NY Times gift guide for people of color is niche, not racist

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The New York Times’ decision to dedicate a section of its Christmas gift guide to gifts for people of color has sparked much debate and controversy online. Some commenters have said that the NY Times’ focus on ethnic groups is racist. Others believe that targeting consumers of color is divisive and exclusionary.

These arguments are not new. Products, services and organizations targeted at black consumers – black newspapers, websites or TV networks – have long been criticized by non-black people as being racist. However, the notion that anything that has “black” written on it is racist is simplistic and naive – revealing a major lack of cultural awareness when it comes to the needs and interests of minority citizens.

Culturally, all people are not the same and it is ignorant to believe otherwise. The politically correct belief that everyone is and should be exactly alike – which, in reality, tends to mean that all should share the same interests as the majority – actually serves to strip people from different cultures of the richness of their heritage and limits our society.

The words “black,” “African-American,” or “of color” refer not only to skin tone, but also to a whole host of cultural signifiers from foods, ways of speaking, music and art forms to ways of seeing and understanding the world. It seems odd to have to even make that point – very few would argue, for example, that the Jewish, or Chinese don’t have their own culture and very few people get upset over niche offerings for those audiences.

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In addition to cultural differences, there are specific physical differences between ethnicities that require a diverse offering of products. The Times does a good job of suggesting products that not only take into consideration cultural differences (like the bilingual book, ‘Sonia Sotomayor: A Judge Grows in the Bronx/La Juez Que Crecio en el Bronx’) but also physical ones (like the beauty product, ‘Hair Rules’ for ‘kinky, wavy and curly hair’ and ‘Asian Faces: The Essential Beauty and Makeup Guide for Asian Women’ by Taylor Chang-Babaian).

Would the criers of “racist” claim that in addition to cultural traits, all hair textures and facial features should be identical? Should they all be that of a Caucasian person? Follow the logic down this path and the proponents of a “colorblind” society start to sound racist.

Niche products and services are created in realization of the fact that African-Americans and other minorities have cultural interests and needs that the majority do not think about or may not even know about, simply because one privilege of being part of a majority is that you rarely have to think about not being catered to. The average person might wish to ignore this and to bemoan niche segmentation, but business people certainly cannot afford to do the same. The African-American consumer market is worth a great deal of money and no business worth its salt can ignore that kind of spending power. Market research consistently shows that minority groups, especially African-Americans, are underserved and are hungry for products and services that will fulfill their needs. This is particularly applicable to the media which, having undergone such dramatic shifts in recent years, has discovered the power of the niche audience. Fulfilling the needs of that audience is not racist – it makes both business and cultural sense.

“But what if the NY Times had a section of gifts by white people for white people?” some ask. I would argue that it already does. That’s what its regular gift section is. It may not have “for whites, by whites” written on it but if the gift section contains, for example, no cards with brown faces on them, no books written by black authors, no dolls that look like black children, it is not created with black people – or any other minority – in mind.

Niche offerings actually create an opportunity since they give those in the majority the chance to consume and be part of a culture that they may know little to nothing about. There’s absolutely nothing stopping anyone from broadening their horizons and buying these products.

In any case, segmentation has been part of human history since its beginning. Nobody is upset by gift guides segmented by gender, income or age.

The NY Times has made a savvy move. Now that I know about this list, I am going to go there and have a look to see which gifts I may be interested in. I am sure I won’t be the only person of color doing the same.