We Need to Talk About What it Means to be a Researcher of Color

Getting real about the market research industry and the complex tensions researchers of color silently endure

The marketing research industry is the small, unglamorized cousin of the advertising and tech fields. Unlike its cousins however, when it comes to diversity, researchers of color (ROCs) are often disconnected and without community. In a cultural moment that needs diverse voices in research, insights and strategy more than ever, there is not only a lack of diversity in our field, but also a lack of connectivity and awareness, especially in POC communities.

There is a need to come to terms with what it really means to be a minority in research, and to bring attention to the inherent flaws in an outdated system and how it contributes to the tensions ROCs often face in their workplaces, and in the work that they do.

Presently there is no “home”, or national network for ROCs which presents a different kind of crisis. Because our profession is no longer owned by the agency world, we often find ourselves spread across different companies or within consumer insights departments of various organizations and brands. This has not only hindered ROCs ability to find, connect and network with one another, but it has also created a gap in the marketplace and become a problem for companies seeking our inputs.

While organizations like Insights in Color and CORe are trying to change this reality for the next generation of researchers, before that change can be fully realized, the industry must first come to terms with the fact that it was never constructed with ROCs or multicultural audiences in mind in the first place.

Marketing research was instead built through a restrictive narrative based on mainstream workplace norms and consumer behavior expectations which has left little room for nuanced experiences or consumer truths that veer from what has been deemed normative. It is this system of restrictive narratives that creates and sustains the myriad of tensions ROCs often face in their workplaces, and in the work that they do.

“We live in a world where white supremacy and the patriarchy dictate that there is only one true experience — the one that reflects the lived experiences of white people and men. All other reported and lived experiences are largely perceived as suspect and even invalid by those dominant groups. What we actually know about human beings from research and also through common sense is that there are many different lived experiences.” Joanna Franchini, Chief Brand Officer & Cultural Strategist, Curiada

It is no secret that, for most people of color, being a minority in the workplace can be an emotionally exhausting and traumatizing experience. ROCs experience this two-fold.

When entering the research field for the first time, all researchers start off investigating mainstream brands and audiences. As we grow within our respective specialty areas, we inevitably come across our first diversity project. It is in these moments that ROCs are forced to navigate some of our most painful workplace tensions.

For instance, it is not lost on us that we are often used as the faces on our company websites, proposals and creds decks to serve as proof of our company’s diversity efforts and research capabilities. For ROCs, this tends to be highly ironic when we find ourselves building strategies that to speak to, attract and retain diverse audiences in our projects, and return to a workplace environment that never integrates those learnings internally for employee engagements and recruitment initiatives.

Once the “diversity train” starts (meaning, we sometimes find ourselves forever trapped within the confines of this space), when D&I initiatives or multicultural research projects emerge, we are either tapped to represent the perspectives of all colleagues of color and multicultural consumers in our projects, or, we feel an inherent obligation speak up because there is no one else to do so.

The very nature of what we do- segmenting and classifying consumers by demographic, attitudinal and behavioral measures, forces many ROCs to come face to face with the gross mistruths, generalizations and stereotypes that exist about people who share our ethnic & cultural backgrounds. Unlike other professions, ROCs have to see color in order to be great at what we do and, when it comes to our work, we are constantly reminded of our standing and worth in our workplace and in this country.

For example, we often witness how projects targeting “mainstream consumers “ (ie- majority white) are assigned robust budgets, while projects for multicultural consumers request the same amount of insights & learnings (if not more) with budgets that are half the size or less. In some instances, we witness diversity teams being forced to campaign for more money, or fight to with other ethnic-group task forces for more

Finally, we learn early on that most projects focusing on our demographic tend to happen as an afterthought, as an add-on to larger mainstream initiatives, or, from a diversity PR crisis. Instead of finding new insights and nuanced stories, these projects are usually created to validate or identify the cross-section of mainstream insights that could also work for consumers of color. In fact, it is common for us to be told that the multicultural insights we uncover and illustrate could never appeal to mainstream audiences, despite the fact that we know this not to be the case.

Many ROCs are tasked with being the cultural liaisons in our job functions as we become translators and reality checks for work that includes multicultural audiences. When ROCs do point out concepts that won’t work, we are usually forced to defend our rationale to colleagues and clients who don’t believe our expertise to be an accurate representation of our own cultural groups. This is especially true for ROCs who are able to assimilate & code switch so well that they are deemed “not ethnic enough” to be positioned as experts on work targeting minorities. Having our intellect questioned by clients and colleagues who have never studied or been a part of these groups is an added burden ROCs have to endure.

In many cases, we speak up and translate voluntarily because we know that if we don’t say something the research methodology or outputs would be incorrect and many of us feel a moral obligation to get it right. In fact, the moral antennas & ethical obligations of ROCs probably feel heavier than most, as we tend to not only advocate for ourselves in the workplace, but also for the voices of the members of our communities who would be indirectly or directly impacted by our outputs.

This also means that when we receive project briefs for brands and products that we know are adversely affecting our communities that there is a heavy pause in how we take the work into consideration. Do we, as ROCs, take a stand by declining the opportunity and refusing to do it in order to prevent the brand from targeting us more effectively? Or, do we do the work and hope to paint a better, more human picture of the people the brand is targeting in order to point out why this is a problem and what should be done about it? It is a tricky question because like so many of our projects, what happens to our work once it leaves our hands is ultimately not up to us.

For researchers of color, the market research industry can be emotionally draining and exhausting. From knowing that the work we do has a high chance of being dismissed by clients, colleagues and peers, to navigating majority White workspaces with no reprieve in a community of individuals who look like us and experience the same issues. This creates a perfect storm for burn out, dissolution and mass escape, the latter of which tends to happen much more frequently than it should.

ROCs are in uniquely transformative professions that can truly affect the lives of others by telling some of the world’s most beautiful and often overlooked consumer stories. If our industry is responsible for powering the messaging, branding and innovations of some of the world’s most renowned organizations, then there is a critical need to ensure that diverse voices are always included in the research development and story-telling process of the work that we do.

But to do this correctly, there needs to be a shift in our industry, one that starts with acknowledging the tensions we face in our field and gets real about why we fail at diversity. Creating diversity groups and networking collectives is a great start but if ROCs unite just to continue operating within broken system then there is no hope for real change.

Once we can admit that there is an inherent problem in the way our industry functions, on the brand and agency sides, we can begin finding ways to solve for some of our deepest, most longstanding issues and begin to create the kind of research community we hope to see.

Insights in color is a new platform developed by Touch of Whit Creative with a mission to interrogate, deconstruct and re-imagine the marketing research industry and it starts by making market researchers of color more visible and connected. Learn more here.

Originally published at https://www.touchofwhit.com on July 1, 2020.

Whitney Dunlap-Fowler is a Cultural Strategist specializing in semiotics, culture & brand strategy. www.touchofwhit.com www.insightsincolor.com

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