5 Ways Your Organization May Be Engaging in Rainbow Washing — And How You Can Engage in Sustained Action Authentically
Byline: Co-written by Vinciane de Pape, DEI Advisory Lead and Emma Hunt, Sr. Talent Advisor at Bloom.
As Pride Month comes into full swing, like clockwork we observe organizations and businesses of all sizes change their logos to rainbow colours and plaster their storefronts with rainbow flags and “Love is Love” messaging.
We know this is well-intended. In most cases, it’s businesses hoping to signal internally to employees and externally to clients and consumers that they are inclusive and committed to supporting the 2SLGBTQIA+ community.
What’s often missing, though, is the real work required to make meaningful change in dismantling the systems of oppression that impact queer and trans folks every day.
In short, a lot of companies will default to ‘rainbow washing’ — leveraging pride for marketing without making any real changes — even if they don’t mean it.
Understanding rainbow washing
Rainbow washing is defined as “The act of using or adding rainbow colours and/or imagery to advertising, apparel, accessories, landmarks, et cetera, in order to indicate progressive support for 2SLGBTQIA+ equality (and earn consumer credibility) — but with a minimum of effort or pragmatic result. It is akin to “greenwashing” regarding environmental justice issues and “pinkwashing” with respect to breast cancer awareness”.
On a more practical level, rainbow washing allows people, corporations, and governments to slap a rainbow on their communications for the month of June without actually doing anything to materially support gender and sexually diverse folks the rest of the year.
In this way, it’s performative allyship, where organizations look like they are supportive but in reality, aren’t doing anything to make positive change.
More often than not, performative allyship comes from wanting a reward (likes on social media, free publicity, etc.) rather than acting out of care for a given group. And the thing about performative allyship is it doesn’t need to be actively harmful to be a problem.
5 ways to tell if you’re rainbow washing during Pride
Here are some of the telltale signs that your organization may be engaging in rainbow washing, instead of making a true commitment to the 2SLGBTQIA+ community:
1. Monetizing the rainbow flag: When a company uses the rainbow flag in their products (or adapts their colour scheme to be rainbow during Pride month) to sell more products or otherwise market how “welcoming” they are.
In this way, it’s using the symbol of Pride to gain credibility for themselves rather than actually supporting the broader queer community.
2. Only talking about 2SLGBTQIA+ during June: Pride is chock full of panels and discussions about the ongoing issues queer people face at work and in life. These conversations are critical and we’re glad they happen, whatever the venue. But issues affecting gender and sexually diverse folks happen throughout the entire year.
Only talking about queer issues in June because it looks good to the public is a classic example of performative allyship.
3. Logo change and little else: A LOT of organizations change their logo for the month of June. This can be a wonderful part of an overall campaign to support queer people. However, it’s all too often a performative sign of support when the organization hasn’t done anything to help the community or focus on making their policies or environment inclusive.
In some cases, changing a logo can also be hypocritical if the company has a track record of donating to anti-2SLGBTQIA+ causes or legislation with no intention to stop in the future.
4. Words with no action: Another common Pride month agenda item is CEOs and other executives speaking publicly or putting out statements on the importance of supporting queer employees and customers. This is a solid start but becomes performative allyship when it’s also the end of the road for that company.
These kinds of statements sting even more when the company in question hasn’t rolled out DEI education, reviewed its hiring processes, or checked its policies to ensure they are truly inclusive.
5. Turning employees into marketing resources: Using 2SLGBTQIA+ employees in employer branding campaigns during Pride month without equal pay, inclusive benefits, or enforcing a non-discrimination policies throughout the year.
If someone signs up to be in a campaign, great. But that person should be more than a photographed or filmed face.
So, what can you do to engage in real sustained action?
Real allyship involves actually doing something to materially support the 2SLGBTQIA+ community. If you’re not sure what to do or how to support, the best way to learn is to talk to queer and trans organizers and uncover what their priorities are, then ask how you can be helpful or help them attain those goals. The key to remember is that you’re helping someone else achieve their goals. Your suggestions may be welcome, but also keep in mind that you may not have all the context at first, so it’s a good idea to focus on learning before making comments and commitments.
As two queer people who have navigated rainbow-washed workspaces, here are some of our recommendations on how folks can engage in real, sustained action during Pride month — and beyond.
1. Engage in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) training
DEI training is a great way to get everyone on the same page. Comprehensive training should include:
- Common language: Explaining new terms so everyone understands what’s being talked about.
- Space to share: Everyone needs the opportunity to share their experiences.
- Space to ask “silly” questions: Sometimes the only way someone knows how to ask a question is by fumbling. That’s fine. That’s what these spaces are for.
- Space to decompress: There is a lot in the DEI world to learn. It won’t happen all at once, nor should you be expected to learn it and have it committed to memory instantly.
It’s also important to note that comprehensive DEI training is not a one-off unconscious bias workshop. We’ve witnessed how those one-off trainings don’t really work, so we advise against them. Bloom Academy was built to address the need for more in-depth DEI learning experiences, from the foundations through to actions that support you showing up in a more inclusive and authentic way. We even offer Pride-specific learning experiences all year round.
2. Learn from the community
Whether during Pride month or throughout the rest of the year, invite members of the 2SLGBTQIA+ to give virtual talks.
These can happen in one of two ways:
- Experience talks: This is when someone from the community with lived experience and expertise in 2SLGBTQIA+ issues shares more about what it’s like being in the queer community in certain industries. They may also weave in their own personal experiences to add more depth to the conversation.
- Expertise talks: This is when you invite a speaker to talk on any business topic who happens to be a member of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community. It’s a great way to diversify your speaker and educator set while also supporting business goals.
Perhaps this goes without saying, but all speaking opportunities must be paid. Some great places to find community members for paid speaking opportunities include:
- The 519 is a 2SLGBTQIA+ community hub offering speaking services.
- The Get Real Movement is a nonprofit organization that offers leadership talks, panels, and afterschool education programs in the community.
- QMUNITY is a 2SLGBTQIA+ community hub. Their team is available for panels, events & speaking engagements.
3. Make a product and donate the proceeds
A lot of companies have Pride-themed products. Make it a truly supportive endeavour by donating the proceeds of sales to a 2SLGBTQIA+ nonprofit or charity.
Some great ones include:
- Rainbow Railroad supporting 2SLGBTQIA+ refugees.
- The Trevor Project supporting 2SLGBTQIA+ youth.
- National Center for Transgender Equality supporting the trans and gender non-conforming community.
- Friends of Ruby supporting 2SLGBTQIA+ youth.
Instead of using Pride as a marketing tactic, use it as a way to make a true impact.
4. Review company policies and benefits
Verbally supporting Pride month is one thing. Having events is another. But one of the best ways to support the 2SLGBTQIA+ community is to ensure that your policies actively support queer and trans employees in your organization.
Review all your policies for things like:
- Non-discrimination policies that explicitly include gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation.
- Parental leaves that are inclusive of queer couples, non-birthing parents, and adoptive parents.
- Trans-affirming healthcare coverage.
- Broader mental health benefits (this benefits everyone, not just 2SLGBTQIA+ employees!).
If you’re having trouble developing these policies, consulting firms (like Bloom) can help you out.
5. Audit compensation for equality
Similar to auditing your policies, make sure compensation is fair and equal. Pay disparities are a persistent issue not only for cisgender women and racialized folks but also gender and sexually diverse individuals. A recent study by the Human Rights Campaign found that 2SLGBTQIA+ people earn 90 cents for every dollar earned by cisgender heterosexual people (and this number is even less for trans women and racialized queer and trans folks specifically).
This isn’t about suggesting we pay cisgender hetero people less, but about paying 2SLGBTQIA+ people equally for equal work.
6. Use your voice
As a company, you have platforms. Use them to speak up about the impact of anti-2SLGBTQIA+ legislation or to elevate 2SLGBTQIA+ voices such as bringing queer artists to company events or promoting queer-written books in your company library.
Further, make sure you’re not adding to the oppressive voices. If your company happens to be involved politically and is already supporting anti-queer organizations, use this as an opportunity to stop.
As a note, this isn’t about assigning blame or suggesting you should know better. It’s saying that you now have an opportunity to improve and better support 2SLGBTQIA+ employees in the future.
7. Put your money where your mouth is
Instead of putting money toward a corporate Pride float, donate it.
- Sponsor a 2SLGBTQIA+ nonprofit.
- Use the money to pay employees to volunteer with 2SLGBTQIA+ nonprofits or charities.
- Set up a 2SLGBTQIA+ mentoring or community program supported by your organization.
- Support 2SLGBTQIA+ owned businesses if you’re looking to purchase products. Our favourite places are imenoughshop.com and Flamingo Market.
If for your organization, being a part of Pride events was about marketing and showing your support to the community, we understand. But you can also get marketing benefits from being involved in different ways beyond a Pride float — ways that provide more benefit to people in the queer community who need it.
Pride is about progress
The original uprisings that became Pride such as the Stonewall Riots in New York City or the Bathhouse Riots in Toronto happened because a group of people finally stood up to systemic discrimination and marginalization. Thankfully, a lot of progress has been made since then. But all progress is hard-won and hard-kept — it cannot be taken for granted.
As your company celebrates Pride (including all the fun parts of it!), remember that foundation. You’re taking part in a historic celebration of humanity that is about continuing to secure progress and equality. There may be parties along the way to mark milestones, but the march isn’t over yet.