There is a saying that one of the few good things about capitalism is the liberty it gives people to create and generate prosperity. However, said products and creativity are often contingent upon commodification of and harm toward Black people and Black culture equally.
While we all play a role in what can be called racial capitalism, the greater issue—Black people being used to sell a product— is rarely interrogated. We see it with beauty products and even headphones, down to branding.
In a world where everything seems to be marketable, how do so many corporations profit from the words, experiences, and images of Black culture without having Black people involved in the product development process? Understanding the violent history of Black people’s bodies being used to build the foundation of every system that America has profited from is critical in this discussion.
The greater issue with racial capitalism is the way it impacts Black people as a whole. For centuries, big business and ideals of capitalism have promised freedom, equality and liberation while yet, Black people continue to be the ones left out of said prosperity. It’s really about the idea that our pain, our struggle and our “culture” is only marketable if there is a white gaze attached to it, a gaze that is often rooted in seeing Black people as victims rather victorious.
Take for example Apple’s 2021 “Black Unity Collection” that it announced at the top of Black History Month. As someone who is a very big supporter of Apple and the work that they continue to do around diversity, equity and inclusion – I knew that it wouldn’t be long before they messed up because, again, capitalism is quite messy.
While the company may have had good intentions when announcing the release of the $400 Apple Watch with colors of the Black flag, there were too many problems with the idea for me to overlook it. It wasn’t just about the timing, but it was also about the ways the watch itself was rolled out as a way for Apple to pat themselves on the back.
My biggest concern was the rhetoric being crafted by Apple not only around the Watch, but the issues that live around the Black experience. While several statements about the Watch pointed to the company hoping they can uplift the voices of Black people since the George Floyd incident that took place in summer of 2020, I was left wondering how the selling of an expensive watch helped advance racial justice and why it feels like it took something so terrible – something that has been happening for a LONG time – for this company to respond.
Beyond that, It’s not only about the timing, but what narrative companies are creating around Black culture and the Black struggle when they appropriate our struggle and our culture. It’s the idea that companies like Apple are telling their non-Black buyers that the only time they should be interested in the issues that plague the Black community is when public outrage is attached to it. While some might say that I am overanalyzing the issue, it should go without saying that as a Black consumer I can’t not analyze it because the personal will always be political to me.
Perhaps it’s me paying closer attention to companies only being present in the time of Black people’s pain and still figuring out how to profit off of it. It might even be me being more attentive to the ways that companies only engage and market certain cultural aspects of the Black struggle and how people see said struggle as being trendy.
For me, it’s about reminding individuals that often much of what you see that is deemed “Black culture” comes from us as a people having to find beauty in our struggle.
It’s the idea that so much of Black culture has become commodified and consumable. It’s the fact that everything about Black culture is now “sellable” without people and companies needing to be fully invested in uplifting the community as a whole, especially in times like last summer. It’s about us needing to be more intentional about not purchasing items from a company because of the damage it does – even if you really like the company and what it stands for.
The idea that so much about the Black experience – who we are, what we have experienced and what we have overcome – can’t be bought or sold. It’s about us being mindful about what companies we engage with around times like this and reminding ourselves that we all have the responsibility to reprogram the ways we think about culture, who it impacts and who ultimately benefits from it.
Dr. Jonathan P. Higgins is an educator, speaker, freelance journalist, thought leader and critic who examines the intersections of identity, gender, race and media. Named Business Equality Magazine’s “Top 40 LGBTQ People Under 40”, their work has been featured on sites like NBC News, VICE, MTV News, Essence, Out Magazine, DailyXtra and more. They hold a Doctorate in Leadership for Educational Justice and write regularly about the liberation of queer people of color.