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5 Powerful ways to be anti-racist as a creative independent

What does anti-racism have to do with being a freelancer?

Lots, y’all. 

We each have a role to play in the fight for social justice and racial equity. While it’s easy to think anti-racism starts and ends by marching in the streets, we have to fight the long fight. That means practicing anti-racism in our everyday lives, including in our work.

As freelancers, we get to work with different organizations all the time. Some of us are just beginning our freelance careers while others have been at this for a while, but we all have spheres of influence. By practicing anti-racism as freelancers, we can help shift organizations and build more equitable spaces that benefit all of us.

people rallying in the street

This is easier said than done, but 2020 has taught us nothing is impossible. In my years freelancing as a content marketer for BIPOC-owned brands (Black, Indigenous, and people of color), I learned there are actions we can take, big and small. 

Here are five powerful ways to build anti-racism into your freelance business.

1. Use Diverse Language and Imagery In Your Work.

The words and images we use have impact. They have the power to make someone feel seen, or to make them feel at the margins.

For example, words like “ethnic” or “exotic” center white folks at the expense of everyone else (because ethnic or exotic to whom, exactly?). Or brands that use images of Black and Brown folks to promote their diversity and equity policies, but use white models everywhere else.

We could write a whole blog post on language and imagery alone, but here are some beginner anti-racism principles to follow:

  • Abolish vocabulary that centers only white folks or upholds eurocentric ideals. Avoid words like “ethnic” or “exotic”, or phrases that uphold eurocentricity (ex. “Tall, blonde and gorgeous”). 
  • Capitalize the B in Black and the I in Indigenous. 
  • Use imagery of people of color in a thoughtful way. Are you using images of BIPOC folks as an afterthought, or is it something you think about in the onset? How is diversity reflected in the rest of your content, too? 
  • Avoid culturally insensitive imagery. A person’s culture is not an aesthetic or design choice. Unless they belong to the community you’re serving, avoid using Buddha heads, dreamcatchers and other religious or cultural symbols in your marketing. 
  • Never make assumptions about someone’s lived experiences based on their gender, ethnicity, or ability. For example, avoid phrases like “the struggle of being Black” or “confined to a wheelchair.” The Wethos style guide provides excellent resources to help you with this. 
  • Advocate for cultural diversity, gender diversity, and include a variety of abilities, body shapes and body sizes in your work. 

2. Ask, “Am I the Right Person for This Opportunity?”

Just because you’re offered an opportunity, doesn’t necessarily mean you’re the right person to do it. So many industries are built on the backs of Black and Brown communities, yet they rarely receive the credit or compensation. We have the power to change that.

In my primary business, for example, I’ve worked with Indigenous artisan communities in the Philippines and have been contacted for a number of things, from facilitating a panel about Indigenous design to being a “cultural expert”. I’ve said no to all of these requests and encouraged organizers to reach out to members of the Indigenous community instead. 

Before you say yes to an opportunity, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are there others who would be better suited for this?
  • Can I really do this topic justice?
  • Do I have the lived experiences and cultural awareness to speak on this topic, or would I have to rely on assumptions or other people’s perspectives?
  • Is there a voice or perspective that really needs to be heard in this space?

Which brings me to my next point…

3. Create a Seat for BIPOC Folks at the Table.

As humans, we naturally gravitate to people who look and sound like us. This is why, when companies and conferences reach out to their immediate networks, we end up with the same marketing and tech bros over and over again.

Next time you’re asked for a referral, be intentional about who you suggest. Refer BIPOC folks you know, and make an effort to partner with professionals outside your immediate networks. 

Depending on your freelance creative business, there are lots of ways to do this. If you’re a photographer, you could partner with a BIPOC stylist and hire gender-diverse models. If you’re a social media marketer, think about BIPOC-owned accounts you can collaborate with, re-share, and amplify.

As a writer, I do my best to reference resources from BIPOC folks in my articles and send traffic to their websites. I intentionally add crosslinks to BIPOC-owned sites to power their SEO juice and help them rank better on Google. If you pay close attention, you’ll notice I’ve done it throughout this article!

4. Be Transparent About Your Rates, Especially with BIPOC.

Wealth is power, y’all. And one of the ways systemic racism thrives is by keeping wealth out of BIPOC communities. 

The wage gap in the USA doesn’t just cut across gender – it’s divided by race, too. According to CNN, Black women have to work until August 2020 to earn the same salary as men did at the end of 2019 (that’s almost a year!). For Latina women, they have to work until November.

BIPOC folks, particularly cis-women and trans-women, are less likely to negotiate their rates or salary. Worse, they’re most likely to be low-balled compared to their white peers

How can you be part of the change?

Be transparent about your rates with your BIPOC peers. Tell them when they’re being underpaid. Advocate for BIPOC to get paid for panels, gigs, and writing commissions. And if you invite a BIPOC creative onto a project, especially if you’re asking them to be experts in diversity and inclusion, make sure you pay them.

One person getting more doesn’t mean you get less. Why fight each other for a slice of the pie, when we can work together to demand more pie for everyone? 

5. Hold Your Clients Accountable. 

This is the hardest of all, and I admit not all of us are in a position to say no to clients. But for those who are, it’s our duty to use our privilege and power to advocate for those who can’t.

I once worked with a marketing agency that advocated for women empowerment. But when it came time to advocate for Black Lives Matter and Black women, they were silent. In the end, we parted ways. It was stressful and unpleasant, but in the end, I’m proud I stood my ground. And the best part? Losing that project freed me up to find better clients who do match my values. I’ve since worked with other brands to create empowering content for BIPOC communities and I have zero regrets.

Lean on your expertise. Stand in your truth. You can even offer to put clients in touch with diversity, equity and inclusivity consultants. Or, if you’re a BIPOC freelancer, pitch your anti-racist and intersectional perspective as part of your offerings. 

If the client is genuine, they’ll make an effort to listen to you. And if appealing to their humanity doesn’t work, appeal to their wallets. Being anti-racist is just good for business. 

How have you adopted anti-racism and anti-oppression as a freelancer?

Gelaine Santiago

Storyteller & Co-Founder

Gelaine Santiago is a social entrepreneur, storyteller, and co-founder of two social good companies. As a content marketing consultant, Gelaine specializes in stories that uplift purpose-driven brands, Black and Indigenous founders, and communities of color.