The Art of Pandering to Your Non-White Audience

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On the eve of the New York Democratic primary, presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton stopped by one of the region’s most popular soapboxes, Power 105.1’s “The Breakfast Club,” to discuss important things, from systemic racism to her past usage of the word superpredator. The item, however, that generated the most buzz: hot sauce. Clinton claims to always carry hot sauce in her bag, a perceived callback to Beyoncé’s “Formation,” in which Knowles says she does the same, thus amplifying the singer’s black, southern, appropriately seasoned heritage.  

Following Clinton’s hot-sauce declaration, host Charlamagne Tha God said, “I just want you to know, people are going to see this and say, ‘She’s pandering to black people again.” Hillary responded, jokingly, “Okay, is it working?”

This was, of course, followed by two camps of reactionary internet thought: Hillary will say anything for the black vote, and Hillary has actually been carrying hot sauce in her bag for years. Here’s the receipts, the proof, the mid-’90s Texas Pete stains.

I, for one, truthfully don’t care that Hillary has hot sauce in her bag. And I really don’t care about the proof that Hillary has, in fact, loved hot sauce for years. I honestly couldn’t care about anything less. There is nothing on planet Earth I care about less than the number of years Hillary Rodham Clinton has enjoyed hot sauce.

But there is something sneakily significant in these moments of perceived “pandering” — something both Clinton and her Democratic opponent Bernie Sanders have been guilty of and unfairly accused of during their campaigns. It’s just another reminder that everyone is in a rat race to successfully appeal to non-white people. (Even Donald Trump tries to tout his relationship with “the blacks.”) And it’s not just black people who are being cozied up to — that was just Monday’s program — it’s all racial and ethnic minorities. This should not come as a surprise: There are few things more appealing to politicians — not to mention media companies, brands, Hollywood, really everyone with the possible exception of David Duke — than tapping into the natural and growing resource of “non-white.”

The trouble is doing it well. Rarely does anyone do it well.

The hot-sauce story happened on the same day that BuzzFeed’s video channel issued a statement on Twitter about one of their videos: “We’ve heard your concerns about last week’s video. We made a mistake, and want to get better at earning the trust of our black audience.”

They were apologizing for “27 Questions Black People Have for Black People,” a clip that was met with near-universal get this shit out of here, from the confusion about the black people who agreed to be in the video to the terribly stereotyped questions that were asked.

In the BuzzFeed apology tweet, they used the key word trust. It’s clear they assumed that putting black faces out front on this ill-conceived project would secure the trust of its target audience. But trust is more difficult to come by than simply employing non-whites. It’s bigger than just having minorities out front, performing the brainstorms of white decision-makers. Hopefully it was an eye-opening moment for BuzzFeed, an outlet that has done an extremely above-average job at hiring black talent but, like most places, apparently does not have enough of that black talent in the room where decisions get made and where there’s nothing more important than having someone present and empowered to throw a challenge flag.

Then there’s the ESPN site the Undefeated, which, on the same day as the BuzzFeed apology and Hot-Sauce Hillary, finally announced a launch date of May 17. The site, which was originally discussed as a site for black people, by black people, now has a slightly broader tagline of the “intersection of sports, race, and culture.” But it clearly doubles as a laboratory for ESPN to get black people to trust the parent company. (Full disclosure: I previously worked at ESPN’s Grantland.com.) 

In a reverse of the BuzzFeed video example, the outfit has gone from one of the more distrusted black enterprises ever to show its face online to one that many former doubters (myself included) think will be successful. In the beginning, sportswriter Jason Whitlock was hired on the strength of being known and being black, again without true consideration that black people wouldn’t just go for the site because it was run by another black person. The site did not work, was temporarily shelved, and now is back with a different leader, a more sophisticated mission, and an expanded staff, one filled with many respected, trusted black journalists. This hasn’t squashed all of the skepticism, but the fact that they went back to the drawing board in a significant way at least makes more people want to root for it. 

In all of these examples, the power of the entrusted minority employee shines through — the I know you may not trust who I work for, but you should, because you trust me. But it also shows the uncomfortable other side, that this is one of the reasons why non-white people are employed on campaigns, at publications, in marketing and public relations, and in many other public-facing positions.

To some degree, all minorities — be it race, gender, or sexual orientation — are pawns expected to earn the trust of our communities, to fill in the holes culturally, and sometimes to facilitate pandering, all in the name of helping our employers succeed. And this is a terrible realization to have. But there’s some comfort in the fact that success isn’t entirely as simple as moving us around the board; not as easy as Non-White Employee + Any Idea at All = Non-White Trust.

The blunders are both frustrating and satisfying to watch. You want to shout from the mountaintops that the moment they say “target” or “appeal to,” they’ve already lost. But you also know that witnessing companies and politicians pander so poorly leaves you retaining some of the only leverage you have. There’s power in those failures, a reminder that there is still a place in this world for authenticity. Proof that when the game is chess, there’s influence even in being a pawn.