How to Know If You Are Accidentally Exploiting Black Families in Your Instagram Feed

An African American baby reaches for a sweet potato in her high chair
Mahalia, 9 months. Note: Mahalia's family was compensated for this image and permission was received to use it.

By Nikki Silvestri, founder and CEO of Soil and Shadow; Jennifer Anderson, Kids Eat in Color® and Jenny Best, founder and CEO of Solid Starts.

A guide for influencers committed to anti-racist work


“What’s this black square in my feed? OMG, everyone is posting black squares—should I post one? My competitors are posting them fast—I have to post something!” 
 
This was a real moment for thousands of influencers and brands in June 2020. Some posted the black square to support the burgeoning anti-racism movement. Many others presumably posted to spare their reputation or business interests—and show inquiring followers that they were doing something.      

Months passed and the black squares turned into pictures of Black families. Black families and Black babies, previously unrepresented and erased from view, slid into our feeds. Beautiful, nameless Black babies, often in perfectly-staged photographs and sometimes repurposed and reposted from Black families, with a small credit at the very bottom: [camera icon] @blackfamilyname.

Pictures of Black babies are important; representation is vitally important. In our sector (baby food and feeding), the lack of representation and imagery can perpetuate the notion that certain types of food or feeding methods aren’t for Black families.

But there’s a problem: posting pictures of Black babies can exploit Black families in the parenting sphere. Representation alone doesn’t address why those families were erased in the first place.      

Take baby-led weaning, an evidence-based method for introducing solids to babies by serving finger food instead of purées from a spoon. Baby-led weaning has come across as elitist for two reasons. First, there was little representation of Black families in social accounts promoting baby-led weaning. Second, countless systemic problems make it structurally more difficult for many Black and low-income families to access and prepare fresh food.

Adding pictures of Black babies invites a new audience into the conversation, but it doesn’t impact the major root cause of underrepresentation: access to resources (time, financial, mental/emotional, etc.)

So what does this mean for the influencer reposting the pictures of Black babies? 

Uncompensated or under-compensated Black family labor in the form of content brings extreme benefit to white parenting influencers and companies. It also fits neatly into an economic system founded on enslavement. It’s a sneaky exploitation, an “innocent” one in which white influencers can claim social action. In doing so the influencer economically benefits from the emotional and physical labor of Black families.

It is truly exploitation, white people and corporations using social change to their own benefit.  Whether out of fear or social pressure, they are unequally benefiting from the same system meant to bring more equality.           

So, what does real change—in the context of representation—actually look like? Pay Black families real money to use their images. Hire Black individuals into executive and senior staff positions and recruit them to your board. Create pay scales that make information and products more accessible to low-income families. 


To be a force for real change and put meaning behind the picture of a Black baby or family, here are three questions you can ask yourself before posting:      

● Did the family in this picture or video economically benefit from my acquiring it?

● Am I committed to anti-racism work, hiring diversity, equitable pay scales, and actively doing work to this end?

● Am I benefiting more from posting this picture than the family/ individual in the picture itself?

If all this leaves you feeling bad about some well-intentioned posts of Black families on your page, listen to your guilt without letting it turn into unconstructive shame. Don’t allow your emotional response to paralyze your actions. Being anti-racist and for-justice is every day, and you will make mistakes along the way. But on the other side, you find an unparalleled experience of deeper relationships and interconnectedness.

Back in June 2020, Brandi Riley, the founder of Courage to Earn, tweeted: 

A tweet by Brandi Riley (@BrandiJeter) that reads: "Thank you for your Black Lives Matter graphic. May I please see a picture of your executive leadership team and company board?


Brandi is right. Representation in your social media feed is not enough. As we argue here, representation may actually perpetuate systemic discrimination as white influencers benefit from the social currency of posts with Black imagery. Exploitation is the norm. It’s not whether we are exploiting Black babies; it’s how. 

We can stop exploitation. We can hire Black executive and senior staff. We can make our information accessible to those in need with sliding scale prices and economic access programs. We can compensate the families in the images we post, drive traffic to their accounts by truly highlighting them, and work to benefit Black families—economically.

When you do the hard things behind the scenes and imagery of representation, you are doing what you can to create real, lasting change.


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Nikki Silvestri is the Founder and CEO of Soil and Shadow, a coaching and consulting firm bringing social and environmental entrepreneurs more impact in their work and joy in their lives. She is also a Faculty Member at the Food Business School (she co-designed and taught one of their inaugural courses, “Ethical Leadership in Food Business”). 

Jennifer Anderson is the founder and CEO of Kids Eat in Color®, a public health movement helping millions of parents get their kids eating veggies and other foods while experiencing less mealtime stress. 

Jenny Best is the founder of Solid Starts, a team of pediatric food and feeding experts building the world’s first food database for babies starting solid food. The free First Foods® database serves one million people from 175 countries worldwide, offering complimentary resources to those who need them.

     

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