Tone-Deaf ‘Racist’ Poster Illustrates Lack of Diverse Leadership at Red Cross

Critics have called for diversification of the organization’s nearly all-white management after no one noticed bias reflected in poster.

Critics have called for diversification of the organization’s nearly all-white management after no one noticed bias reflected in poster.

By Sheryl Estrada

Be-Cool-PosterA poster distributed by the American Red Cross illustrating pool safety was harshly criticized this week for appearing to depict children of color as more mischievous than white children, and the tone-deafness of the message should not be much of a surprise considering the organization’s entire leadership is white, with the exception of one Black man as chief diversity officer.

While the Red Cross presumably did not have racist intentions behind the poster, the lack of the diversity in its culture likely contributed to the unconscious bias displayed by the illustrator and the absence of any red flags throughout the approval process.

The lack of diversity among its board was not lost on Black Kids Swim, a group dedicated to helping Black youth engage in swimming. The organization has started a petition, “Stop Spreading Negative Stereotypes about Black People Swimming” that it intends to present to the CEO and President of the American Red Cross Gail J. McGovern and Chief Public Affairs Officer Suzanne C. DeFrancis. The petition lists six demands, including diversification of the organization’s leadership.

The cartoon illustration in the poster, titled “Be Cool, Follow the Rules,” points out children exhibiting “not cool” or dangerous behavior, and “cool” or safe behavior around the pool. The children of color are the majority of the “not cool” kids and the “cool” kids are all white. For example, a Black girl is being aggressive by pushing a white girl into the pool.

Last weekend, Margaret Sawyer was traveling across the country when saw the poster at the Salida Pool and Recreation Department in Salida, Colo., and then at another pool in Fort Morgan. She took a photo of the poster and posted it on her Facebook page.

The response on social media has been tremendous, even prompting the Red Cross to tweet an apology when the image was posted on Twitter:

The Salida Pool and Recreation Department also replied:

The posters originated from a safe swimming campaign that began in 2014.

But, Sawyer, who said in a Facebook post Monday she has a phone call today with McGovern and Black Kids Swim, still thinks the organization needs to work on its diversity and inclusiveness.

In an interview with KUSA, Ebony Rosemond, who runs Black Kids Swim, called the poster a step backward.

“When I saw the poster, I just, was just very saddened that the Red Cross had chosen to put out an image that might one, discourage African-Americans from trying swimming if they were new to it, and also something that would extend a negative stereotype,” she said.

“How can an organization that prides itself on being so open-minded, so understanding of the diverse populations of the world create something like this?”

The petition states:

“African Americans’ relationship to swimming as both a recreational activity and a competitive sport has been negatively affected by segregation and violent exclusion. The Red Cross water safety poster is building on this unfortunate past and extending negative stereotypes.

“70 percent of African Americans and 60 percent of Latino Americans cannot swim. Your poster extends existing negative stereotypes and further discourages people of color from participating in swim activities. We call upon the American Red Cross, as a federally chartered non-profit organization, to portray American values of equality and inclusion in your educational materials.”

The petition offers a list of six demands, which includes asking the Red Cross to “work diligently to ensure all remaining posters are taken down,” and the organization “hire more diverse executive leadership that includes people of color and African Americans to improve the evaluation process of future materials.”

Responses to the poster on Twitter created a debate of whether or not the illustration is racist, which included racist comments:


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  • I saw this early this morning. Just simple, stupid and a whole lot of other adjective I could use! Are people living on planet dumb?

  • Whites like Richard T. White (yes, he is very much so) and an alleged educated LauraEllen, MSW always miss the point of logic. Mr. White is so blindingly white that he thinks all things white are right! LauraEllen conducted safety trainings and the only thing she could critique was not the lack of diversity in upper-level management, but the non-racist posters!! This poster screams of racism in AmeriKKKa because it depicts what AmeriKKKanazis think about little black kids and black adults: If you invite them into any pool, work, or school setting, they will cause mischief for alleged “angelic” white folks. The Red Cross, like most nonprofits that receive taxpayer dollars, are just as racist in their upper-level hiring processes as any Fortune 500 company. I wouldn’t want to have a disaster and have to depend on white racists at the Red Cross to assist me. Ask any black Hurricane Katrina victim. Recently, a fire occurred at a building and the Red Cross responded. They offered white residents twice as much in disaster relief as the black residents. These nonprofits that receive taxpayer funds (Red Cross, Salvation Army, United Way, etc.) need to be held even more accountable than private corporations. They allow their employees to discriminate and then hide behind a “charitable” flag.

  • I would have to agree with a some other comments about this poster. I really don’t see the “Racist” tone to this poster as well. I think that some Diversity Leaders are really taking things a little too far. This is a huge problem with what is going on in todays world, Stop picking apart every little thing in order to find Racism. I mean, The Red Cross of all people that take the time to Help Individuals of Any Race.. Wow!!

    • Brian…to respectfully disagree with you…How can this poster NOT be racist when the majority of the “not cool” things are being done by Black children? All of the “cool” things are being done by white children. In my book that’s about as racist as it gets.

    • Brian, if this poster was depicting the white kids doing all the mischief and bad things, maybe I’d be as blind as you. The subliminal message is obvious.

  • J. R. Latino

    Another related question should be (making the assumption all involved saw the poster prior to release) where was the Chief Diversity Officer throughout these developments?

    • I agree with you and Luke. It’s not fair to ask the Diversity Officer to bail out the organization BUT…they should have at least run the promotion by the diversity department for review, otherwise what is the point of having a Diversity department unless it’s for show just to say you have one. I’ve been the Director of Diversity programs before and thought that I had the ability to make changes but once I tried I learned very quickly that my position was only for ‘show’. Wonder if he feels the same…

      • I’d imagine he does, but he’s swimming against the tide.

        Arrogance and ignorance are a terrible combination- I’m quite sure the dozens of people responsible for creating, approving, printing and distributing that unbelievably ridiculous poster don’t think their organization even needs a diversity department. I know their leadership doesn’t because I deal with dozens of organizations that do and I know what competency looks like and I know what excellence looks like.

        That poster (and the apology) are what incompetence looks like.

  • For some organizations (non-profit or otherwise) diversity on all levels means hiring a white woman. There is a serious lack of opportunity for people of color, particularly in the leadership and executive ranks. The fewer the opportunities at the mid to upper management levels, the less likely you’ll see true (vs. token) diversity in those ranks. The one lone executive of color, the Chief Diverstiy Officer, the silent minority, was either asleep at the wheel or does not have a significant presence at the Red Cross, where his perspective is sought and respected. It’s disgraceful that in 2016 we have to put an organization (one that receives taxpayer dollars in particular) on blast for something like this.

    • Floyd wasn’t sleeping, he’s a good man. My hunch is the rich republican club running the show doesn’t want Black or Latino management. Might prove them wrong about people’s capabilities.

  • Want to be cool, how about putting some Asians and Hispanics in the picture. So what would have made this drawing not racist? Reverse who was cool and not cool?

    • I mean seriously, who was the artist? Rip Van Winkle? And who was in the chain of characters that approved it? People still watching channel 2 on a Zenith black and white TV? It would be funny if the organization didn’t play such a key role in blood collection.

      Tone-deaf, bumbling, out-of-touch, nincompoops. But that was their reputation way back when I was on active duty. Doesn’t look like much has changed

    • The depiction of children of color/brown children (who by the way could be black or latino/Hispanic) performing irresponsible and dangerous acts in the pool environment is what’s not cool! This is caused by unconscious bias AND causes/teaches/Instills unconscious bias related to our black and brown children. The fact that you assume that Latino children are NOT represented here is also unconscious bias. Don’t get it twisted. They are also being misrepresented here.

    • Better still, how about putting some Asians, Hispanics and Black folks on executive row so Floyd isn’t the only person of color in the room when they have meetings. Brings me back to when I first started working in Corp America and being the only person of color at many meetings and events. That was in the 70s. Not much has changed.

  • I certainly don’t agree with the central theme of every article on this site, but…..

    You would be hard pressed to create a more tone deaf poster if you tried. I mean, you’d really need to go out of your way to out do this poster.

  • Terrie Nelson-Johnson

    I am not surprised by the racist posters and general behavior of the Red Cross. I am 70yrs. old and for most of my early life I heard horror stories from my father about the Red Cross and African-American soldiers. On the beaches of Normandy and in  the jungles of Burma, Black soldiers got 2nd best.  On the beach they got free two day old coffee and doughnuts. In Burma they paid a nickel.  Even though a black soldier was distributing hot coffee and doughnuts to white soldiers, then Irish, Italian and finally Jews, Black soldiers got day old or two day old “vittles”. Sometimes hot, mostly not. 

          My father would not allow me to contribute to the little fund raisers they had in school. Of course I got in trouble with the teacher, she wanted 100% participation for her class. She put in her dime and forced the pin onto my collar.  I had to take it off before I got home and put it on before I got to school. I was only 9yrs old. I never saw the Red Cross in my neighborhood when there was some sort of personal tragedy . We heard they gave out blankets, food, clothing, shelter. We never saw it. So, like I have experienced, I never, in 70yrs, seenThe Red Cross do anything for my people.  I’m NOT surprised.

    • I was a volunteer in the Red Cross college program in California in the 60’s, and there are stories to tell, but it was a great vehicle to get into facilities serving minorities (a home for wards of the court, for example, which we had access to once a month) I recruited a rainbow of volunteers for the program so that children, veterans and others we served could see people, like themselves.
      BUT I really believe your father’s stories based on my experience. One example is that I was asked to attend the national conference and participate on a panel. Our program advisor was female and Jewish. The director attempted to tell us how we were to conduct ourselves and how we would be perceived. Remember, people, that the Red Cross used to segregate blood. Also remember that though it is a non-profit, it runs like a private corporation, believe me, with rich chapters and poor chapters, but it is a powerful organization.. I wish I had been surprised by the poster, but I was just so very disappointed that not much has changed in 40+ years..

  • This is a loud example that major service organizations like the Red Cross, Salvation Army, United Way need to make sure to have programs in place that deal with issues of diversity, inclusion and sensitivity at the least. These organizations take and distribute millions+ monies to disadvantaged people of all socio-economic, religious and ethnic backgrounds on a regular basis and they should be mandated to have some training at the least on a regular basis. The fastest and most effective way to reach them is in the pocket as a large part of their income is donation driven. Hiring one token black or woman is no longer an acceptable solution. Your Board and Administration should at least reflect those you serve! Bottom line: this ad is sad on many levels because someone thought the picture up and another approved it not thinking anything was wrong. So much more work to do!

    • Terrie Nelson-Johnson

      The board does reflect the people they serve. I was slightly in error when I thought Red Cross didn’t serve minorities, the poor are not served either. How do ‘we’ change this misappropriation of service?

  • Brenda Thomson

    What is going on with the child in the middle of the pool? Forgive my ignorance…Did someone defecate in the pool?!?

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