In general, it’s a good idea for companies to actively seek out the opinions and perspectives of Black employees. But there’s a right and a wrong way to do it, as highlighted by a recent New York Times story on Anna Wintour’s leadership on diversity (or lack thereof) at Vogue.
According to six people interviewed for the article, Vogue frequently practices “fronting”—a phenomenon in which junior Black employees are “asked to participate, or merely show up for, high-level meetings,” the article explains. “At Vogue, they have been asked to weigh in on cover images or take part in discussions with advertisers, forums that do not typically call on junior employees.”
On the surface, this might not sound like such a bad thing. Isn’t it important for high-powered executives to hear what Black employees have to say, regardless of their rank?
Well, yes! But a big part of the issue with fronting is why junior Black employees are asked to attend important meetings: Often it’s because there are no senior Black staffers at the table.
Fronting at Vogue
The Times article offers two revealing examples of fronting in action. In fall 2017, Wintour asked a Black assistant to attend a meeting evaluating a photo shoot that featured “several dark-skinned Black models wearing head scarves.” Wintour wanted to make sure the images didn’t come across as racist. The Times reports:
“The employee, an assistant, told her superiors that the work was fine. The real problem, she continued, according to several people familiar with the meeting, was why a low-ranked person such as herself had been asked to assess it. The room fell into an uncomfortable silence.”
In another example, a Black junior editor was asked to attend a meeting with actor Lupita Nyong’o to discuss an upcoming photo shoot featuring her family in Kenya:
Ms. Nyong’o expressed concern about how her family would be portrayed, saying she feared they might come across as cultural props, according to several people with knowledge of the meeting. After a long pause, a junior editor—the only Black staff member in the room—piped up. Addressing the actress, she suggested that the shoot would be an opportunity to showcase Africa, a rarity in any American magazine, let alone Vogue.
The shoot was a go. And the junior editor was never asked to attend a fashion meeting again.
In both cases, the junior Black staffers’ opinions clearly carried a lot of weight. At the same time, their invitations to those meetings didn’t seem to lead to more professional opportunities or otherwise help advance their careers.
In response to the fronting allegation, Condé Nast told the Times, “Anna and Vogue and all the leaders at our brands have made concerted efforts to build inclusion into all we do every day.”
What distinguishes fronting from true inclusion, however, is that fronting serves only the interests of the company and the (non-Black) people in power—and may well make the Black person in question feel like a token representative of their race. It may also be a way for companies to appear more diverse to outsiders than they actually are, and allow them to continue ignoring the need to hire and promote Black people to leadership roles.
Why there are so few Black executives
Black people hold just 3.2% of all senior-level or executive roles at large US companies, according to a 2018 report from Coqual (formerly known as the Center for Talent Innovation).
There are a number of explanations for this statistic, beyond outright discrimination. Among them: Research shows that Black workers often have fewer opportunities for face time with the high-powered executives who could offer them mentorship opportunities and help advance their careers. The Coqual report found that just 19% of Black women said they’d had other people advocate for them at work, compared to 35% of white women.
Companies that fail to create inclusive cultures also often have higher attrition rates among Black employees, which in turn makes it even less likely that Black employees will rise through the ranks at a given company.
As for what happened at Vogue, Wintour told the Times: “I strongly believe that the most important thing any of us can do in our work is to provide opportunities for those who may not have had access to them. Undoubtedly, I have made mistakes along the way, and if any mistakes were made at Vogue under my watch, they are mine to own and remedy and I am committed to doing the work.”
How to avoid tokenization
The best way for companies to avoid fronting is to ensure that they are investing heavily in recruiting and developing Black talent—with practices that will lead them to have Black people at all levels within the organization. That way, there’s no need to call a junior staffer into a meeting they wouldn’t normally be in, because other Black voices would already be in the room.
As for situations in which companies genuinely want to have inclusive conversations with lower-level Black staffers, one way to avoid tokenization is to let the employees take the lead. In Quartz’s August workshop on building antiracist companies, Nadia Owusu, an associate director of the racial economic justice organization Living Cities, advised making space for people of color to “raise what topics they want to be discussing, rather than proposing those topics to them,” giving them room to discuss those topics in their own voice, and encouraging them to speak honestly about any problems they see and experience.
“Otherwise,” Owusu said, “it’s like you’re asking people to be the photo on the brochure that is the diverse population, but not really interested in what their actual experience of the workplace is.”