When a Country is Tone Deaf: A Lesson for All of Us


Addressing racism is a touchy subject, one that has to be handled with care and sensitivity. Even when those looking to broach the subject have the best of intentions and feel they have carefully thought through their messaging, reactions can range from rolled eyes to outrage.


Case in Point: When Good Intentions Backfire


Case in point—a recent campaign by the government of Spain to address racism in the country. Spain has had a troubling history of racism – both state-sponsored and cultural – for literally centuries, from royal decrees expelling Jews and Muslims from 15th century Spain to racism experienced by Black soccer players at the hands of Spanish fans well into the 21st century.


Spain’s government deserves credit for recent attempts to address the country’s racist past and present, but a recent effort to do so has met with swift backlash. The issue involves a new set of postage stamps issued by Spain’s state-owned postal service, the Correos España. The new set consists of four different stamps, each a different skin tone, with different monetary values assigned to each skin tone and decreasing in value as they increase in shade from beige (€1.60) to dark brown (€0.70).


“But while the goal of Correos España was to ‘shine a light on racial inequality and promote diversity, inclusion and equal rights,’ critics are accusing the company of having a tin ear for racial issues and misreading the sentiment of Black people in Spain,” write Barry Hatton and Alicia León in an article for the Associated Press. Unsurprisingly, the criticism centers on the fact that the lighter stamps have a greater value than the darker stamps, which suggests to many that lighter-skinned people have a greater value than darker-skinned people.


There’s little doubt the Correos España was well-intentioned in its campaign; however, it’s apparent that many Spaniards didn’t understand or appreciate the intended context. Seeing the differing values tied directly to skin tone, in a vacuum, is obviously something that is going to stir controversy. Even with the context known – drawing attention to the problem of racism – the campaign certainly comes across as tone deaf.


When You Overlook Inclusion You Risk Being Tone Deaf


The AP cited a Spanish source that called attention to a lack of diversity and inclusion in positions of authority and decision-making ability in the country. “SOS Racismo Madrid said the campaign helps conceal the structural nature of racism and perpetuate the notion of Black inferiority,” write Hatton and León. “Any racially aware person would have identified what was wrong with the campaign, it said, adding that the blunder proved the need for more racially aware people in decision-making positions at companies.”


Addressing racism is an essential part of addressing its causes and impacts. Organizations, especially governments, should be commended when they have a willingness and determination to do so. But intent and execution are two very different things.

As the Spanish stamp campaign illustrates, even the most well-intentioned efforts to improve problems with racism can go very wrong. A key potential failing from the start of this campaign is a lack of diversity and inclusion in its design, implementation, and rollout. When addressing discrimination against marginalized groups, it is of course key that those groups have a significant voice in that process.


That’s what inclusion is all about. And this example clearly, and unfortunately, illustrates the real impacts that a lack of inclusion can have. Be inclusive!

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