Content advisory: sizeism, activism, business practices
Recently, I was chatting with another big-bodied friend. I was trying to joke via text that I was part of a company’s “fatty inclusion initiative” because I was going to be getting their first ever of a particular size of woven wrap, and I had been feeling frustrated about the process, despite my excitement over what I eventually managed to purchase. Autocorrect turned it into “fatty in the shadows,” and I quipped to my friend that it wasn’t all that incorrect. We laughed about it saltily; behind-the-scenes inclusion for large-bodied/fat consumers is problematic. In the grander picture, quiet or silent inclusion for diversity-at-large people is problematic.
In addition, it seems many of the small, family-owned businesses that are common in some niche product or services – like baby carriers, photography, or any variety of small, social media-based businesses – have abrupt and awkward flame outs when they’re called out publically for something that is racist, ableist, or otherwise shitty. I’ve seen it happen several times at this point – there’s a calling out or calling in that’s ignored. More people become aware and attempt to call out/in more. The business owner in question may be really defensive or try to awkwardly respond with excuses unrelated to the actual problem. There is a customer response – boycott or loud support, sometimes a broader response in that niche community nationwide. It’s upsetting for everyone but worst for the consumers harmed – another trauma in a lifelong history of being personally discriminated against for their race, size, gender, or something else penalized by our cultural institutions.
How should a company respond? How does a company move forward from something like this, and how can a company be more inclusive?
- CLAIM responsibility.
- Don’t panic on social media.
- Research the issue you are facing; see how others have handled it.
- Listen to the people or community you want to include or help.
- Decide what changes to make. Make the changes.
- Listen to the people or community you want to include for feedback.
Step 1: CLAIM responsibility. Check out this sweet graphic made by educator Lukayo Faye Estrella:
I think companies – and the people that run them – shy away from this process in general because we aren’t taught by our culture to take responsibility for this kind of emotional, political issue. Many people aren’t taught to do this in general for conflicts, and aren’t expecting to be dealing with the issue at all because they were never taught it was something to consider, or do know about it and don’t feel it’s important in the first place.
It’s also intensely uncomfortable to move away from something you know and figure out a system of inclusion that works within the format you may run your identity, business, or community. And, there’s the fear of retaliation from other customers – because you already know, deep down or perhaps at the forefront, you’re going to piss people off if you’re more inclusive. Maybe you don’t want to piss off even more of your customer base that you know is racist and sizeist in favor of a group of fat people of color. Or maybe you’re pissed off about having to become more inclusive because you don’t understand why something you said was a slur.
Regardless of what you believe or are afraid of, the bad press is going to affect your business and the tide is turning towards more inclusive rights for groups of people who are discriminated against. This all goes for company policies on how to provide a larger range of accessibility to diverse customers – of size, race, socioeconomic class, gender, sexuality, ability, etc.
2. Don’t panic on social media. Take a deep breath. Don’t double down or try to explain. Don’t be swept away by a tide of emotions. Don’t try to delete or hide the mistake or criticisms of it. Take some deep breaths. Get your head back.
Do start by making a simple and public statement as soon as you can, keeping in mind the guidelines of the CLAIM image above. (EDIT 04/25/17: special note on the Listening step – here’s a really nice explanation from Onyx M of why you shouldn’t make excuses or talk about the rough stuff going on in your life – even if you feel it contributed to the problem.) Don’t ignore the first comment you get, as ignoring it can lead to a larger scale crisis once more and more customers see you ignoring or trying to hide the problem.
You can make a statement like, “We can see that [ad, product, whatever] was problematic and hurtful to our customers. We will be reaching out to those affected and working to learn about [specific issue]. We understand this is harmful and will be working as fast as we can to resolve it without erasing our mistake. We will publically announce changes.”
You can potentially remove problematic language from a text post – but include a note at the end you have edited it and your statement. If it’s an image that’s problematic, see if you can swap it out for something else, along with a caption that states it was edited and your statement.
If it’s a submission that can’t be edited, do not delete it. This probably feels counterintuitive, but if long conversations about the problematic issue have taken place on a submission that is deleted, loss of those conversations in the comments will be considered destructive or as purposeful attempts at hiding criticisms. Leave it up, and make a public statement both in the comments (responding to as many as you can) and publically in a separate follow up.
3. Research the issue you are facing. If you’re in a community of other business owners or managers, talk to the community. Ask them what has worked and what hasn’t. Ask them if they consulted with members of a community they were trying to include. Even if they handled an issue poorly – ask them about the fallout of that. See how it impacted their business.
Also, spend a good deal of time googling. Try googling things like “how to be intersectional” or “how to be inclusive.” Search for variations of [your business niche] + [group you’re working to include]. Try to find websites and blogs that feature writers from the groups you’re seeking to include, even if they’re about unrelated issues or beliefs you don’t want to or can’t accept. This will likely make you uncomfortable, feel like a chore, and you may wonder if it will help your business at all to read articles or essays about unrelated issues from the point of view of your potential customers. YES. OF COURSE IT WILL.
Even if you don’t understand or can’t apply it to your product or service directly, it will give you practice listening to the people you previously weren’t. This is really important – you weren’t giving any attention at all to that community. You felt they weren’t important to your business plan or didn’t think of them at all. On some level, you need practice thinking about the group you’re researching. Practicing giving those voices value internally is important before the next step.
4. Listening to the people or community you want to include or help should be self-explanatory, but people in positions of authority often forget that this is a basic part of respectful learning and inclusion.
Sometimes, the people or customers you’re including aren’t comfortable with the limelight – they don’t want the danger and exhaustion that comes from being Openly Not Considered the Cultural Default. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking racism, sexism, sizeism, ableism, or any other sort of prejudice that’s built into the kyriarchy. That’s why it’s important to seek out and compensate activists – people who are choosing to be in the spotlight to benefit the community – and take guidance from them on how to be inclusive. It may vary wildly from person to person and community to community – no one facet of sizeism, racism, or anything else is a monolith. This could be overwhelming – how do you know who to listen to? – and tempting to give up on.
Perhaps the last person you want to talk to – ask the person who first brought the lack of inclusion to your attention. See if they or someone they can recommend would be interested in giving their time and energy to consulting with you. They may be too angry to do anything other than tell you to buzz off – keep in mind that their reaction, however upsetting or rude to you, is valid. Take your mind off how you personally feel if you can and focus instead on this person as a customer. If this were any other mundane customer service issue where your business failed someone, how would you react? Take that attitude. You have to do the work to make something right – not the person you failed to serve.
Additionally, you may not know what steps you might need to take for a particular community after the initial complaint. Maybe the complaint you received is something you really have never considered, or maybe it just feels really overwhelming due to whatever else you have going on in your life. You’ll need to hire a consultant to help you navigate those tricky waters. Perhaps you can put out a community call – respectfully – and offer product or service in exchange for the consultation. If you have customers calling you out for something, chances are they may be willing to help you out if you help them out. Perhaps you make a special test group to get feedback on suggested changes. I’m not a business guru – use the same tactics you use for any new product or change to products.
5. Decide what changes you need to make. Make the changes. You need to consider how your business plan, product line, or service policies will change. How will your storefront (online or brick and mortar) change? How will you make your new policies known? Explore any changes to your expenses and figure out how you will make changes to be able to afford them. Spreading costs across multiple products and services is something I’ve often heard of over the years as a way to mitigate new expenses.
6. Listen to your customers again. Check in with them and find out if what you’ve implemented is working for them or not. If not – repeat the process!
None of this will feel easy, but being inclusive is really basic. What holds most people back from being inclusive are beliefs and actions that we’ve never learned are shitty before due to our overwhelmingly racist, sizeist, ableist, classist, generally hateful culture. It just take noticing, first – and then not digging in your heels resisting when it comes to making the changes you need to. You’re not a shitty person, most likely, and you’re probably upset at learning something you did was shitty because you don’t think of yourself as racist, homophobic, or whatever.
What will make you look like a shitty person that has a shitty business, though, is how you respond to these challenges. Rise to the occasion! You can do it.
Do you have suggestions to add to this process? Please comment and let me know!