A picture is worth a thousand words

Many people characterize Washingtonians as living in a bubble. Maybe. But if we do, there is diversity in that bubble. I live in a section of Washington, DC —Capitol Hill, Ward 6— that is 45% African American, 42% white. When I walk through my neighborhood, I see people who look like me. Older African American women are among the early morning walkers, exercising around the park near my home. Some people appear to be Asian American or Latinx. There are people speaking languages I recognize, and many I don’t. There are young people pushing baby strollers and folks, young and old, on scooters and bikes and dining in outdoor restaurants. The diversity of my neighborhood is one of the many things I like about it.

Eastern Market
Capitol Hill neighbors at the Eastern Market flea market

It is true, Capitol Hill has become whiter over the years that I’ve lived here. Gentrification is a term used regularly when discussing my part of DC. Still, lately, I’ve noticed black and brown young couples also choosing to move into this community, not just white families. And while the economics of living in DC don’t make my neighborhood, or any other in DC, an ideal retirement community, about 34% of my neighbors are over age 45.

Regularly in the Capitol Hill Corner, an online neighborhood newsletter, you learn of new shops, restaurants, condo buildings, and grocery stores coming to the Hill. And this week, I learned of a new women’s clothing store moving into my neighborhood. That’s great, I thought and was excited until I clicked on the link to their website.

So glaringly unexpected, it took my breath away.  I had to look twice. There were 22 images on the opening page (yes, I went back and counted). Shocking in its whiteness, there was not one black or brown model. The models all presented as young, slim, and white. Judging by this store’s marketing message—conveyed by their images—I was definitely not their desired customer. Wow. I felt excluded. I was excluded.

I get it. This store is marketing to young women. As I reflected on it, I realized it wasn’t the lack of age range in the models or even the lack of varied body types I found so disturbing. It was the lack of Consumer-Response-Lack-Diversity-in-Ads-Sept2019racial diversity. When clothing stores and advertisers across the country are recognizing diversity in size, shape, age, and, of course, race, this store has stepped back in time. It seems entirely out of step with what I hope to see in my neighborhood.

So, I contacted the store with my concern. The owner responded in less than 24 hours. She noted that she was an immigrant and wrote: “I deeply value inclusivity and take pride in our mission and commitment to diversity — it’s the heart and core of our company.” She then referred me to the company’s Facebook and Instagram accounts. Both sites had more diversity — nominally. But I stand by my initial reaction. What the owner says she values is not reflected in the primary image projected by the company, the home page of its website.

No, this store’s marketing is not a big deal in the fight for racial equity, but the look and feel of your neighborhood grows one business, one school, one grocery store, one family at a time. We are all responsible for taking steps, large and small, for building the racially just and welcoming community in which we want to live. Just a reminder: when you see something, say something.

P.S. — I don’t believe that public shaming is the most effective first strategy to affect change. For that reason, I chose not to mention the store’s name in this post. I hope that my note will open the eyes of the boutique owner, leading to new thinking and actions. I’ll let you know.