An advice column for folks who don’t like to be told what to do.
For the past 4–5 years, I have had a cordial business relationship with a couple who manufacture a quasi-local specialty food product that provides a health benefit for my clients. I give away free samples of the product, and my clients contract to purchase the products directly from the manufacturer. Over the years, this has been a very beneficial relationship for all — they have built a thriving node of customers locally and deliver products every other week, my clients get the health benefits. Win-win, and I don’t have to sell or stock the food. At this point, I rarely see the manufacturer in person — just wave across a parking lot if our paths cross.
A couple of months ago, a professional colleague/friend who has a hobby farm with her engineer husband mentioned that they were looking for wholesale customers for their cattle, so I put her in touch with the manufacturers, knowing that my colleague’s animals are top quality and this kind of resource would be ideal for the product. A bunch of conversations ensued, and negotiations were made to provide one steer a month to them at “x” price. The very last step was for the manufacturers to meet the farmers, see their operation and pick up samples. Friendly visit took place, at which manufacturer learned from evidence of his own eyes that the farmer is black. Afterwards, the manufacturer ghosted the farmer, and never took another phone call from him. After a few weeks, my friends shook their heads and moved on because as a mixed race couple it turns out this kinda shit happens to them all the time.
I just learned about this from my friend and am gobsmacked, since the only apparent explanation is that the manufacturer declined to buy cattle from a black farmer. I don’t want to do business with these people on principle, but I don’t actually do business with them directly. I could stop distributing free samples. My existing clients would still use them as a supplier, but by not giving away the samples, future clients will be worse off health-wise.
Do I make a point of asking them what happened with my friends and watch them squirm? If I don’t cut off the relationship, what would be the point of telling them that they behaved like jerks? My client “node” may well be 20% of their business, so they should have a vested interest in my opinion. But honestly, unless I can do something to make them regret their choices, I don’t see any opportunity for growth or change. All I can think of to say is “I don’t like the way you treated my friends and it has made me lose respect for you as a person”. I like their products but I don’t want their personal values to thrive in this world.
What do I do?
My immediate response on reading your letter was to shake my head and say, “Ack! So complicated!” but I’m not sure that’s actually true. I mean, people are complicated, for sure, but the choice before you is not complicated.
Whether or not you work “directly” with these manufacturers, the reality is that you are helping them make money. As you acknowledge, the customers you have brought to them may constitute a significant chunk of their business. That gives you privilege — the privilege of leverage.
The only way to undo systems based on an unequal distribution of power and access to resources is for those of us with the privilege in those systems to leverage it in order to force change. Is it uncomfortable to leverage your privilege against other privileged people? It is. But if you truly “don’t want their personal values to thrive in this world” then your job is to be uncomfortable. Grab your privilege like the wedge it is and lean in, my friend.
Now, you don’t have to go in with both guns blazing, drowning out your apprehension with righteous indignation. You can come in with mercy in one holster and humility in the other. Because though you may very well be right that the manufacturer behaved the way they did because of racism, you don’t actually know. Sometimes unexpected things come up, shit goes sideways in people’s lives, and they screw up — drop a few balls, don’t follow up the way they normally would — and then don’t know how to actually own it. So they just flake out and go into hiding to avoid dealing with their mistakes.
I’m not suggesting that you feed these people the opportunity to make dishonest excuses, which simply allows you both to retreat to comfortable privilege. But I do think when you talk to them, and you must talk to them, you can go into the conversation open to the idea that there may be things going on of which you are unaware.
If we were not in the middle of a pandemic I would encourage you to set up an in-person meeting. Since that’s not advisable now, I’d give them a phone call. Let them know that you’ve been made aware that the connection you initiated between them and your farmer friends, which seemed by all accounts to be a potentially productive one, got dropped without any clear communication about why. Let them know that you were surprised and disappointed, and ask them to explain what happened on their end.
Maybe it ends up that there’s something unknown going on. If so, let them know we’re all human, sorry for their troubles, but you’d appreciate them following up with your friends to apologize for their lack of communication, even if they’re no longer going to develop that business relationship. Their products are good for your clients and you’d like to continue to send customers to them, but you can’t if they can’t mend this fence.
If their answer seems like bullshit, or they get defensive and tell you it’s none of your business, then you have to name what you are seeing: “I am concerned, despite all the signs this connection I initiated would be fruitful for both of you, that you have dropped the ball and communicated poorly because my farmer friend is black. That’s racism. I can’t support a business, even indirectly, run by folks who engage in racism. I won’t be referring my clients to your business anymore unless you can step up and address this situation.”
They may hang up. They may get angry and attack you. They may cry and splutter and act very victimized by your accusations, or insinuate that the trouble is your friends in order to reassert the “us” and “them” that is comfortable, but don’t get drawn into any of it. Simply say, “I’m sorry we won’t be able to work together anymore” and end the call.
The discomfort of being called out as racist or losing business because of their racism may eventually change them. On the other hand, white privilege is a powerful drug so your actions may not change anything about them at all. But if you don’t stand up for what you know is right then white privilege has changed you, and not for the better.
Of course, we want to create positive change in the world. We want to call out injustice and transform people’s hearts. But deciding whether or not you will stand up for what’s right based on whether you will change other people is like betting against the house. That game is rigged. You won’t ever stand up because we can’t change other people. We can only change ourselves and leave the door open for them to join us in transformation.
If they don’t want to walk through the door then I’d say there’s a product niche ready to be filled by anti-racist folks, so put the word out. Your clients might still be able to get what they need, your farmer friends might be initial suppliers, and you’ll be in your integrity. Our uncomfortable work is not just to undo systems, but to help build new ones in which all people can benefit.
Thank you for walking this journey with me. Love to you and yours.
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