Cybersecurity and ad verification firm White Ops is rebranding in recognition that its name "perpetuates a toxic association of good and bad with colour and race".
In an emotive blog post published on the company's website, the company's CEO and co-founder, Tamer Hassan, said the name White Ops "no longer represents the values of the people who work here", and detailed his journey in reaching this conclusion.
In the aftermath of George Floyd's killing at the hands of police in May and the subsequent resurgence in the Black Lives Matter movement, many companies have (either voluntarily or as a result of public pressure) confronted racist associations with their names and branding. Uncle Ben's, Aunt Jemima and Darlie are among brands that have pledged to rebrand this year following long-standing criticism that their names and imagery perpetuate racial stereotypes.
These brands had very clear racial indiscretions. When Colgate-Palmolive revealed plans to review Darlie in June, its brand name in China still translated to "Black person toothpaste". But for White Ops, racial associations are somewhat subtler, which is why not everyone agreed that changing the name was necessary, Hassan said.
"I consulted with a lot of people, to get a diverse set of perspectives, to understand our blind spots and what we were not thinking about that we should be," he said. "I talked to people internally at White Ops, of all colors, as well as externally in trusted friends and advisors. And I got just as diverse a set of opinions as the people I talked to. Interestingly, I heard opinions for and against changing the name, from people of all backgrounds."
"That’s when I realised that opinions don’t matter in this situation. People do," he added.
The company's name is a play on 'black ops', a covert operation carried out by a government or military unit. If 'black' represents secret, then 'white' represents transparency, and in White Ops' instance refers to the company's mission to shine a light on the dark sides of cybercrime.
But it also comes with connotations of 'black' being bad and 'white' being good—similar to the way in which the advertising industry uses 'whitelists' and 'blacklists'. Verification firm Integral Ad Science banished these "regressive terms" from its vocabulary in early July and now uses 'inclusion' and 'exclusion' lists instead.
Race was not considered when White Ops was named by its four co-founders in a Brooklyn sci-fi bookstore eight years ago, but the name now "represents something different than what we’ve intended," Hassan noted.
Hassan went on to admit that he used to share the perspective that companies "shouldn’t make decisions based on color or race, because we should see past it".
"I would say that I was colorblind," he wrote. "But the current events have brought a sharp and painful realisation home for me, one that cuts deeper than I wanted to admit. Those of us who felt this way were able to hold that value, only because we haven’t been faced with the damage of ongoing racism personally and directly. We have only been able to maintain that view because we have been among the privileged majority. Colour blindness had been replaced with simply blindness."
The firm has not decided on a new name yet, but Hassan said it will make sure the new name "more sincerely represents the company and the values of the people that are a part of this mission, now and in the future".
Alongside changing its name, White Ops has established a diversity council that includes people from all parts of the company to build a roadmap of initiatives. The early work of this council has established regular and ongoing diversity and inclusion training for the company. The company has begun to make changes its hiring processes to track diversity metrics, and is working on how it can provide opportunities to minorities from high schools, colleges, and early first years of employment.
"These are only a few things and only the starting place. Small things in the face of a large and difficult challenge for a lot of people," Hassan acknowledged.
In the blog post, Hassan delivered a poignant account of his own personal experience of being discriminated against because of his Middle Eastern ethnicity. When serving in the US Air Force, he described experiencing "epithets of terrorist innuendos on a regular basis". But, he said, he was fortunate to have a group of friends that challenged any person or group that discriminated against him.
"I write this, not because I understand what systemic racism feels like, but because I understand the power of allyship," Hassan wrote. "It has the power to change the dynamic of a situation in seconds, in stark contrast to the years of work ahead of us in correcting this problem. Allyship was the missing power in the officers around George Floyd the moment he died under the knee of another officer. Allyship is the starting point, and the cornerstone, of the real work we will do collectively to solve the challenge against racism."
"This problem runs deep. We have a long road in front of us to pull back the layers of racism against Black people, and to undo what has become a part of our institutions at levels we don’t yet fully comprehend."