The Intersection of Power, Race, and Commerce

Photo by Max Bender on Unsplash

Introduction by series curators, Dr. Roland L. Leak, associate professor of marketing at North Carolina A&T, and Rebekah Modrak, professor of art at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor

In the wake of massive racial protests over the past year, some companies began the work of re-evaluating how their brand messaging and corporate actions contribute to racism. Most famously, Quaker Foods “retired” the image of Aunt Jemima, originally based on the caricature of the enslaved “mammy” who contentedly and lovingly cared for her white family. College campuses attempted to reconcile unencumbered, historical outward displays of racism on campus while simultaneously grappling with the legacies of segregationism; some renaming lecture halls and buildings. The Mars company announced a plan to change its Uncle Ben’s brand, another product grouping whose branding was developed around historically racist iconography, to Ben’s Original in September.

While some progress has been made, the marketplace has not realized a universal push to migrate from promulgating racist or white nationalist messaging. For this Spark series, we invited submissions from diversity scholars whose scholarship or creative work speaks to the relationships between commerce, power, and race in light of shifting opinions and epiphanies about racial justice.

Co-owner and Chair of Association Football Club Ann Arbor Bilal Saeed surveys the impact of whiteness on sports culture and the types of racism incurred. Contextualized under the broad umbrella of white management, he uses “The Pervasiveness of Whiteness in Sport Culture,” to explore the prevalence of racial slurs, harassment, penalties for activism, and coded language that reduces Black players to physical animals rather than mentally agile and sophisticated competitors.

Black people, however, do not universally experience overt negativity in the marketplace. But, does ostensible marketplace praise originate from a sincere place? Dr. Jennifer McClaren and Lily Kunda question the dubious use of positive and progressive representations as brand strategy through examining the role of commodity activism embedded in Nike’s film We Play Real. Created in recognition of International Women’s Day and intended to counter the myth of the Black female athlete as magically inspired rather than hardworking, the financially lucrative marketing strategy appeals to women, people of color, millennials and gen z’s desire to invest in social justice. In their essay, “Nike and the Limits of “Positive” Representations of Black Women Athlete,” McClearen and Kunda review Nike’s exploitative labor and political practices to ask whether the creation of brand loyalty through progressive image politics actually translates into racial justice.

According to Dr. Arthur Scarritt, the university campus presents another site where white institutions use capitalist business practices that exploit people of color and treat non-whiteness as a commodity. Universities routinely exhibit diversity by featuring people of color in their marketing materials, but if they’ve not yet achieved this diversity in campus classrooms these images mislead prospective students into thinking that an aspirational identity has already been achieved. Further, white students trust these false representations, and develop apolitical stances toward diversity that don’t examine racial inequalities and encourage white students to contest the need for affirmative action measures. In his article, “How Commercializing Diversity Promotes Racism,” Dr. Scarritt rebuffs the counter argument that universities are in a bind wherein they can’t only show white students in ads, and they shouldn’t deceive their audience by showing BIPOC students, and offers a series of propositions for substantive anti-racist changes.

Using a historic example, Sophia Ellis, Larissa Nez, and Rai Terry highlight how minorities have long been disadvantaged in a marketplace controlled by white businessmen. Wedgwood’s business of producing decorative porcelain was founded on a singular act of reneging on a contract with South Carolina Cherokees and looting their “White Earth ‘’ without providing promised compensation. “The Aesthetic of Power: Porcelain and the Expansion of White Saviorism” points to the irony and contradictions between the symbolism of Wedgwood china and its refined purity, the atrocious fraud their agent practiced in negotiating with the Cherokees, and the eventual production and distribution of the Antislavery Medallion depicting a subjugated Black man pleading for his freedom. This medallion trended, at the time, in an early model of what Detroit historian Jamon Jordan refers to as “conspicuous compassion.”

Just as porcelain is used as a material symbol of whiteness, Dr. Janet Borgerson and Dr. Jonathan Schroeder point out that skin, that thin layer of tissue covering our bodies, is used by advertisers as a commodity, signal of brand meaning, and subject of fetishism. Consumer culture advertising deliberately employs images of skin that reduce people’s identities to particular colors superficially associated with racist notions. In their essay, “How Skin Works in Contemporary Strategic Communications,” Borgerson and Schoeder examine how imagery of skin, in concert with photographic techniques such as close cropping and dramatic lighting, perpetuates unsavory connotations, such as Black skin as the exoticized other.

These examples show that race is yet another variable often manipulated by managers looking to achieve some specific aim. Minorities’ race is enhanced or diminished when perceived as beneficial to the organization. While there are many explicit examples of commerce’s complicity in promoting and condoning white supremacy reported on by popular media, the perpetuation of white supremacy and cultural hegemony through marketing’s more subtler and sophisticated devices is not often brought to public attention. This Spark series exists to bring some of these subtle examples to the fore, noting there is much more content to explore beyond this space.

Roland Leak is an Associate Professor of Marketing at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, NC. His focal teaching areas are consumer behavior and marketing strategy, and his corresponding research focuses on the following content areas affecting consumer behavior: intra-ethnic stereotyping (i.e., how members of one ethnic group — particularly minorities — stereotype in-group members), phenotypically bias (among other things, skin tone biases), and ideology (e.g., conservativism, nationalism)

Rebekah Modrak is an artist, author, and educator. Her practice is at the intersections of art, activism, writing, and creative resistance to consumer culture, combining observation, analysis, and action. As a contemporary artist, she takes on multiple critical roles in the commercial marketplace to challenge the oft-unconscious consumption in our daily lives and issues around representation and ethics, and to take advantage of the opportunities of using consumer venues as a nexus of democracy