Days ago, in an article titled, “Is This the Woman That Will Save Uber?”, the New York Times reported that Uber hired its first chief brand officer, Ms. Bozoma Saint John. From Pepsi, Beats, Apple, and GlaxoSmithKline, Ms. Saint John has branded the sale of everything from carbonated drinks to headphones to smoking cessation drugs. Based on that work history, perhaps it matters less what is branded for sale, and more that the sale depends on an appealing image. But, what happens when what’s for sale is the labor of contracted workers? What happens when what’s really for sale is people?
Recently, Uber has come under fire for a series of scandals, including corporate misbehavior and a culture of sexual harassment demonstrated by 215 sexual harassment reports that led to mass firings. Filmmaker Spike Lee, for whom Ms. Saint John briefly worked, told the Times, “She’s just what the doctor ordered, the stuff they were going through. She’s a godsend for Uber.” Certainly, she’s a godsend for their image.
After reading the article, I couldn’t help but think, “Here we go again: a Black woman called in to save the day.” Unfortunately, the common trope of the Black woman saving the world is not new. This chess move played over and over in history, using the Black community as pawns, is nothing short of corporate enticement. And as we all know, chess players use their pawns to get the king to the other side of the board. This move surfaces an old nugget of Black wisdom: “All that glitters ain’t gold.” In this case, humanizing a brand with a Black person is not diversity, and diversity by itself does not equal equity.
Saint John told the Times she wasn’t worried about tokenism, saying, “Being present as a black woman — just present — is enough to help exact some of the change that is needed and some that we’re looking for.”
Sorry, but being present isn’t enough, especially if her work experience hasn’t shown much beyond she can sell products well. Now if she started talking about moving workers from being contractors to employees with a living wage salary, increasing representation of people of color on Uber’s staff and board, and actually investing in community benefits in Oakland, I’d believe her presence is a real game changer.
CLICK TO TWEET: Diversity by itself does not equal equity. Uber must do more, says @greenlining.
Greenlining launched our #NoUberOakland campaign, endorsed by 21 organizations, last winter, to call out the company’s practices and demand real attention to community needs. The company makes pleasant noises, but hasn’t matched nice words with actions.
In March, Uber released its diversity data. In short to use a Black colloquialism, it’s a hot mess. When you visit Uber’s diversity page a stream of smiling people of color greet you, yet their employee and board diversity remains abominable. As my co-worker Danielle Beavers notes, according to Uber’s own numbers, nearly 85 percent identify as men, and just under six percent are Black, Hispanic, multiracial or “other.” On the same page, it lists its commitment to “Finding the Greatest Minds” and “… work with the best in every field—people who inspire everyone to be better, and who can help us all get there.” So, are women and people of color not amongst the greatest minds? Are we just problems to solve?
Certainly the hire of Ms. Saint John indicates we’re seen as branding problem.
White gaze of Black women is sexy. And Uber knows it. The New York Times writes, “Last year, Ms. Saint John walked on stage at Apple’s developers’ conference — the first black woman to do so — blasting old-school rap and commanding the room of mostly white men to bounce to the beat.”
Faux diversity and inclusion that sells consumers a product with a Black face or face of color, while exploiting its very own Black workers and workers of color, continues to be sexy. And Uber knows it. We see this on the section of their website headed, “Standing up for what’s right,” which reads, “We publicly support policies that drive diversity and inclusion in the different countries in which we operate so that people everywhere can be their authentic selves.” My authentic self, and that of the 8.8 percent of Uber’s employees who are Black (hardly any of them in tech jobs) is one that is fundamentally not exploited to make other people rich.
Will we keep falling for the okey doke of a Black face used as disparate corporate currency? Or, will Uber make changes that expand equitable employment opportunity for its drivers and workers, and for the broader Oakland community? To do this, Uber must heed the No Uber Oakland coalition’s ten demands and get serious about protecting our city’s residents, workers, small & ethnic owned businesses, and community groups while upholding the city’s values of diversity, equity and justice.
We hope that’s the beat to which white men can bounce.
Liz is Greenlining’s Health Equity Manager. Follow her on Twitter.