When Akwasi Owusu-Bempah first saw the stir of controversy around the Blk Mkt brand, he didn’t engage or retweet because he thought that’s exactly what the self-identified “edgy” company wanted.
It wasn’t until its parent company, GTEC Holdings (TSXV: GTEC), released a statement Wednesday night distancing itself from multiple accusations of racism that the University of Toronto criminology professor decided to speak up.
The statement came in the wake of a weekslong storm on social media, following controversial branding displayed on the Blk Mkt booth at last weekend’s Lift & Co. (CVE: LIFT) industry conference in Vancouver.
This is disgusting and appalling. @liftandco should be embarrassed that they promoted this brand and the people who created this brand should be fired. The name was bad enough, but these headlines are racist, not edgy. https://t.co/bGfyVHmLXY
— Rachel Colic (@rachelcolic) January 12, 2020
(Lift & Co., who featured the Blk Mkt booth and branding on their Twitter account, was contacted but has not yet provided a response.)
Owusu-Bempah said the bulk of the company’s statement amounted to denying the possibility of racism because they have a few racialized staff.
He gave the following summary of GTEC’s statement: ‘Hey, look, we didn’t mean any harm here. We passed it by a couple people of colour, and they said it was cool, so it’s not racist.’
It’s the same thing as saying something racist and then going like ‘I’m not racist. I have a black friend,’ he said.
“I come at this issue as a criminologist and someone who studies race and criminal justice, as well as the director of research for the Campaign for Cannabis Amnesty,” Owusu-Bempah said. “So I find this particularly disturbing because in my own research we know quite well there’s been a clear connection made, and numerous stereotypes around black people in particular and drug use — black, latino and indigenous people.”
“To say that the company meant no harm by creating a ‘black market’ brand and then having ‘Once you go Blk, you never go back …’ as a tagline – claiming that’s in no way racist, to me, is both incorrect and highly offensive.”
Before the recent uproar, GTEC’s Blk Mkt came under fire for being a corporate cannabis luxury brand co-opting a name that refers to the prohibition-era cannabis community — a legacy industry that paved the way for legalization, but who many believe has been treated unjustly under the legal regime.
The debate aside, that the company meant no harm with the Blk Mkt label, the fact they’ve used the line ‘Once you go black, you never go back,’ Owusu-Bempah says, nullifies any claims there’s no connection to race or racism here because that’s a statement often used to talk about black men and sex.
I appreciate you being openminded. It actually relates to a historical hypersexualization of black boys and men that perpetuates a divide between black men and all other races as well as underlines an outdated, damaging and dehumanizing stereotype.
— Calyx + Trichomes Cannabis (@CalyxTrichomes) January 12, 2020
Blk Mkt’s slogan recalls a racist history
“There’s a deeply racist history around the supposed sexual proclivities or the hypersexuality of black men, and stereotypes about them being well-endowed,” he said. “While some people may find those funny, they’re actually quite dangerous because they’ve historically led to violence against black men.”
Bringing this back to cannabis, he said when we think about why cannabis was first outlawed here and in the U.S. — and we think about some of the propaganda that was used to instill fear in people about cannabis — it was often a crazed, black drug user that was attacking a white female victim.
The prohibition of cannabis is rooted in racism. With the start of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, many Mexicans began moving to the states, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. They brought their tradition of smoking weed with them.
Amid a fear of immigrants, hysterical claims began circulating about cannabis.
In the 1930s, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics Harry J. Aslinger started the war on drugs. Seeking a federal ban on cannabis, Aslinger’s campaigning relied heavily on racist stereotypes.
“Anslinger claimed that the majority of pot smokers were minorities, including African Americans, and that marijuana had a negative effect on these ‘degenerate races,’ such as inducing violence or causing insanity,” the encyclopedia recounts.
“Furthermore, he noted, ‘Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.’ Perhaps even more worrisome to Anslinger was pot’s supposed threat to white women’s virtue. He believed that smoking pot would result in their having sex with black men.”
Response shows ‘they just don’t get it’ but many are moving to right prohibition’s wrongs
Cicely Blain runs a firm in Vancouver that consults with companies about diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
“As a consultant I can say that people are beginning make decisions about which companies they invest in based on how diverse and inclusive they are,” she told Mugglehead in an email. “This is a big mistake for the company and they will lose out in the long run as especially Gen Z and millenials are looking to support ethical, sustainable and progressive companies.”
Blain, who co-founded Black Lives Matter Vancouver, said it’s never harmless for companies to profit off of blackness and is “abhorrent” in GTEC’s case because it puts blackness at the butt end of a joke.
Owusu-Bempah says he would have liked to see the company admit it had done something wrong and work to rectify it, but their official response clearly demonstrates they just don’t get it.
He also pointed out the company’s removal of an upcoming First Nations brand from its website amounts to an admission of guilt.
— Nick Laba (@nick_laba) January 15, 2020
(GTEC has not replied to a requests for comment, but said it has severed ties with the First Nations brand in a subtweet.)
However, a lot of positive work is being done to make lives better for marginalized minorities who have suffered under cannabis prohibition.
The State of Illinois started its year off by going green. In a swift set of changes, the state erased over 11,000 related convictions, legalized recreational use and enacted policies to give resources to communities that were hit the hardest by enforcement.
The move follows a trend of states recognizing the wrongs caused by the war on drugs, and trying to re-shape the industry by supporting new businesses run by historically marginalized people.
“Actually, what I like the most in Massachusetts is not only are they provided with preferential access to certain categories of licences, but that the state’s cannabis commission actually provides supports for applicants in order to help them develop their businesses,” Owusu-Bempah said.
“Because we need to remember that huge amounts of human capital and social resources have been stripped from these neighbourhoods, which is exactly why we see the cannabis industry looking like it does now.” Rich, privileged and white.
As a C-suite marketer whose only job is to create campaigns you clearly didn’t have the right ppl in the room. Your press release made our very large very active black investors group just roll our eyes and laugh. Pepsi 101. Learn the lesson. #RacistMuch
— KᗩTᕼᖇYᑎ ᗩSᕼᗷY 🇨🇦 (@kj_ashby) January 16, 2020
Top photo is a segregated movie theatre entrance in Mississippi, taken in 1939.