The planet Mercury is retrograde, mucking up communications like nobody’s business. Maybe popular blogger/influencer/author Luvvie Ajayi is more deeply impacted by these communication misfires than the rest of us. But I’m not quite ready to give her a planetary pass for the fauxpology she recently issued after publicly trashing unnamed Black and Mixed-race activists in a Facebook post, then spending most of the week defending her rant.
I’m going to analyze this from two of my areas of expertise: as both a Mixed-race identity activist, and and as a veteran strategic communications expert with special cred in crisis communications. My receipts in this area include Spelman College and other HBCUs, the Children’s Defense Fund Black Community Crusade for Children, speechwriting for high-level government officials, and teaching public speaking at Temple University, along with more than a decade of executive consulting in the public and private sectors.
Let’s break this down:
First–context. Now that Luvvie’s platform and spotlight are shining way beyond her blog and social media presence, her words and messaging are impacting other people and platforms beyond her own. It is possible that her being featured as one of the most “Woke” women in the new issue of Essence magazine, might have spurred someone in her circle to help her to realize this. And since monthly magazine content and covers are typically wrapped up weeks or several months ahead of publication, Essence was loving Luvvie long before her problematic FB post.
Now for our Crisis Communications case study analysis:
- She begins the fauxpology by centering herself in the narrative and talking about what a bad week it’s been for her and her spirit without taking any responsibility for having created the “shitstorm” in the first place. This sounds like she’s complaining about the natural consequences of her choice to trash the activists rather than feeling any actual remorse or experiencing a real revelation. Solution: Reference yourself, not the victims, and stick to owning your offense and taking full responsibility for the impact and outcomes that it created.
- Unlike in her original post, the fauxpology has a glaring omission of Black people and a total focus on Mixed-race folks. “I should not have broadly generalized a whole group of my people based on a few people. My mixed race comment offended a bunch of you…” Where is the reference to the Black activists who were the focus of most of her rant? Why the singular focus on only Mixed-race and light-skinned people who were clearly not the main target? Rather than saying, “My mixed race comment offended a bunch of you,” an apology would say, “My comments about both Black and Mixed-race activists were offensive.” And P.S. to everybody: You don’t upper-case Black and lower-case Mixed-race, or vice versa for that matter. Just: No on that passive-aggressive foolishness.
- “To my mixed race and light skinned folks, I’m sorry I made you feel like I was questioning your Blackness.” Here you see the classic fauxpology move: I’m sorry I made you feel like I was…” putting the burden on us for what we felt in response to her comments versus a more sincere, straightforward apology for what she said and inferred. She could have simply said, “I’m sorry I questioned your Blackness.” Although, to be clear, she was not “questioning” our Blackness. She was trashing it. There is a huge difference.
- She was also being patronizing and condescending while policing our identities. Your Blackness is not for me to judge … Your #BLAXIT passport was never revoked or in jeopardy.” Luvvie still seems to see herself as qualified to confer Black and Mixed-race identity upon folks. Does she not realize that we are born with all the Blackness and any other DNA we need, no external recognition or validation required? She seems to be claiming authority while continually showcasing her lack of basic knowledge and understanding about how these things work in the real world. Then she demonstrated more cluelessness by throwing Rachel Dolezal into the conversation as if Dolezal is Mixed. You can read my column on that hot topic right here. Solution: she could have said, “I have no right to question, challenge or insult anyone’s racial or identity credentials and I will not do it again.”
- Biggest issue: Why is this entire message limited to Mixed-race and light-skinned folks when the bulk of the originating crap-fest specified Black activists? Why aren’t they even mentioned here? Maybe she reached out to them separately. But without knowing that, this just plays like that age-old, beyond trite and tired attempt to divide us: house vs. field; light vs. dark; Mixed vs. Black, etc. Does she really think we don’t see this obvious ploy to favor us at the expense of Black people? To prioritize us and our feelings as if they’re somehow different or more important?
- This is the same game the world runs on us each and every day. I don’t know if her advisors pointed her in this direction, or whether she came up with this bright idea on her own. But pitting us against each other just spotlights the underlying problem of her original rant, subsequent defenses of that rant, and now this fauxpology: no evidence that she has any desire to further unity or solidarity. Solution: since she mentioned Black and Mixed-race activists separately and to different degrees in her original post, this response should have covered the same ground in the same proportion and order. Crisis communications require absolute specificity to be effective. Solution: To simply say, “It was not my intention to promote divisiveness between Black and Mixed-race or dark and light-skinned people. I am striving to better understand this dynamic so that I do not inadvertently make the same mistake in the future.
- Attempts at humor. Luvvie is a very talented and successful humorist. However, there is nothing amusing about any of this, or any place for this kind of messaging in a crisis communications response. Whether citing Rachel Dolezal in a Mixed-race context or falling back on her popular reference to not coming for her “edges in the name of Jamaican Black Castor Oil,” these read as attempts to deflect from the gravity of the topic, which help to render it a fauxpology rather than the real deal.
- Skip the low-key self-referential promotion. The “I should’ve known how important my words would be to people” comes off like a humble brag. Of course she knows how important her every word is–as a blogger, social media influencer, #1 New York Times bestselling author and one of Essence magazine’s “Most Woke Women,” what else could she possibly think? Any real apology focuses on the offender taking full and unequivocal responsibility while centering the offended and their experience to the original offense(s). And promoting her book just felt even more self-serving and less authentic. Solution: delete all of these references before posting.
One thing is clear: If you build your brand on the concept of you judging people, you are seemingly not trying to understand or respect them or their point-of-view. It’s never a good idea to convey a mix of superiority and cluelessness when responding to a communications crisis, especially when you created that crisis in the first place. She’s many days late and several dollars short with the fauxpology, which should have run immediately after the “shitstorm,” and she blew the opportunity by trying to play colorist divide-and-conquer politics while opting out of taking actual responsibility.
Big picture takeaway: Beyond Luvvie, everyone experiences communications crises from time to time. How we respond can have more long-term impact than the original offense. And when done properly, the response can neutralize damage and sometimes even turn a negative into a positive. Let’s recycle this “shitstorm” into a teachable moment for us all.
1. Expression of regret
2. Explanation of what went wrong
3. Acknowledgment of responsibility
4. Declaration of repentance
5. Offer of repair
6. Request for forgiveness
See how simple an apology can be?
And on a more personal note: Anyone who sincerely wants to know about Mixed-race people from the source is invited to visit Multi-racial Media, where a large and varied group of us very ably represent ourselves in all of our complicated glory. This is my very respectful request that all non-Mixed public commentators and anyone else who is inclined to trash, police, and/or play to us at the expense of any other People of Color, please cease and desist immediately and forever. We are more than capable of speaking for ourselves. And when it comes to potential conflicts, the old-school rules apply: Don’t start none, won’t be none. Because you don’t need to be any kind of communications expert to understand that common-sense wisdom.
Finally: As any communications expert can tell you, Mercury goes retrograde 3 to 4 times each year. Do your homework so you’re not misspeaking and you might not need to apologize in the first place.