The unintended consequences of #SupportBlackBusiness

Brittney Winbush, founder of the wellness company Alexandra Winbush, had her first $10,000 sales day in June. Rather than purely elated, though, she was anxious. “Will this last?” she wondered.

Over the past few months, calls to #SupportBlackBusiness in the wake of the George Floyd protests — one of the biggest uprisings America has seen — have undoubtedly helped Black business owners. But many of them have enjoyed these boosts with trepidation about how long the support will last, afraid to make long-term business decisions based on good faith, as history has shown these moments of reckoning rarely linger.

In 2009, Mahogany Books tweeted “#SBB = #SupportBlackBusiness,” the first account to reportedly use the hashtag on social media. The tweet barely got any engagement. Fast-forward to 2020, and according to Google Trends, the hashtag has seen a huge spike in interest.

The timing of George Floyd’s death during a pandemic further illuminated how Black lives have been valued less. A reported 41 percent of Black businesses had been shut down in April due to Covid-19. Black businesses had been denied loans and other buffers the government had put in place while big, mainstream businesses were offered millions.

People were tired and wanted to see radical change. By June, calls to #PulluporShutUp, #ShowcaseYourWritersRoom, share what #PublishingPaidMe, and #SupportBlackBusiness dominated social media. For people who were sharing these hashtags, the goal was likely to teach and inform others about substantial ways to support Black lives, and so started the cycle of numerous lists and graphics. Influencers posted businesses and individuals to support on their Instagram feeds, and mainstream media outlets created, shared, and reposted the lists.

But these calls also reflected the limits and performativity of hashtag activism, which can be short-lived if not taken beyond social media platforms that encourage fleeting attention. Others shared that the timing — right after a death that spurred protests — felt in some ways disrespectful. In a conversation with USA Today, Kris Christian says that her coffee business, which she started in 2016, saw sales surge by 225 percent. For Christian, it was a bittersweet moment: It was great that she and other Black business owners were finally getting recognized, but it was a recognition “birthed by a tragedy.”

Some have wondered if this push to patronize Black-owned businesses can last, and if the exchange of capital should be the main goal in the first place. As NYU business school professor Rachel Marie Brooks Atkins told the Washington Post, “The campaign to ‘Buy Black’ is not new. Many people who study Black entrepreneurship are skeptical that even more widespread adoption can have a lasting impact. … The challenges that Black businesses face are more fundamental than cashflow.”

The reality, too, is that many small Black businesses, due to their size, aren’t equipped to handle such surges. Although such deluges can result in capital and growth, until customers adjust expectations and push for structural reform that enables Black businesses to grow, these calls will always feel inadequate.

Brittney Winbush worried about whether new interest in Black-owned businesses would convert to consistent sales; she noticed that a majority of the people who were creating these lists weren’t even making purchases themselves.
Courtesy of Alexandra Winbush

Late last year, Winbush, the owner of the wellness company, set up a GoFundMe with a goal of $10,000 to raise money to expand her business into an office space. “$10,000 is so little to some in the entrepreneurial world, but this money was giving me the capital cushion to hire someone, restock, and just grow,” she says. For Winbush, this was a testament to the disparities that Black entrepreneurs, especially Black women entrepreneurs, often face.

Following the calls to #SupportBlackBusiness, her business page was reshared by many white influencers and grew from 7,000 followers to 20,000 followers. She worried about whether this interest would convert to consistent sales; she noticed that a majority of the people who were creating these lists weren’t even making purchases themselves.

“People are posting these Black-owned businesses without even researching to see what they do and what they support. It’s the same list going around. I’m not just a ‘Black-owned business.’ There are a lot of interesting things about me and my business besides my identity,” says Subrina Heyink, of Subrina Heyink Vintage. She declined interviews at the time and asked to be taken off lists once she realized that many of the people who were sharing them were doing so mindlessly, in what felt like tokenism.

She says that some of the white influencers sharing these lists were part of a racist fashion industry that had previously hurt her business: a former fashion editor, who had once mocked Heyink for taking an activist tone on her platform, had added her to an Instagram list of fashion businesses to follow. This upset Heyink, so she asked for her name and business to be edited out of the Instagram post.

More important than these lists, says Heyink, is the prospect of structural support in the form of mentorship for Black business owners, particularly Black women entrepreneurs. She says her business saw growth earlier this year when she was given the capital and mentorship to grow, and the accompanying knowledge that she could fail and try again.

Still, the lists that she had been added to brought new customers her way, and she wasn’t about to let the demand overwhelm her. To prevent blowback from delays in shipment or bad reviews, she communicated to customers about her business operations, informed them about limitations that come with small businesses run by Black women, and adjusted her inventory — listing only as many items as she could afford to fulfill without falling into extreme fatigue.

In a similar vein, bookstores across the nation have been inundated with requests for anti-racist books. For many of these small Black-owned businesses, fulfilling orders has been difficult to keep up with. Boston’s Frugal Bookstore had been on the verge of closing in May when they received a surge in sales — 10,000 orders between May 30 and June 1. These orders were mostly for titles which had been selling out everywhere, forcing publishers to reprint. The company did not have the manpower to fulfill that many orders and so came the backlash from customers accusing the owners of theft and fraud. (An irony, considering they were ordering books like How to Be an Antiracist, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism and Me and White Supremacy, to name a few.)

The owners posted a statement to customers after complaints: “We are also receiving a number of disheartening emails asking us to cancel orders and refund payments, criticisms about how slow we are and that we have poor customer service because we have not answered an email. We do hope each and every one of you who has shown us support by purchasing through our website believe we are not accepting your money with the intention to keep it and not send out your orders.”

The spike in demand over the last few months has caused many Black businesses across the nation to change their operations to meet customers’ wants. Liberian American designer Telfar had already seen great success with his “Bushwick Birkin” Shopping Bag; it had been selling out for months when Covid-19 hit and brought along an unceremonious drop from a Gap collaboration.

The small company had channeled money into manufacturing products for the collaboration, and thus the drop resulted in uncertainty and precarity despite the company’s popularity. Community rallying and hashtags not only brought Telfar and Gap to a resolution, but also catapulted the bag to new heights of demand, with the item selling out mere minutes after being released.

A fashionable person holds a Telfar bag.

A Telfar bag spotted at New York Fashion Week in February 2020.
Christian Vierig/Getty Images

This was cause for celebration, yet brought with it resale bots and profiteers who wanted to capitalize off the attention a Black business was getting. These problems created complaints from consumers, with some even accusing the company of creating false scarcity to drive demand. The company tried to address this by launching a “bag security” program allowing customers to preorder the bags they wanted.

For Telfar, the resellers were less of an issue than the tokenization. The designer told Hype Beast, “We are not ‘inclusive’ — we are Black-owned and non-gendered since 2004. We went from marginalized to tokenized quick. Our move was to build our entire company within our own community — from customers to collaborators — and to one day be totally independent of the [fashion] industry.” A company representative declined to comment further.

Other Black-owned businesses like golde and Hanahana Beauty also switched to a preorder model, following an influx of orders. Abena Boamah, founder and CEO of Hanahana Beauty, had plans to scale up her business this year. Faced with the pandemic and consequent shipping delays, she applied for a Paycheck Protection Program loan — with apprehension, due to past refusals she had gotten applying for loans as a Black small business owner. After waiting weeks to hear back and getting no response, she moved on.

Around this time, she began to appear on lists of Black businesses to support. Abena was excited, she says, because the majority of the lists — including one on Beyoncé’s website — reflected an understanding of Hanahana’s mission.

Business got even better, but in July, the company announced that it was taking a “sustainable work vacation.” Making items available for preorder had helped Boamah, but it wasn’t enough. She realized that the company couldn’t produce or fulfill enough orders at the rate things were going, and it was important for her to keep in line with her company’s mission of sustainability and transparency. Despite the allure of new revenue, she took a break so the team could rest, hired new team members, and applied for grants, many of which had only become available to her after the pandemic and uprisings started.

Even after orders are completed, Black business owners have struggled with how to navigate shows of appreciation; many are making sure to restate their gratitude for fear of driving away customers, some of whom have implied that for them, #SupportBlackBusiness is an act of charity. Still others are figuring out exactly how to openly discuss the ways the influx of attention has affected operations, for better and for worse.

“Some Black business owners are scared to share the realities we face,” Winbush says, “because they don’t want to seem unprofessional, as coming off as unprofessional could negatively impact your business.”

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