Adidas, and the “Shackle Slave Shoe”: How This Kind of Thing Happens

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I want to congratulate Adidas for finally coming to its senses and getting rid of the public monstrosity known as the JS Roundhouse Mid Trainers. (In my circle, we refer to them as “shackle slave shoes”). The sneakers were going to set the market on fire in August. But plans were abruptly changed when the company suddenly realized that black people become somewhat sensitive upon seeing a product that makes them feel like they are slaves or prison inmates.

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Adidas initially tried to stand firm on the shoe design with the same old, “What’s the big deal?” response. It didn’t work. After I wrote a piece on the matter and Rev. Jesse Jackson stepped in, the company folded its cards and went home. Nomalanga Mhauli-Moses, a social commentator and reigning Mrs. Botswana, made a very interesting point that the company should have simply lived with its horrible mistake and released the shoes anyway. I didn’t agree with Nomalanga, since the only thing worse than being ignorant is to be both stubborn and ignorant at the same damn time.

As a business school professor and a black man, I am going to do some free consultation for Adidas, the company that makes its millions leveraging the “street cred” of black athletes like Derrick Rose. The fact is that they had it coming. I can virtually guarantee that when the decision to make these hideous shoes was green-lighted, there wasn’t a black person in the room. Or, if there was a person of color in the room, he or she was not empowered to speak up on a design that was about as offensive as the picture of an aborted fetus at a pro-choice convention.

Another mistake Adidas might have made is to rely on the “One black person said it’s OK” phenomenon. This is where a white guy sees something that his gut tells him is offensive to people of color, but he goes along with it because the one black person he speaks to says that it’s perfectly fine. The next thing you know, the entire company is embarrassed after releasing a product or ad that has Jesse Jackson spending quality time on their front porch.

Note to Adidas:  There is no one black person or ad agency that you can depend on to ensure that you never offend all of the black people on the planet. We are as diverse as any other group, and there are millions of us who would gladly put slave shackles on our ankles because massa said so.  In fact, had Adidas gone ahead and released the “shackle slave shoe,” there would be Negroes lined up around the block ready to buy them.

The bottom line for Adidas and other companies that come up with similar “bright ideas” is that real and meaningful diversity is both valuable and necessary to run an effective organization. You can’t get by with just a couple of brown faces or by demanding assimilation from anyone you accept into your organization. You must allow all ideas and backgrounds to come to the table and give them a fair voice in the ongoing corporate dialogue. Black employees and socially-conscious individuals who work with Adidas would be wise to critically assess the company’s commitment to diversity and investigate how this mistake occurred. Otherwise, you’ll find your tail between your legs in the future, losing millions of dollars in the process.

Good diversity is not just the right thing to do, it’s also good for business. By putting shackles on our thinking, we forever remain enslaved to mistakes like this one. Adidas should have known better.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Professor at Syracuse University. To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.

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