Recently I’ve been fantasizing about freelancing as a Nope Consultant. Businesses could hire me to hang out with a big rubber NOPE stamp and wait for someone to prepare to do something objectionable.
Inviting staff to dress up in headdresses and feathers for the Thanksgiving potluck? NOPE. Buying someone lingerie for the company Secret Santa exchange? NOPE. Naming your PR firm after a song about lynchings? NOPE. Nope nope nope. Shut it down.
With my refined and time-tested NOPEing skills, I could have been an excellent asset to Strange Fruit PR, an Austin-area public relations firm run by two white people. I would have whipped out that rubber stamp and advised them to name it “Basically Anything But That PR.”
But unfortunately, Strange Fruit PR didn’t consult me or, in all likelihood, any other person of color when they decided to name their firm. And several years after the firm was founded, it received an outpouring of overdue criticism on Twitter last Saturday.
In case you’re not familiar with “Strange Fruit,” the song by Billie Holiday is about Black people being murdered, burned, and lynched in the South: “Southern trees bear a strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root / Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze / Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees”
Even if you’ve never heard the song before, simply typing “strange fruit” into Google is an easy way to learn that the term has a somber past. Strange fruit refers to America’s bloody history of ignoring—or worse, endorsing—the killing of Black men, women, and children.
And apparently, the two women behind Strange Fruit PR were “definitely aware of the song,” according to a tweet from 2013, though their name has “no affiliation” to lynchings.
A few Twitter users would beg to differ. Quite a few, in fact. On Saturday evening, thousands of Twitter users had tweeted at the firm, as well as its clients, which include Banger’s, drink.well, and Barley Swine.
The firm’s response? “Different is good. Cultivating an accepting, progressive community is good. We are proponents for all. Always have been. We wish you well.”
NOPE. The term does not refer to, as the firm’s founders insisted, someone who “stands out in a crowd.” And insisting that “Strange Fruit PR” does not invoke a history of violent racism is active participation in the same deliberate ignorance that makes America an unsafe place for people of color. As Dan Solomon points out in Texas Monthly, “Given that Austin as a whole is rather tone-deaf in response to issues surrounding race, it’s unsurprising that an Austin business would be similarly tone-deaf. But it is surprising that a PR business would make this sort of mistake, given the specific task of public relations is to avoid controversy that hurts your business.”
After their initial non-apology sparked even more outrage on Twitter, Strange Fruit PR apologized again and promised to rename the company. My official Nope Consultant advice? Spend some time interrogating the privilege that your whiteness affords you before worrying about how to get your business back on the ground.
Natalie tweets from @nsanluis.