Concern about Potential Harm of Centering Messaging around Disparity language

Hi! I work for a medium-size nonprofit, and my organization has decided to start moving towards emphasizing disparities by race and ethnicity in our marketing materials. For example, in our annual report and our email communication, our marketing team is planning on continually highlighting racial disparities in indicators such as poverty, graduation, health insurance coverage, etc, in our community (with data that I gather from publicly available datasets such as the ACS).

I am concerned about the potential harm of this marketing approach, especially following the TDE talk a few weeks ago where Heather mentioned that writing “disparity focused” headlines may actually increase stereotyping, obscure essential context that explains racial inequity, and fail to challenge how racialized people are often subtly (or not so subtly) blamed for the oppression they experience.
Does anyone have any resources that I could use to:

  1. further understand the equity issues that should be considered when using race-based data in organizational messaging,
  2. reference in conversations with colleagues and supervisors who believe this approach to be a positive step toward advancing equity in our work,
  3. help my colleagues make adjustments to develop data-based messaging around racial inequalities in our community that does not risk potential harm.

Thank you!!

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Hi there @lrmg4 welcome :raised_hands:t3:

This is a great question - thank you so much for asking it! It is SUCH an understandable impulse to demonstrate we care about equity by starting to disaggregate outcomes by social groups. And it is one of the easiest ways we can accidentally double down on oppression and marginalization.

I’m happy to drop some resources here and hopefully others will add more.

Here is the piece on how highlighting COVID-19 racial disparities reduced interest among white people. We have found this piece to be useful when communicating with colleagues and senior leadership.

Eli Holder and Cynthia Xiong’s work on accidentally visualizing data in ways that promote stereotypes is also really useful.

Here is the main article and below is a simplified Q&A which might be more useful for sharing.

Let us know how it goes!

So I work in data communications, and I’m on the communications side but work with a lot of data people to communicate their work. In my experience, broad audiences are not actually moved by data and often misinterpret data, as you have pointed out. Using descriptive headings that state the takeaway of the graph helps, but it doesn’t solve everything. Some sort of smaller taskforce using data to inform their work? Yes! But annual report/a newsletter you blast out to hundreds? I’m on your side with your concerns!

Do you feel like you understand the goals of why people are wanting to highlight these data? The data themselves are a “how” to a bigger goal-- of communicating something to your audience. If the goal is “data for data’s sake,” that’s always a red flag for me to slow down and reassess. Data usually support a main message instead of BEING the main message. The data we have are also usually showing an outcome, like graduation rates, instead of the “why” behind the inequity, like racism in education or how schools are funded by place-based tax dollars.

If you can identify the “what” more clearly, then you can solidify the “why” of why it’s important or why the inequity exists, and focus on that upstream cause more directly. Then you can figure out if you have data about that, or if you can use something else. The something else might be stories or qualitative info, if you can share that info in a way that feels good to clients and partners. Or it might be something more internal, like data from programs or work you’re doing that tie into the solution around the issue. Or it might just be making a cute Canva graphic with some messaging.

I would suggest trying to get this down clearly in a message map or wheel-and-spoke model, so you’re not just going “data! any data!” in a throwing-spaghetti-at-the-wall style (not saying that’s what’s happening, but I’ve been in those situations before.) You could also search the Frameworks Institute for advice on how to frame whatever your main message/“what” is. They’re a great resource that do research on how Americans respond to different messages so you can use them as a resource to say “actually, the way you’re framing that backfires with our audience.”

Hope this helps, clearly I have a lot of thoughts here! Wishing you all the luck and good vibes!

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Thank you SO MUCH for this thoughtful advice and great resource @ralebeau
I really enjoyed the way you’re positioning these issues, and I think we often do try to make data do too much of the work of storytelling.

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agreed - thank you for your insight, @ralebeau! :slight_smile:

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Any time! Have you had any successes or movement? I’m invested now :wink: