Rainbow washing: End of Pride Month questions corporate compassion

By Faith Allendorf, Interim Summer Editor-in-Chief

When June 1 arrived, companies like Facebook and Walmart rolled out shelves of colorful merchandise, flooded their social media pages with rainbows and aired compassionate commercials. 

Pride month had begun, and corporations wanted to make sure their consumers knew how much they supported the LGBTQ+ community. One company, Burger King, showed their support by creating the Pride Whopper — a burger with either two top buns or two bottom buns rather than one of each.

However, Pride Month will end on Friday. Corporations will put their shelves of merchandise on clearance, cleanse their social media pages of rainbows and no longer air compassionate commercials. 

Historically, corporate support seems to mostly vanish on July 1, leaving LGBTQ+ individuals and allies wondering if a company really cares about the community after Pride Month ends, or if it is just participating in rainbow washing.

What is rainbow washing?

“Rainbow washing is aesthetic support, and it’s about marketability and profit,” said Emily Stutzman, junior in LAS. “The key part is that the corporation is actively giving support to anti-queer politicians, legislators, lobbyists and laws while at the same time claiming to be allies.”

At the surface level, a company’s rainbow logo indicates that it is an ally of the LGBTQ+ community. But according to Nicole Frydman, director of Uniting Pride of Champaign County, research into a corporation’s monetary history could reveal the opposite. 

“It’s not immediately obvious,” Frydman said. “Rainbow washing isn’t the kind of thing that you can Google in five seconds. It takes a bit of energy and time.”

Identifying rainbow washing

Frydman said that there are several behind-the-scenes ways a corporation could be harming the LGBTQ+ community. According to them, there are aspects of a company’s financial management to research:

Maya Raviv, junior in MCB, specifically identified CVS Health as a corporation that rainbow washes. Since 2019 and according to Popular Information, CVS has donated $259,000 to members of Congress who supported anti-trans laws. Two of the members were Texas senators who aimed to make gender-affirming care for children a crime. 

But for Pride Month 2022, CVS’s Twitter banner was a small rainbow heart. A June 1 tweet read that they “stand with the LGBTQ community and for diversity and inclusion in all its dimensions.”

“When I actually look into how people that are more deeply marginalized than me, rainbow washing is an issue,” Raviv said. “If I was a trans person and I was aware of what CVS is doing and I saw the rainbows, I would be upset.” 

CVS is not the only company guilty of rainbow washing. 25 rainbow-flag waving companies, including Walmart, AT&T, Amazon and Facebook, donated more than $10 million to anti-LGBTQ+ causes between 2020 and 2021. 

The harmful impacts

Raviv said rainbow washing strips Pride Month of its political power. She explained that Pride has always been political because the month is not only a celebration, but a time to defend the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals.

“When Pride is stripped of its political power, then queer people are just there for celebration or as a culture to appropriate because it’s fun and looks pretty,” Raviv said. “The voices of queer people that are actually suffering violence or being discriminated against aren’t actually heard because Pride isn’t supposed to only be fun and pretty.”

Stutzman agreed. They mentioned that the first Pride was a riot, and rainbow washing weakens the power of the origin. 

“It gives corporations the opportunity to dilute the message of Pride and remove its revolutionary teeth,” Stutzman said. 

Stutzman was also worried about how rainbow washing harms the legitimacy of Pride Month in the eyes of those who are unsupportive of the LGBTQ+ community.

“Conservatives aren’t going to have their minds changed by whether or not corporations support queer people,” Stutzman said. “I think it is likely to draw more reactionary anger because they see it as proof that queer people are influencing the public.”

A double-edged sword

Frydman does not believe rainbow washing is all that bad, though. They said that as an older individual, they see the many rainbow logos as progress. 

In Frydman’s earlier years, companies would not do business with LGBTQ+ individuals and would turn them away. Today, they adorn rainbows. 

“It is a sign that the acceptance of queer existence is fundamentally different than it was 10, 15 or 20 years ago,” Frydman said. “While I feel like slapping a rainbow on your logo is not nearly enough, I’m also not ready to throw out the idea that changing a logo to a rainbow isn’t necessarily a bad thing.”

Stutzman called this a “double-edged sword.” While the exploitation of the LGBTQ+ community is a cause for anger within parts of the community, corporate support is better than what it used to be. 

“I’ll never be grateful for our exploitation, but I also recognize that corporations finding it more profitable to voice public support for the queer community is not necessarily a bad thing,” Stutzman said. “It’s a thermometer on where the general culture is at in their acceptance.” 

Raviv said she understands why corporate support rises during June. While it makes sense for companies to gain monetary profit, the problem is when it takes away from LGBTQ+ voices.

“I think underpaying queer creators and not supporting queer causes with queer merch is where the issue lies with rainbow washing,” Raviv said. 

 Combating exploitation 

The word “research” was Frydman’s mantra. They said it is important to be informed about a company’s spending priorities and management policies so consumers can identify the right places to shop. 

Frydman also explained that research can prevent shoppers from penalizing organizations that are doing “good.” For them, not every corporation is working against the LGBTQ+ community. 

“You’ve got to be a knowledgeable consumer,” Frydman said. “If you’re spending money, make sure that you have done at least a basic level of research as to whether this organization really is doing good work or whether they’re not.”

Stutzman believes that asking corporations to change is not enough. Under capitalism, big businesses do not work in the favor of the people, no matter their sexuality. It is impossible for capitalism to provide any oppressive relief. 

But they also believe liberation is in the hands of the people. 

“Expecting corporations to do better is like a paradox because it’s not in the nature of corporations to be a force for good in the world,” Stutzman said. “I would even go so far as to say it’s impossible because our liberation is not going to come from there, ever.”

 

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