'Racism is much more than slurs, it’s deliberate exclusion': Uncomfortable Conversations
This is part of a recurring series of Q&As called “Uncomfortable Conversations,” taking on the sometimes tough, but always necessary, discussions about inclusion in advertising. This series spotlights the many diverse voices that make up this industry—at all levels and in all disciplines—highlighting their personal experiences to illustrate the importance of inclusion and equity throughout the entire ecosystem.
Today we speak with Ashanna Molokwu, a junior copywriter at Battery, the Los Angeles agency in which Havas bought a majority stake last year. Molokwu is a 2019 graduate of the University of Oregon and interned at TBWA\Chiat\Day in L.A. before joining Battery in March of this year. In this interview, Molokwu discusses how her generation is making a difference in the industry, but also why they need to work with older leaders to effect lasting change that goes beyond hiring diverse talent.
The following interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
How and why did you get into advertising?
I declared advertising as a major at the University of Oregon at the end of my sophomore year. I really don’t know why. I had dabbled in other majors in journalism—broadcast, PR and print—but I settled on advertising because I got the sense that it was a little bit of everything. I did know that I wanted to write. I wanted to create. I originally came to the University of Oregon as a political science major because I was pretty dead-set on becoming a badass criminal prosecutor, but part of going to college is figuring out what you don’t want to do. So advertising was a random choice. To this day, I don’t have an answer as to why I even decided to major in it, really. All I know is, I absolutely love what I do.
Why do you feel that it's up to this new generation of advertising professionals to effect change?
Truthfully, I think it’s up to both the new and old generation of advertising professionals to effect change. My generation are juniors. Barely mid-level. We aren’t doing the hiring. We aren’t the ones making the decisions on who comes to the agencies. When we have been given the opportunity to make change, we always do. But simultaneously, that opportunity is, and always has been, up to the people at the top. It is so easy to put "change" on a new generation, but we are entry-level. We are just getting our footing. Once we’re on solid ground, then we can make waves. But in order to do that, the people at the top must unlock the doors we are banging at.
Do you think the people at the top truly want to change?
I do. I think in most cases, the idea of change isn’t as much of a foreign concept as everyone makes it out to be. The idea of change in the ad industry looks like a bunch of panels and committees to institute change and then the change either never happens or turns into some really over-the-top film addressing every problem without any real solutions. I think the best and most effective way to actually change is to start asking: What ways have you indirectly aided in repressing Black voices? How have you, or have you not, created a space for Black creativity to flourish?
You charge that a path to change requires more than just hiring diverse talent. How can agencies ensure their diverse employees stay and have the tools to advance their careers?
It’s not enough to just hire Black people—you have to actually create a space for them. Anyone can hire Black people: but if you don’t create a space in which Blackness actually flourishes simultaneously with whiteness, then you didn’t really do anything for diversity at all. Blackness isn’t just a prop to stand next to whiteness. You have to actually make sure that you have created an environment where Blackness is brought to the table for creativity and thought, not just for optics.
What else must agencies do to effect meaningful change?
Address the culture of microaggressions in the office. And I mean, really address them. Racism is much more than slurs, it’s deliberate exclusion. It’s puzzled looks when the only Black employee speaks during a meeting. It’s putting the handful of Black people in the entire company at the front of every diversity talk. It’s comments about hair. It’s the use of words like "ghetto" to describe something that you don’t like or think is weird. It’s referencing "the culture" with side glances towards the only Black people in the room, and then expecting those Black people to become arbiters of what is and isn’t offensive when it is everyone’s job to be aware. While we all hold implicit bias, I think that addressing the little ways in which we aid in upholding these problematic views is essential to actually creating an environment where Blackness thrives. It is past just hiring Black people.
How do you feel this new remote working environment might help the cause?
While I miss working in an office, I actually think working remotely is going to be really good in bringing Black people into this industry. Social media is where all the Black talents and creatives are. We won’t be in-person for a while, so it’s time to adjust to a new way of hiring online. Hashtags like #blackcreatives and #blackexcellence are the first place to look when looking for new talent. You can get lost in social media, and the "new age" of badass Black creatives are just a scroll away.
What can the older generation of agency executives take away from the younger generation driving this racial justice movement?
They can learn that it is not enough to know better, you have to actually do better. Posting a Black square, hashtagging #blacklivesmatter; all of that is nice. It really is. But it is not enough. A shift happened in June—we are responsible for how we respond to it. We can either get on the right side of history now or deal with the consequences of it later. Either way, it’s important to actually put change into practice. Learn more. Listen more. Build the sort of place you would be proud to leave behind. Because there will come a time when someone is going to ask you: “What did you do?” Whether it seems like it right now or not, there is a right and wrong answer.