During Social Media Marketing World, a friend reminded me that I was one of the few black people presenting at the conference. They asked if that concerned me. I didn’t know at the time. I’m not one to draw quick conclusions but I did tuck the observation away for a time of reflection.
I guess I can’t duck this question forever.
I’ve been working in advertising field for 18 years. During that time, I was always the most senior black person in the office where I worked. I’ve sat in thousands of meetings but only once sat in a meeting with a black person who was my peer or superior.
Is this evidence of racism?
I’m routinely asked why there aren’t “more people like me in social media.” I say, “handsome, brilliant, and modest?” I always get a nervous laugh.
Is this evidence of racism?
A year ago, I put my photo on my website. I wasn’t hiding that I was black. But I was concerned with the implications of letting my audience know that they could at some point be giving thousands of dollars to a black guy. I’ve never let some of the unfortunate realities of being black temper my ambition so I went ahead.
My leads and sales dropped by almost 45%.
Is this evidence of racism or that I’m not as handsome or brilliant as my momma says? (Hint: there isn’t a right or polite answer.)
Why Aren’t Their More Black People In the Upper Echelon of Social Media Marketing Leadership?
I believe there is a mix of factors that have conspired to keep black people out of the limelight.
The Advertising Industry’s Past
Many social media influencers earned their stripes in advertising agencies or corporate marketing departments. The common path is a person learning the fundamentals and compiling a resume at an agency. They then use this experience to start their own agency. Running their own business pushes them to position themselves as an authority.
The marketing community has always lacked diversity. This weakness has resulted in few highly experienced and pedigreed blacks making the transition to the social media stage. I suspect that this won’t be the case for long but it is a factor now.
I’ll speak for myself since it’s irresponsible to represent the thinking of the entire black community.
The social media authority gig is a risky economic move. I for one have a finely honed sense of return on investment. Writing 5 blog posts, producing 2 podcasts, and interacting with people on 3 social platforms every week doesn’t pay the bills. For years, I weighed the economic impact of doing Pushing Social and staying in my relatively safe agency job.
I suspect other savvy and pragmatic black people are wrestling with the same calculus. I hope my example shows that it can be done. But I’ll be the first to say that it isn’t easy no matter what the headlines say.
I believe that there a number of black leaders thinking about taking the risk. I hope they do because we can all learn from my community’s perspective and voice.
Birds of a Feather Flock Together
The social media A-Listers are a tough group of fighters, survivors, and risk takers. They have earned every single penny in their bank accounts. They rightfully enjoy the attention and influence their work has accumulated.
They will not hesitate to help a person who shows that they share their values and outlook. They also ferociously guard their trust, time, and platforms. I was turned down multiple times for work, guest posting, and speaking gigs until I finally cleared a hurdle that demonstrated that I was the real deal.
Here are the hurdles:
Demonstrated Mastery: I worked hard to be a distinctive voice in the blog creation, promotion, and strategy niche. My mastery gave me currency, something I could offer, to the movers and shakers.
A Book: Mark Schaefer gave me the opportunity to co-author Born to Blog. This book hasn’t made me rich but it does show that I have cleared an important hurdle – I’m published. Many influencers in the social media industry use “publishing” as a litmus test for acceptance.
Business Acumen: I learned early on that the best way to get someone’s attention is to offer them something they want. That can be pageviews, sales, or simple moral support. I believe that business acumen is understanding how to build a business relationships with scarce resources. I have something to offer. I constantly look for how I can help. This means a lot.
Persistence: The top influencers rely on “gatekeepers” both virtual and physical. By necessity they’ve shielded themselves from people who want to “pick their brain”, “get their advice”, or plead for 100% of their time for 10% of the usual fee”. Only the persistent with fair offers find their way on to these folks’ dance card.
All of this sucks. It’s hard and it seems that a disproportionate share of black people may be affected. Is this racist? Nope. It’s just how it is.
What Should Be Done?
Nothing. My God, please do nothing.
Black people don’t want professional charity. Our past has prepared us well to strive with great success in any area we set our minds to. We welcome the challenge.
In fact, favor based on our skin color or guilt is insulting. Keep your standards. Keep them high. Just make sure that everyone must clear the same bar.
Only take action when you see racism and sexism slip in the back door on the coat tails of ignorance – do your best to shine a light on it and slit its throat for your sake – not mine.
Is the absence of black people a racist conspiracy? No.
Are social media influencers racist? They are hard charging, principled, brilliant, complicated, and tough – but racist…no.