The Wu-Tang Clan of HR: An Inclusive, Hip Voice Isn’t Always Inclusive

A few months ago, a reader reached out to me with a big concern. She’s African American with a strong background in IT, and she felt that far too many corporate websites were getting it wrong.

Here are excerpts from my conversation.

“Too often, the verbiage and the culture seems very down (e.g., using black cool and cultural markers) and approachable; however, there are no black people in their leadership. So it reads like a bunch of hipsters co-opting of black culture.”

So it’s not okay to call your all-white, all-male advisory board the Wu-Tang Clan of the HR tech industry?

“That reads as hipster or casual racism. Where it’s cool to act black or like black things, but not interact with or hire us.”

What if you have one black guy on your leadership team?

“There’s a tendency to use African American Vernacular English (AAVE) on quite a few corporate blogs and in hashtags on Twitter. In the tech industry, that’s lethal.”

Lethal? Interesting.

I’ve noticed how new companies try to use hip and cool language, but I am old. It always seems like people are trying too hard to appeal to youth culture. Most of the people I know are too busy arguing about the Oxford comma to pay attention to AAVE.

God knows I’m not African American, but I was raised in a neighborhood where African American Vernacular English and Urban White Trash English were not that different. When is someone her authentic self and when is she being an insufferable racist, yo?

One more thing to note: I live in the South, where everyone picks up the Hillary Clinton southern accent upon crossing the Mason-Dixon line. Something about being south of North Carolina turns most white politicians black. It’s weird.

“Anyway, this is complicated and hard to explain and I’m probably not doing a great job. But it’d be nice to see more diversity & inclusion.”

This is great and very helpful. I get it. It’s easy to co-opt other cultures for fun and profit without actually including anyone who actively lives in that culture. This is an important reminder for writers, bloggers and content marketers.

“I want to presume that HR and marketing professionals want constructive feedback from a perspective they lack because I’m sure they’re lovely, amazing, kick-ass people who maybe aren’t aware of how certain language reads to certain people.”

That’s true. Most marketing and recruiting professionals would want to know if certain language is lethal and works against them when trying to communicate and employer brand and hire C++ Developers and whatnot.

“I want tech executives and HR professionals to know that I definitely look for poc/woc on company websites—specifically in leadership roles.”

Always?

“Yes.”

What do you see?

“It’s the cliché  where the only women are office assistants or other low-level positions.”

Or HR?

“Yes.”

There you go.

Here’s my take-away: For those of you who write for corporate websites and blogs, it’s important to think about how you might be affecting a certain voice to attract your version of millennials. And you might want to think about how your content works for you and against you when it comes to diversity and inclusion.

And if you write job descriptions, it’s always good to get another pair of eyes on your copy—especially eyes that have seen the world through another perspective.

FOT Background Check

Laurie Ruettimann
Laurie Ruettimann is a former HR leader and an influential speaker, writer and marketing advisor. Her work has appeared in many mainstream print publications and major news media outlets. You can find her on twitter at @Lruettimann.

14 Comments

  1. “Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?”

    http://youtu.be/P_i1xk07o4g

    I’m hip like that. Yo.

    PS. I do care about spaces between sentences tho.

    Reply
  2. Some Jerk says:

    That’s an interesting discussion. First of all, I’ll argue in favor of the Oxford Comma until the day I day, and second of all, nobody uses the word “verbiage” correctly these days, which is ironic in this case considering that telling white people they can’t use the African American Vernacular sounds like a whole bunch of verbiage to me. Wu-Tang isn’t just a black thing. It’s music, and music generally unites people from all sorts of backgrounds. You don’t really hear people saying that stuff about Stevie Wonder. When I write content for my company I have a few different voices. Versatility is a valuable tool for content writers, and that means I can write like a stuck up businessman and a young hip Millennial, the situation dictates it.

    I believe in hiring the best candidate regardless of their race, gender, or sexual orientation. I don’t believe that the absence of black people on a team means that they can’t relate with black recording artists. I completely disagree the sentiment that when white people use the African American Vernacular it’s just “hipsters co-opting black culture”. Imagine the racist backlash that would ensue if somebody accused a black person of co-opting white culture for speaking in a country-influenced vernacular? The truth about the progression of linguistics is that it relies on influence and usage to evolve. Millennials grew up during the height of hip-hop’s popularity, and white kids like rap too. It’s ok for them to pick up some of the slang. That’s how language works, and it’s a two way street. We’re all human beings.

    Reply
    • Laurie Ruettimann
      Laurie Ruettimann says:

      Thanks for the comment. You can be “some jerk” and move on with your life. No worries. I expected comments like this (and worse) and I just have one message for you: this blog post is not for you. Nothing for you here except mild conflict and benign ambivalence. This blog post is for people who want to think about things differently.

      But I will say that, as someone who helps companies select content marketing firms, your perspective about voice is off. Voice is an affectation and an outcome of infrastructure and message. You don’t flex your voice if you’re a professional-slash-corporate writer. You have a strategy. You choose concise and specific words. And those words you select will sound like a “voice” but are the deliberate outcome of choices you made about your messaging strategy.

      People who flex their voices are gimmicky. If you want to extend your career beyond “content marketer,” you may want to flex your perspective and understand how successful firms communicate to different audiences on behalf of clients.

      Reply
      • Some Jerk says:

        I think you got me all wrong. I was basically saying that communicating to different audiences on behalf of clients requires you, as a writer, to flex some perspective (to borrow some of your language.) I think that’s what being a versatile writer is all about. That’s what I meant when I said the situation dictates it. That’s how you devise your strategy. There’s nothing more useless than a content writer who can only write in one persona.

        I was offended by the idea that white people can’t use the African American Vernacular. That was the point of my post. I actually agreed with you, and I still think my post reflects that. There are situations were the African American Vernacular is acceptable in marketing, and I don’t think it’s wrong if it’s written by a white person. You have to remember, some companies market to corporations and individual people alike. Those are two extremely different audiences that respond to different voices.

        Reply
  3. Sharon says:

    Thank you Laurie,

    I truly appreciate how you reported the reader’s concerns and created a platform from HER point of view based on HER experiences. The one concern for me is when there are some with opposing views who have not lived those same experiences no matter what ethnicity, race or background If you black you will never be white and vice versa therefore you will never be able to live that experience. Until you’ve walked a mile in someone’s shoes one can only assume and/or imagine and comment from a judgment point of view. We need more sensitivity training respective of how others see and experience the world vs. how we see and experience the world. If it does not apply let it fly….

    Reply
    • Laurie says:

      I think it was particularly challenging for her to reach out to me. Her frustrations are complicated. I hope I did her concerns justice.

      Reply
    • Some Jerk says:

      Maybe I didn’t read you right either. As far as I could tell I wasn’t objecting to you. I sometimes take it too personally when white people are accused of “co-opting black culture” since it’s something that has happened to me. Not in the content I write for work, since that voice doesn’t really apply to my audience, but in my personal life. I’m a white dude, but I love hip hop, and I’m naturally influenced by its culture. That means I borrow from the style and the vernacular. I don’t think there’s anything wrong that, and I don’t think it’s any different in practice from a preppy person borrowing from hippie culture because they realized they like the music.

      I agree that it often comes across as phony and patronizing when companies adopt a more youthful language in attempt to communicate with younger generations, but when it’s done well enough nobody notices that they’re doing it. I don’t think it’s a race issue. I think we all have the right to adopt any vernacular that influences us, probably because it’s impossible not to.

      I really do appreciate your perspective and your responses. I’m a fan of this blog and your work. It definitely has my gears turning, so thank you for that.

      Reply
  4. Kris Dunn
    Kris Dunn says:

    So… This is no win territory for a white guy, yet her I am…

    I’m going to focus on the phrase “co-opting of black culture”, and I’m using the quotes to actual quote the person, not to be jaded.

    The problem with objecting to that type of co-op is that in so many ways, some of those cultural markers are now mainstream, starting with music and then emulating from there. My kids are only aware of music commonly associated with white folks (rock, grunge) because they have Gen X parents. The mainstream is influenced today much more by things resembling hip hip and R&B than it is rock. Rock is dead. Wiz Khalifa is the new Eddie Vedder to a lot of kids, regardless of race. LR is right when she says that Urban White Trash English is not that different. That’s true, and that’s an angle that transcends race.

    But, to the more direct point of the post, is it every appropriate for a company to co-op the language in marketing? I would say it’s more acceptable than it’s ever been based on the reality I outlined above.

    The bigger question for companies is whether that voice is what the market wants to hear. I guess it depends on the product, but I think pitching yourself as the Wu Tang of Performance Management is a limiting strategy. But I like brands talking like regular people talk. I think the real truth on this probably is found somewhere in the middle…

    KD

    Reply
  5. Cheers and thank you for a provocative post! For multiple reasons I’ll refrain from registering an actual stance on the matter here, but I will say there are very important matters afoot –and at stake– and any raised voice that can encourage others to raise theirs is a welcome one! Thanks, will be a pleasure to share …

    Regards,

    Christopher Watkins
    Social Media Manager
    fisherVISTA/HRmarketer

    Reply
  6. Chris Bell says:

    Great Post Laurie. A lot of the responses seem to focus on “co-opting black culture”. As a black man, I really don’t think that’s a huge issue. However, when it’s done by a company without black people in leadership or key roles with the company, it’s more of an issue. How can you truly reflect the voice of a people without experience to inform the voice. Don’t lose sight of the real mission of diversity which is inclusion. Is it really inclusive if the company is not diverse? Or are they simply posing?

    Chris Bell
    http://www.linkedin.com/in/chrisrecruits/
    @chrisbrecruits
    .

    Reply

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