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

A 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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