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Creating Positive Change not being part of Radical Chic

By Emma Kane
04 June 2020

By Emma Kane, Chief Executive

This week, many corporates and high-profile individuals have come under fire for attempting to stand in solidarity with the black communities around the world.

Blackout Tuesday was a move by the entertainment industry worldwide to stop work, keep off social media and reflect on what the death of George Floyd says about the world we live in.  Numerous organisations around the world then rushed to push out messages of solidarity, some holding town hall discussions and looking for ways to show empathy.

These statements of solidarity and attempts to show empathy are always open to charges of tokenism, of being patronising and fashionable particularly when those organisations are predominantly run by white people, and white men at that.

The fact is that it is relatively easy to identify bad culture; however, an understanding of what constitutes poor culture does not by default label your culture as a ‘good’ one. Quite the contrary.  A ‘good’ culture requires a huge amount of daily energy, commitment and the input of a diverse range of views and backgrounds. Hashtags and bumper stickers simply don’t cut it when it comes to affecting real change.

We need to reflect deeply on these world events and how they scale back to our own lives, jobs and the organisations in which we work.

There was a brilliant essay by Tom Wolfe in the New Yorker magazine of June 1970 entitled ‘Radical Chic’, you should read it.  It describes the party held by the renowned composer Leonard Bernstein in his luxury Manhattan Upper East Side apartment on 14 January 1970.  In attendance were some of the wealthiest and most influential people from the New York arts world.  He had invited his rich and white friends to meet members of the Black Panther Movement and share cocktails and canapes, served on silver.  Rightly or wrongly, that evening led to the coining of the phrase ‘Radical Chic’ which was the headline for the article which lampooned the way the elite audience had adopted the social issue of the moment.

Fifty years on and the world still needs a fundamental shift in the treatment and inequalities suffered by black communities and all those who face discrimination and injustice.  We need radical change over radical chic.  Power does sit with the voters today more so than ever, so it’s obligatory for each one of us to do the right thing, not just by posting on social media or adopting causes, but truly regulating ourselves as individuals, as well as doing so collectively.

At the end of the day, for corporates, it comes down to corporate purpose.  The actions of organisations affect much of what constitutes global society and civilisation today. If we are not making a contribution to creating positive change, then we need to think seriously and immediately about how we can play our part in the radical change that is needed to make the world a much better place – it’s incumbent on the business sector.  Hashtags, bumper stickers and riot selfies are nice, positive social trends that drive awareness of society’s ills, but discourse, must lead to change. Developing and articulating a clear purpose – fighting injustice, promoting fairness, transparency and inclusivity – will help companies put these words into action, whilst also allowing their stakeholders to hold them to account.   

To truly change the status quo, actions must speak louder than words. Communications must be backed by a corporate purpose; a string that ties an organisation together, to deliver positive outcomes for all its stakeholders and wider ecosystems. 

Having a purpose, provides organisations big and small with a motive and resource to improve the world for the better.  A lack thereof, effectively limits radical and positive change to a mere hashtag.