Whitewashing in Social Media - and why it needs to stop

I meditated on this article for about a month before I decided that I needed to sit down and write it, MUST write it, that if I didn’t write it I would, in fact, be silencing a thought that must be considered and heard.

The compulsion to write this piece started after my client (who is a black queer woman) sent me a text regarding her businesses Instagram account that read something along the lines of,

“We need to make sure we’re including everyone”.

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I read it again, and then one more time. Then seconds after, another text came through

“…it’s called whitewashing…”

Oh. Ok. I’m an idiot, and totally embarrassed. Naively I hadn’t really thought about it.

Day to day during my search for photos, content, and cool, I just curated as I saw fit. I didn’t think, or know or even consider that I could be subconsciously whitewashing.

In retrospect, I was whitewashing, and I didn’t even know it.

It wasn’t until it was pointed out to me so literally and candidly, that I really started to pay attention to my choices as a social media editor.

For example, I use a well known third party software for social scheduling and posting, and when I tried to put into the caption a dark brown “thumbs up” emoji, there wasn’t one.

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They only listed yellow and white emojis.

In a fit of annoyance, I inelegantly messaged the support team and asked,

“Why are all the emojis white? There are no black emojis”

It did take about 10 minutes of confused back and forth before the penny dropped that I meant the ethnicity or race of the emojis, and I wasn’t referring to the emojis suddenly being literally all white, or all black.

Once he finally understood what I meant, he pointed out that there were in fact “two” emojis that represent racial groups other than white. Oh, and he’d be sure to let the software developers know, and “pass on my concern.”

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Then there was the white wine company I found advertising in my Instagram feed, a smaller brand with a modest 10,000 followers on Instagram.

Out of 46 posts from November 2017 to now June 2018, only 2 of the posts featured a brown/black skinned woman. I messaged this company roughly 6 months ago about the lack of diversity in their feed, and they didn’t bother to reply, or do anything about it.

For example, Shea Moisturizer

Shea Moisturizer created unwanted controversy when it attempted to shift the focus of its advertising away from women of color, its traditional customer base, to white women.

 

Social media whitewashing is both a big brand and small brand practice.

Anyone that is touching social media in any capacity needs to think closely about their choices of photos, the way their copy is written, and what impression their work is projecting to the world.

This problem needs to be addressed not only from a mass marketing demographic/sales standpoint but from a human standpoint.

The ever reaching, all seeing, mystical algorithm isn’t the target audience viewing our work, real people are. But artificial intelligence algorithms that automatically make some of the decisions about who sees what, are being trained on data including existing images and engagement from social media. We should be asking whether we are inadvertently biasing that data.

 

Every day social media is viewed by millions of people. It is impressed upon our eyeballs, it is omnipresent. The scope of its reach when you think about it is terrifying. Facebook hit the two billion active user mark a year ago, in late June 2017. As of last fall, Instagram reported 800 million users, including 500 million daily active users. Rival Snap said last August that it had 173 million daily active users.

Photographs and video, and the written words we post are seen thousands, and thousands of times over, and often by young people whose brains haven’t matured in such a way that they can compartmentalize what is “just advertising” and what isn’t.

This experience, this form of communication, isn’t “throw away” or “disposable” media, this is a serious responsibility.

Social media has the power to shape minds and direct thoughts, and no matter which side of the screen you’re sitting on, we must make changes in the way we deliver our messaging.

It’s time to stop whitewashing the feed.

 

This article also appears on Medium.com

 

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Photograph  JM Boes Photography

Laura Little is a Social Media expert and the owner of “That British Chick” Social Media Agency

Focused on helping startups and brands with creative ideas and strategy, Laura is a specialist at connecting people and prides herself on building ethical long-lasting relationships.