I live in two very different worlds: I was raised white, and I have brown skin. Being brought up by loving Palagi (white) parents, I have the privilege and safety of knowing “how to be white” — in education spaces, at work, in everyday life. And at the same time, regardless of how much I embrace my Samoan identity, I have the silencing disadvantages of being brown — of being stereotyped, overlooked, undervalued, misunderstood. The price tag attached to the colour of my skin. So as I navigate my two worlds, in privilege and in pain, it hits a pretty raw nerve that one world continues to oppress, misperceive and misrepresent the other. The advertising industry plays into this narrative. We have to do better.
Advertising shapes culture, and with that comes a responsibility to equally represent the people within it — beyond a diversity tick-box exercise. It means actively assuming a position of humility, making room to see things differently, and valuing other cultures as much as the white worldview our industry was built on. While change will only move as fast as the change within ourselves, here are three ways I believe we can be better at creating culturally inclusive advertising:
1. MOVE BEYOND SKIN-DEEP REPRESENTATION
I often talk with minority friends about going into meetings wearing our “white hats”, or unzipping “white bodysuits” at the end of the day. People of colour use so much extra energy, everyday, to try to fit in the world around them. So it’s a real slap in the face when cultural representation is returned with ignorance. Casting a non-white face in a white world narrative to address diversity needs isn’t enough anymore. Cultural inclusion requires cultural understanding, and it’s up to both agencies and clients to broaden the worldviews within our creative work.
How we can do better: Take the perspective of other worldviews right from the beginning of the project. How might cultural values and beliefs inform the strategy, story, set-up? What’s the role of language, tradition, behaviours, religion? Committing to cultural integrity means our work truly honours and values people of colour in their ethnic representation.
2. CAPTURE CULTURAL NUANCE
There’s human truth, there’s cultural truth, and one level deeper is cultural nuance. If we’re to represent other cultures in their fullness, we need to be capturing the subtleties shaped by their heritage. Often I see the set-dressing of minority houses in advertising and think how culturally bland they are, or I hear an Islander make a joke and think how white the gag is. Brown humour is different to white humour. Homes are one of the few safe spaces for ethnic-specific expression. Cultural nuance is the substance of the details, and our work needs to be more inclusive of these insider moments.
How we can do better: Get people of colour around the table (a whole other conversation for another post). Seek cultural consultation. Research trends, influencers, music, fashion, art, media, symbols, objects. Weaving nuance into our work weaves in a sense of belonging — a connectedness long overdue in advertising spaces.
3. NORMALISE COLOURED EXCELLENCE
Let’s talk about rewriting our stereotypes — specifically, the ones where we relegate people of colour to roles held in lesser value by society. Growing up I was determined to avoid becoming a statistic, succumbing to the media’s portrayal of what it meant to have brown skin. On the flip-side, I hated being singled out as a Pasifika achiever, as if I were the only Samoan to have a brain. Normalising coloured excellence within our storytelling negates both of these narratives. People of colour are capable humans. Consistent role-modelling means we can accurately represent the intellect, leadership, abilities and competence of minority races, in all walks of life.
How we can do better: Check and challenge any stereotypes and exchanges of power. Who is controlling, supporting, or serving who? Explore changing the ethnicity of every character. Hero excellence in people of colour. Our work should remind people that greatness and achievement is a human capability, not a white one.
I’m hopeful that the two worlds I live in will one day see eye-to-eye—not in sameness, but in valuing difference with honour. Our job in advertising is to reframe realities and shift people’s perspectives. So if we’re going to dismantle racism within our work, we have to start with our own world views first. It’s our responsibility to shed our own comfort, to share the burden carried by people of colour, and to use our influence in culture to boldly rewrite unjust racial narratives. Ultimately, the work we create should allow people of every ethnicity to feel truly seen and heard. We have work to do.
Phoebe Smith is head of strategy at Wrestler