This is why I'm rethinking the idea of "buying black"
October 11, 2015 at 2:00 am
So I’m doing my usual scroll through Tumblr, and posts are coming back-to-back about Sundial Brands, LLC selling shares of the company to Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital. Excuse me?
Sundial Brands? The company that gives us Nubian Heritage and my beloved Shea Moisture? Shea Moisture, with an origin story on every bottle about a widowed mother from a village market in Sierra Leone? I thought this was a family business. Where exactly are Mitt Romney and his affiliates in this family tree?
Sundial Brands makes excellent products. They seemed to cater to black women — specifically those of us with natural styles — and “catered to” just isn’t something I felt during the start of my natural hair journey. And they were supposed to be from the motherland! I don’t know if I feel bewildered or just downright deceived.
Friends and family members who raced with me to Shea Moisture BOGO sales at Walgreens now lament that black people can never have anything to themselves. This was supposed to be a company by us, for us. Comments across Tumblr and under articles addressing the controversial partnership range in opinion: some accept that businesses need to make money, some wish the company stayed in black hands, and some worry that the formula will be diluted.
Charing Ball discusses the partnership and suggests on Madame Noire that “we need black-owned venture capitalist firms whose jobs are to provide financial and other support to black-owned companies. Without that sort of dedicated investment, black-owned businesses will continue to be swallowed up by the system.”
A black-owned venture capitalist firm partnering with Sundial might have kept the company fully black-owned, but is that crucial? Do black-owned businesses actually benefit us?
Black-owned businesses might fulfill unmet black demands. Sundial Brands creates hair products with excellent ingredients for our natural hair texture — something fairly hard to come by. A black-owned bookstore can provide easier access to a large selection of books by black authors or on black topics in a way that Barnes & Noble won’t (It only boasts a small shelf labelled “African American”).
However, the key factor here is that the black community’s demands are only met if the black business chooses to meet those demands, and being a black-owned business alone is not a contractual agreement to do so.
Proponents of “buying black” argue that the billions of dollars that run through black hands each year would ease our economic hardships if the money stayed in our communities. Ernest Owens explains in the Huffington Post that, “in the current national push for making black lives matter, economic support for black-owned businesses doesn’t get its fair share of dialogue.” Owens argues that our struggling neighborhoods need economic growth and stability, and that those can be better achieved through supporting black-owned businesses, which in turn will offer employment and thus black empowerment and economic enrichment.
Appealing to “job creators” in order to create wealth for all sounds suspiciously like trickle-down economics, the idea behind giving more and more tax breaks to corporations and wealthy individuals. Wealth doesn’t trickle down from rich to poor, regardless of color. Period. Full stop.
“Buying black” to eradicate unemployment and poverty relies on the previously mentioned non-existent contract between black communities and black business owners: the community’s financial support doesn’t necessarily translate to jobs with living wages. Even in the most ideal situation where black businesses passionately seek to provide employment, job opportunities would be limited to that community. There are still so many people left behind.
When the rich make more money, economic growth slows. When the poor make more money, all of society benefits. Raging income inequality hinders growth and pains society more than anything, as poor people struggle to, for example, meet rising educational and health care costs. Ball’s statement that without black-owned venture capitalist firms, black businesses will be swallowed by the system, is too narrow. The “system,” or the political and economic system of the U.S., is ready to down all of us. The cost and accessibility of education and health care are determined by U.S. policies and black businesses, however far-reaching, would not shield us from its effects.
Even in the United States, with all its wealth and deeply ingrained racism, where black Americans are twice as likely to face poverty than whites, white Americans comprise 42 percent of the poor. After the Great Recession, the poverty rate increased for white Americans; their skin color wasn’t a shield enough against financial crisis. The market does not naturally fix society’s problems — that’s why there are more vacant homes in the United States than homeless people.
Liberation for black people will come only through mass political movements, as history will confirm. Organizing our communities for social change beats “buying black” any day. This is why Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. advocated, in his final book, that African Americans should organize across color lines to demand federal policies that eliminated poverty altogether. This is why the Black Panther Party changed a point in their Ten Point Program to read “We want an end to the robbery by the capitalist of our black community,” from “the white man.”
So, although Sundial Brands’ new investor might be surprising and the company’s response statement of wanting to broaden their consumer base might have me rolling my eyes, the color of business owners and investors is ultimately irrelevant.
If their product formulas remain unchanged, my hair and skin will stay gloriously moisturized while I march in demonstrations, strategize in community organizing meetings and read until the wee hours of the morning, with maybe only one eye open, trying to educate myself on the issues and find the best way forward.