Dismantle racism in advertising, says Samoan branding expert

A New Zealand-based branding guru with Samoan heritage, Phoebe Smith, has appealed to Pacific islanders not to undervalue themselves at the expense of their self-worth.

Ms. Smith, who is currently Head of Strategy in New Zealand’s Wrestler creative agency, wrote a blog on her experiences as a Pacific islander who was adopted and raised by a white family and being brought up in two different worlds had a big impact on how she saw and interpreted the world. 

Her work at the Wrestler creative agency – is mostly in the digital storytelling space (video and interactive) with the aim of creating work that helps make the world a better place — whether that would be through supporting social or environmental change.

She is passionate about purpose-driven creativity, and her role focuses on how people tell meaningful stories that connect the audience, brand, messaging, and media.

Ms. Smith said that she had questioned if she was in the right career when she had a moment after the death of Black American George Floyd last month, which triggered anti-racism protests in America and around the world. 

Wanting to help people and use her privilege to pay it forward, Ms Smith said sometimes advertising can feel quite removed from it. 

"I came back to my personal motivation for being in the industry, which is to better represent minority ethnicities in advertising, particularly Pasifika peoples," she said. 

"I’ve never had the courage to be outspoken about racism until now (as it confronts my own family and upbringing) — but I felt encouraged that people seem to have a new willingness to listen, and I felt the best I could do was share my personal experiences as an offering in the race conversations."

Growing up she said she lived in two different worlds where she was raised white when she had brown skin. 

Her experiences of the two worlds she lived in was particularly layered and complex as a transracial adoptee. 

"When I think of my white world privilege (aside from the love and support of my adoptive family), I connect it to dominant culture feeling natural to me — and knowing how to "work the system” so to speak, in order to do well in society. It’s a code," she added. "Then when I talk to having brown skin, I’m talking to the discrimination that comes with my melanin. I love being Samoan but in general, there’s a perception of lesser value through a white world lens, which informs how others see us and even how we see ourselves. My reality is a constant navigating of these two worlds, never wholly fitting in either." 

She revealed that she felt the difference between being white and brown at the Wellington East Girls’ College, where her schooling and community groups had been predominantly white and accepting of her brown-ness. 

"Wellington East had a large Pasifika population, and I didn’t fit in at all. I looked the same but felt completely alien," she said. "I didn’t know or understand anything about being Samoan. It was really jarring. I’m thankful for that time but it was really hard.”

There is a mainstream trend in New Zealand where Pacific islanders are portrayed in an inaccurate way, but Ms Smith says that it's getting better but there's still a long way to go. 

For her personally, it is directly connected to who's telling those stories and making decisions about how those stories are told. The industry as a whole is very white, and representation ends up being a token projection of what brown-ness looks like to white people.

"It excludes all the layers of beauty and richness Pacific Island culture has to offer. I’m thankful for the power of social media democratizing representation and enabling Pacific culture to be nurtured from within. But mainstream media and advertising still quietly holds a huge amount of oppressive power," she emphasised.

People of colour put in so much energy to try and fit in the world around them, only to be returned with ignorance.  According to Ms Smith, we should encourage holding on to who we are and our cultural identity, but doing that with love, honour and humility for all peoples around us and regardless of how we are treated.  

“Every environment is so different and I feel like the best way forward can vary depending on who’s in a space, how safe it is, and what type of action will achieve the change we need," she added. "I’m a believer in leading by example and not giving in to the same actions that hurt us or misuse of power, whatever culture that comes from — it’s a lot easier said than done and I’m far from perfect! But it’s a value that guides me."

Pacific islanders are not addressing the issue of racism enough and Ms Smith believes that it's related to a lack of awareness more than anything. 

Advertising has a way of going under the radar, and its influence can often go unnoticed in the subconscious narratives it promotes, she added. But emphasised that she hopes that with greater awareness, Pacific Islanders can feel empowered to call out racism in advertising when they see it. 

"Ultimately though, we need the industry to make room for more people of colour at the table. The best cultural representation in storytelling and media spaces comes from within the culture itself.”

In the article titled "Brown humour is different to white humour, she relates it to the experiences of being part of a culture and white and brown cultures being so different. 

She believes that there is so much about Pasifika culture that only Pasifika people can understand – whether that be about lived experiences, generational differences or cultural values and behaviours. 

"White people" have often used Pasifika lifestyles to make comedy shows and tv shows, but Ms Smith said that when it comes to trying to represent a culture from the outside, she would look at the heart and intention of what it wants to achieve, and whether the outcome would empower and celebrate culture or perpetuate racist narratives.

"If it’s to elevate culture, I think it’s okay but only in collaboration and consultation with people from within, to ensure the culture is presented with respect and dignity," she added.

Ms Smith has encouraged Pacific islanders to rewrite stereotypes through her statement.

"Our work should remind people that greatness and achievement is a human capability, not a white one.”

She then expresses that she loves the humility of Pacific culture, however, Pacific islanders should constantly keep themselves in check and make sure that they are not self-deprecating at the expense of their self-worth. 

"We can still value ourselves and serve others. We need to lean in knowing that we’re enough, and to celebrate each of our individual offerings within our communities. It’s okay to be excellent — we’re made for it," she added.

Ms Smith’s adopted parents are Don and Carol Smith. Her late birth mother, Julie Siulioamoa Va’ai Tanuvasa was full Samoan from Magiagi and Sapapalii. Two of her siblings are her parent's biological children while the other two were also adopted from a Samoan Indo-Fijian family. 

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