“The power of representation cannot be underestimated”: Ahmed Abokor shares his experience as a Black man in the creative industry
Accustomed to being the only Black creative on most projects, the graphic designer and art director says this imbalance is not impossible to fix.
- Ahmed Abokor
- 24 June 2020
I grew up in a Black Muslim household. We were refugees from Somaliland and made it to Sweden, where we lived for 13 years. At the age of 14, my family and I moved to the UK. I'll always remember landing in London and going to a family friend’s house, looking out the window of our cab and thinking: wow look at all these Black and Brown faces! I was multiculturally shocked. I immediately felt a sense of belonging, one I hadn’t felt before, and a feeling I hadn’t realised I was longing for. Because back in Helsingborg, Sweden, my sister and I were the only Black kids throughout our school years. It was an honest reflection of the area we grew up in, and society would regularly remind us that we were different, that we were outsiders. Starting school is a daunting experience for any child. It was particularly daunting for me in the UK, given I'd picked up the majority of the little English I spoke by watching reruns of American sitcoms like Fresh Prince of Bel Air and Martin. But seeing kids that looked like me and had a similar upbringing to me really eased me into my new way of life.
As far as my creative career, I started off in digital advertising and then moved into the world of experiential design. Now, I’m a graphic designer and art director, working with brands and on visual identities mostly. I got my break in the industry about ten years ago courtesy of a man by the name of Maurice Clarke, who was a creative services director at Digitas. He also happens to be a Black man. He came to the D&AD New Blood exhibition and saw my classmate Rakesh and I showcasing our work. He spoke to us at length about our final major projects and gave us his business card. A couple of months later we started our first internship at Digitas. It’s worth noting that before Maurice came to our desk we had other creatives, who were mostly white, come and speak to us, but nothing similar materialised. The power of representation cannot be underestimated. Getting my first break from a Black creative continues to fuel my desire to help others like myself break into the industry.
The career path I’ve chosen in the creative industry definitely reminds me of my time in Sweden, particularly at school. It doesn’t at all reflect London's multiculturalism. Creative studios in London are occupied by a fairly homogeneous group of people; being the only Black boy in the playground has simply transformed into me being the only Black creative in most design studios.
This isn’t a task that's impossible to fix. If anything, I think it’s straightforward: give opportunities to young Black and Brown men and women. There’s no difference between us and our white counterparts other than the levels of access to a role and unconscious biases within companies. You’ll find that we rarely get to the interview stage and when we are hired we rarely get promoted. The industry needs to accept that those biases exist and find ways to eradicate it.
I recently designed a limited edition T-shirt range to raise money for the Black Lives Matter movement, and I chose to print the T-shirt with a particular company who prides themselves as being leaders in the market. As I started my campaign, I was made aware that a grievance was lodged with the company by a young Black male; he alleged that he was racially discriminated against while working for them. Given that all profits from my designs go to The Movement for Black Lives Fund, it was a devastating irony to uncover and a hugely disappointing turn of events. After I spoke to the young man in question over the phone, I pulled my campaign. There was just no other option.
Hackney is home to many creative studios. 40 per cent of the Hackney population come from Black and Minority Ethnic groups, and the largest of those groups (approximately 20 per cent) are Black or Black British. And yet these numbers aren’t reflected in the creative studios in the area. In order to have diversity in the creative industries, we need these studios to represent the communities in which they are based.
A while back I joined POCC, the brainchild of Nana Bempah and Kevin Morosky which started as a small WhatsApp group and is now a collective and a community of creatives. It’s full of like-minded people working in advertising, media, fashion, arts, film, and photography, with a mission to accelerate equality and positively change the experiences of people of colour within these industries, both today and for future generations. Ultimately, it’s a community of culture, created by people of colour, to help people of colour, for the benefit of society as a whole. The group is a safe space where we can talk about our shared encounters in the industry. It’s a great platform for networking while positively changing the experience of people of colour within the creative industries.
The recent news has provided a surge in the BLM movement, but let’s be honest, it wasn’t breaking news for us. These are not new feelings. We’re seeing a public expression of conversations that we’ve had over dinner with friends and family all our lives.
What is new is that it’s become a wake-up call for others to see the systemic racism Black people face at all levels, now and throughout history. It’s not all perfect. I’ve seen good and bad in the last few weeks. I’ve seen performative activism but I’ve also seen real togetherness. I’ve seen brands donating and promising to do more for Black people, but we haven’t seen systemic changes within these organisations. Time has a habit of uncovering truths – so only time will tell how genuine and effective these promises are.
I am not taking much from it until we see real change. Real change in the way we police our country, real change in the way we hire people, real change in the national curriculum. Today, the world’s history books have erased the story of Africans and Black people. There is no recognition of what, for instance, the UK owes to the countries it once colonised or once went to in order to take slaves. The history taught in schools today doesn’t take into account the wealth and culture of Black people. Instead, they're reduced to savages or simpletons, saved by the Western world. That’s not reality, and to learn it from a young age affects the way people portray and treat Black people in the creative world and all other industries.
So what can people in the creative industry do to support Black creatives? There’s no easy way; you're either in or you're out. Step one: don't take a defensive stand on the matter. Start accepting the uncomfortable conversations and hear out the Black creatives in your organisations. Especially Black women who face larger obstacles to excel compared to their white counterparts. The fact is, we can't group all women into one category; Black women are the least likely group to feel included in the workplace across most industries. A Black woman will be told she is sassy or ill-tempered – stereotypes that date back to colonial times. These notions need to be challenged.
Resolution Foundation’s recent report revealed that 1.9m BAME workers are paid about £3.2bn less than their white counterparts every year. For starters, a fair hiring process needs to be put in place with equal pay measures for BAME workers. In the meantime, there are some great resources to turn to:
POCC: Positively changing the experience of people of colour within the creative industries.
Where are the Black Designers?: an initiative which aims to give a platform to creatives of colour. By connecting designers, educators, and creative leaders, they hope to start a dialogue about change in and out of the design industry.
Black and HR: Empowering, educating and advising Black working professionals by being the HR that we wish we all had in the office.
I’ve also relaunched my T-shirt campaign via a different platform. The campaign was born out of this visceral feeling of helplessness and anger. I channelled that into my creation. We’re Done Waiting for Progress was inspired by the late great James Baldwin’s documentary I am not your Negro. In it, Baldwin asks the interviewer: “How long do we have to wait for your progress?”. He asked that question back in 1979. Think about it. Over 40 years ago he asked that seemingly straightforward question.
In my design, that question is shaped to represent a headstone on the back of the T-shirt, signifying the past which is dead and gone. On the chest of the T-shirt is the fundamental message for 2020, which is: We’re Done Waiting for Progress. Proceeds are going to The Movement for Black Lives Fund.
GalleryAll images courtesy Ahmed Abokor
Photo by Ahmed Abokor