, and even murdered, being seen and heard by a major corporation creates a brand loyalty that Nike can capitalize on.

Diversity is Good for Business, but What about Racial Justice?

Nike’s efforts seem progressive, but a closer examination reveals that the brand isn’t taking any risks on its pro-Black social justice messaging. A 2018 study by Accenture shows that consumers want to purchase from companies that take a stand on social, cultural, environmental, and political issues. Another study by Nielson shows that “60% of Black women agree they are more likely to purchase brands that support a cause they care about,” which is “7% higher than non-Hispanic White women.” Women, people of color, millennials, and generation Z, which are key markets for Nike, are each demographic segments that tend to support brands with social justice messaging. In other words, Nike’s recognition of Black women’s hard work in We Play Real is good for business.

But what does this use of commodity activism actually do for racial justice?

Nike has long been criticized for its glittery surface representation of diversity and social justice while maintaining conservative political ties, discriminatory relationships with women athletes and employees, and questionable labor practices. The brand recently came under scrutiny for using factories in China that exploit Uyghur Muslims through forced labor. However, Nike also received a huge boost in sales and cultural cache in 2018 after creating another short film featuring Colin Kaepernick that supports the former NFL quarterback’s famous protest against police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem at NFL games. So, while Nike celebrates the bravery of Kaepernick and frames Black women as empowered in We Play Real, they have historically exploited the labor of Black, brown, and Asian bodies in the making of their products.

Capitalistic logics create racial and class hierarchies wherein American Black women with buying power are valuable while foreign laborers of color are not. Is racial justice possible if the very basis of capitalism continually seeks to shore up wealth for a few by exploiting the many along racial, class, and national lines?

Nancy Leong further critiques this type of commodification of identity as a form of racial capitalism, which is “the process of deriving social and economic values from the racial identity of another person.” White institutions (i.e., controlled by predominantly White executives) co-opt identity in order to acquire the most benefits from these representations while being able to deflect criticism of racism because they appear to be “woke.” As Leong says, “This superficial view of diversity consequently leads white individuals and predominantly white institutions to treat nonwhiteness as a prized commodity rather than a as a cherished and personal manifestation of identity.”

Even if more Black women became executives at Nike (the company is attempting to increase diversity at the director and executive levels), would this actually achieve anything for poor Black and brown women globally or significantly shift racial capitalism?

The questions we pose here obviously go far beyond one global brand and can be applied to numerous corporations and sectors. The point we want to emphasize, however, is that making Black women feel seen and heard is a powerful way to create brand loyalty, but that loyalty must be interrogated. Advocates for racial justice must be willing to look beyond “positive” representations to see what the glow of progress might obscure.

Even if buying a brand makes people feel like they are contributing to progress and inclusion, buying Nike products can’t actually change the structures of labor exploitation and racial capitalism in the U.S. or the world. As Ben Carrington and Jules Boykoff write, Nike’s dance between progressive image politics and regressive labor practices is a “reminder that late-modern capitalism can embrace and even promote radical, chic rhetoric as long as it does not call into question the ideology of capitalism itself.” Nike derives its wealth from demographics of people who remain marginalized in the global society, and relatively small donations to Black women’s entrepreneurship don’t correct this lopsided relationship. Instead, this commodity activism only fuels the apparel giant’s stock.

The next time Nike’s famous slogan ‘Just Do It’ appears on a billboard or a commercial, remember to question what the brand actually does. The co-optation of racial justice while exploiting workers cannot actually transform society to build a more just world.

Dr. Jennifer McClearen is a feminist media scholar whose research examines the cultural production of difference in popular media with a focus on sports and consumer culture. She is an assistant professor of media studies in the Department of Radio-Television-Film at the University of Texas at Austin where she is also affiliated faculty with the Center for Sports Communication and Media and the Center for Media and Entertainment Industries. Her research can be found in Communication and Sport, Feminist Media Studies, and the International Journal of Communication, among others. Her first monograph, Fighting Visibility: Sports Media and Female Athletes in the UFC, was published by the University of Illinois Press in March 2021.

Lily Kunda is a PhD student at the University of Texas at Austin in the Department of Radio-Television-Film. She received her MA in Humanities with a concentration in Popular Culture and Media Studies from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. She also holds a Graduate Certificate in Social Justice and Entrepreneurship from Old Dominion University and a B.A. in Communications from Virginia Wesleyan College. Lily’s research focuses on contemporary issues in black popular culture with a particular interest in constructions of race and identity on television, discourses on black celebrity gossip, and corporate activism as it relates to black social justice movements. She is currently a facilitator for INSPIRE, a women’s leadership program for undergraduates, housed in the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies at UT Austin.