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Ep N°16: Navigating the complex world of identity

Luna was born when we lived in Argentina. Soon after, I had to register her birth abroad with the U.S. Consulate, so we could establish her U.S. citizenship and get her U.S. passport. During that process, I found myself struggling and confused when it came to filling out her paperwork, particularly in the parts where I had to select her race and ethnicity. I checked that yes, she was Latino from an ethnicity standpoint, and checked the Black/African-American box for race. I’d filled out forms like these plenty of times before for myself, and rarely gave any thought to the questions, or why they were asked that way. I’m non-Latino, and Black. Simple. But filling these forms out seemed a bit more complicated for me when it came to my new family.

Last year we went through the Visa process for Jonathan in preparation for our move to the U.S. When I had to fill out the forms for him, it was weird for me. Is Jonathan Latino? Yep. Race?…..Ummmmmm. Was I supposed to check White? In my mind, Jonathan is Latino. He’s Argentine. But checking a box to say he was White, just felt odd, especially since that isn’t how Jonathan identifies. I had to go and look up the definitions of race and ethnicity to get a better understanding. Turns out, when it came to my husband, I always thought about his ethnicity and nationality — race wasn’t really a part of the equation. Perhaps it was because at that point in time, the duration of our relationship had been in Argentina, where race wasn’t top of mind for us the way it is in the U.S. The Argentine government doesn’t collect data around race or ethnicity either, so for him the concept felt foreign as well. In case you need a refresher: Race, according to Merriam-Webster, is “a category of humankind that shares certain distinctive physical traits. ”Thus, according to the U.S. Census, a person classified as “White” is someone “having origins of any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa. ”Ethnicity on the other hand is broader, in that it categorizes people according to their cultural expression and identification.

We’re not the only ones grappling with these questions of identity when it comes to Census data and official government documents for the U.S. In the 2020Census, the number of Puerto Ricans that identified as White droppednearly80% from the 2010 Census. Nearly 50% of those who participated identified themselves as two races or more. From 1960 – 2000, Puerto Rico conducted their own Census, and didn’t ask questions about race or ethnicity. The U.S. government says they collect race and ethnicity data to assist them in making policy decisions, particularly for civil rights. Different governments have different philosophies on this matter. France and Germany for instance donot collect this data, although many have called for them to, so they can get real numbers on injustices that occur. As a society, it seems we often like to put people in various categories. Sometimes those categorizations and any data associated with them can be good if it helps us better serve people. But the challenge is, too often categorizations aren’t quite right. People don’t so cleanly fit into the buckets that have been established. As a result, harm can becaused in a variety of different ways, including emotionally. That’s why as a brand, it is essential for you to think carefully about identity and what types of categorizations are necessary as you work to build an inclusive brand.

I’ve always admired people who have their pantries organized and labeled. Everything is easy to find, and in order, and it looks like an efficient way to find and store what you need. But people aren’t like bags of rice, oatmeal, or pasta. The problem with categories and labels we’re more complex than that. We have a number of inter sectionalities, preferences, and even identities. And because of that, the way we view and experience the world, and subsequently engage with brands, are influenced by those various identities. As such, the categorizations and labels don’t always do what they are intended to do.

Intersectionality For instance, I am an entrepreneur, a wife, a mom, and a Black woman. That combination makes me like other people in those groups, but at the same time, I have plenty of differences. We speak Spanish in our home, my husband is an immigrant, we have a bi-racial child. I battle autoimmune disorders. I’m left-handed (actually, Jonathan and I both are).The things that concern me and my family are different, because of the many identities and labels we have. We fit into a bunch of different boxes. There are plenty of other people who have multiple identities and labels that cause the issues that concern them and their families to be different from me, you, and people you know.

Grouping people that don’t have shared experiences add to this the reality that categorizations often group people together, that don’t always have the same shared experiences. This can be problematic. Over the past two years, the term BIPOC which means Black, Indigenous, or Person of Color, has increased in popularity. However, there are plenty of people who fall within this category, but don’t like the term. And then there are others who are often considered to be a person of color, but who don’t even think of themselves in that way. This podcast episode “Is it time to say RIP to ‘POC’? From NPR’s Code Switch show provides an insightful perspective on the nuances associated with it. And this video does as well.

Erasing Identities another challenge when lumping various groups of people into one category is that their individual identities and the experiences associated with them get lost, especially if there are certain stereotypes or assumptions associated with the larger group that may be true for some, but not all. A few weeks ago, a woman commented on one of my Instagram posts expressing her frustration that a broad label of “Hispanic” seemed to erase an identity that was important to her: her nationality:

People may not identify themselves with the label If you categorize groups of consumers in a way that they don’t identify with, you may run into trouble with a disconnect in the experience you deliver. Amy Chesire runs fashion brand Hey Gorgeous for plus-sized women. As she and her team developed a deeper degree of intimacy for the women they served, they realized the ‘plus-sized’ label was problematic. She explained to “We did find that a lot of women, especially the size 14/16, donot identify themselves as plus-sized, so they are just living life as they are and they can fit into some clothes, or can’t. We also found that customers do not necessarily want the term ‘plus’ in the name of the brand because then it will be calling them out to what they are and not everyone has embraced their size. ”As a result, Cheshire and her team stopped using the word plus-sized, and eliminated it from their branding. While there can be many benefits to your brand for grouping different people together, there are challenges associated with it that you should be aware of.

I follow a gluten-free diet for health reasons. When I’m shopping for ingredients, or at a restaurant grabbing food, I need to know what I can and can’t eat. In Argentina, pregnant women are treated with so much care. When I was pregnant with Luna, I arrived back in Buenos Aires after a business trip to the longest customs line I had ever seen. I could have easily stood there for up wards of 90 minutes, but thankfully one of the officers saw my pregnant belly and sent me to a shorter line that I sailed through in 5 minutes. Different categories of people need different things. And we can’t give everyone what they need through our products, services, experiences, policies, practices, and programs, if we don’t take the time to figure out what those differences require. Categorizations, and the data associated with them help companies identify when they have a gender pay gap. They help them identify when their talent and leadership teams are not representative of the populations they want to serve. And they help marketers figure out when their marketing is leaving certain customer groups out. I worked with one brand a few years ago who had data that showed that African-Americans used their product the least, and had the least connection with the brand, when compared to other races. As a result, they knew there was something about the experience they were delivering that didn’t work so well for this particular group, and needed to figure out how to change that. Labels are also useful

How to handle identities associated with your customers’ differences

Acknowledge the different identities of the people who have the problem your business solves Inclusive marketing is about acknowledging the many ways in which consumers are different, intentionally choosing who your brand will serve, and authentically incorporating those diverse consumers throughout all phases of the marketing mix. The challenge is that most brands don’t get specific enough with the definition of who their customer is. As a result, their marketing ends up leaving too many people out. Sabrina Meherally, Founder of Pause and Effect, was a guest expert for us inside the Inclusivity HUB. She provided some great insights into how to think about identities when figuring out who your products are for.

Getting clear about those identities, and choosing the ones you will serve, helps you get clear about the various ways you need to serve people with those identities to make them feel like they belong with you. When you look at many electronics brands for instance, it is clear they have identified that the customers they want to serve speak various languages. Thusthey design products that support use with different languages. Nike has defined that those who identify as Muslim are included in the people who have the problem their brand solves. Once they decided they wanted to serve this group, they realized that Muslim women in particular, needed something other women didn’t: a hijab that worked for sport.

Retailer ASOS saw that people who identified as having some form of disability used their products, and they wanted to serve them. So they worked design product lines with them in mind, and also put in policies to ensure their website and online apps are accessible. I talked to a woman a few weeks ago who told me she wanted to make sure people from the LGBTQ+ community felt like they belonged with her business. Thus she’s working to ensure she delivers experiences throughout her customer journey that make them feel that way.