The murder of black American George Floyd in May has been a catalyst for demanding racial equality across the world. Conversations have swiftly moved beyond police brutality to interrogate the wider racist context it sits in. Workplace discrimination, institutionalised racism and Britain’s colonial hangover are all issues demanding change and accountability – and it’s about time.
The Black Lives Matter demonstrations organised across Britain were met with shock and confusion by a lot of people: why were we risking Covid-19 to protest an event that happened thousands of miles away in another country, another society? But those most affected by Britain’s racism know that it’s everywhere, across time and space, and that the conditions that produced the shocking video of George Floyd’s death also exist here. As much as the protests were an act of solidarity, they were also a way to shine a light on the racial discrimination faced by black Britons on a daily basis.
It’s increasingly clear that UK politicians are not willing to make real, significant changes. When we consider the fact that the new head of the government’s Race and Equalities Commission is institutional racism-denier Munira Mirza, it should be no surprise that individuals are taking matters into their own hands, and making a point to empower black business owners – and in turn, the wider community – instead.
The call to support black enterprise is louder than ever. This movement has caught fire so quickly because not only has the black community been fighting grievances for a long time, but it’s become clearer just how absurd the lack of progress has been.
I launched Jamii, a discount card and marketplace for black British businesses, in 2016 after the rise of the first Black Lives Matter movement. I realised that economic empowerment was a route to long-lasting social change, but buying from black-owned businesses needed to be habitual in order to make a real impact. At the same time, locating these businesses – even in London and online – was a challenge, and I knew that inconvenience would be a major obstacle to even the most committed.
However, in the past two weeks alone, Jamii has seen a huge surge in sales and many of our black businesses we partner with have completely sold out their stock.
We’ve always said that black-owned products can be used and loved by more than just the black community, and as we’ve watched the support come in from people of all backgrounds, we’re thrilled to see so many businesses getting much deserved recognition.
Opportunities for black business growth and expansion are limited. Negative stereotypes are rife and rate of access to bank loans and other forms of finance is discouraging. For these reasons and more, black entrepreneurs don’t have a significant foothold in any markets – not even Afro hair care, of which they are the main consumers.
The idea of “black ownership” is so empowering because it means agency over our community’s livelihood, narrative and future. It’s absurd to give our wealth and our votes to corporations and politicians that don’t care about black people; by supporting black-owned businesses, we’re investing in the community’s representation, and the right for it to become a standard.
Increasingly, black British entrepreneurs are finding success stepping into gaps in the market where representation was lacking, such as in hair care. Not only were offerings for black men and women non-existent from mainstream brands, the amount of misleading advice and unregulated products still targeted towards black consumers is appalling. With the UK black haircare industry valued at £88m, it deserves to be served by experts who live the lifestyle they sell, given that they are their own target customer.
This is the kind of crucial representation that we’ll see more of by investing in black business. As some of the world’s biggest and most influential companies like Vogue and L’Oreal are being condemned by former employees and collaborators for racism, we should not wait around for them to overhaul their workplace culture and promise some inauthentic form of diversity. Instead, it’s so much more effective to invest in the community and see the tangible change we can make.
Shopping from black-owned businesses is a vote for equality with our wallets. It’s a long, long road but this kind of conscious consumerism is a daily pledge to empower the underserved and underrepresented.
Khalia Ismain is the founder of Jamii, the UK’s first discount card for black-owned businesses
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