Barrington Reeves on the Black Scottish Business Fund
The head of Glasgow-based design and branding agency Too Gallus discusses the Black Scottish Business Fund, his address to the Scottish Parliament, and what it means to be a Black creative in 2020
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The Black Lives Matter movement has constituted a groundswell of anti-racist activism, the likes of which has not been seen in decades. In the United States, protests have been raging for two months since the senseless killing of George Floyd at the hands of the police, in the UK anti-racist reading such as Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race has topped the book charts for the first time, and petitions, Black-led projects and crowdfunders have seen unprecedented levels of support.
One such crowdfunder is the Black Scottish Business Fund, set up by Barrington Reeves, the creative director of the Glasgow design agency Too Gallus. The fund was born out of a desire for action and a need not to let the momentum of the May and June protests fizzle out. “I organised the Black Lives Matter March in Glasgow,” Reeves explains, “but I didn’t want it to just be a protest, I wanted there to be some sort of action that happened after”. Having worked several years in the Scottish creative business industry, Reeves was well aware of the obstacles that could face young Black entrepreneurs, and was eager to alleviate some of the pressures in a material way.
“I'd always felt that being Black and being in the entrepreneurial business scene was really alienating. I don't know if people discriminated against me, but I definitely felt there were a lot of preconceptions and stereotypes, and I was having to battle against people's opinions before they really got to judge me on my work,” Reeves recalls. His experiences and plea for change clearly resonated. Originally set up with a £5,000 goal, at the time of writing the fund has reached over £20,000, with donations continuing to roll in.
“Obviously it totally took off, I really wasn't expecting the response it got,” Reeves laughs. But he is full of enthusiasm about what this unexpected level of support can achieve. While he initially hoped to help five or ten businesses, Reeves now anticipates giving cash injections to 50 different Black-led Scottish entrepreneurs. And it’s not just about the money, either.
“[We’re] building a network and creating a support structure,” Reeves explains. “We're going to start running workshops on things like financial literacy… when to pay taxes, what taxes to pay, when to be VAT registered”. For Reeves, addressing these systemic barriers and giving Black creative start-ups the tools to navigate an often hostile landscape is crucial. “It's the lack of confidence,” he stresses, “that’s the main thing. When you're young and Black and stepping into an industry that doesn't look anything like you”.
For Reeves, diversifying the industry is not about buzzwords or tokenism, but dismantling homogenous structures that economically disenfranchise Black creatives. “If your office is like white, middle-aged, and listens to…” he casts around, laughing, trying to think of the whitest thing he can, “guitar music, then why would you hire the 19-year old Black guy that listens to drill? We don't get the position because we don't fit in the company culture, but really that's a problem with the company culture, not the applicant”.
This change in culture needs to happen at every level. While Reeves’ fund can make a big difference to small Scottish businesses struggling to get a foot in the door, larger companies need to put in the work to address their own racist systems. “What we're seeing a lot of right now is people jumping up and using diverse campaigns and hiring Black models and talking about Black Lives Matter on their Instagram, but what we really need to see is measurable change from businesses,” he says firmly. “We need to see them hiring Black people.”
Reeves’ activism also goes beyond his own creative business industry. Speaking to the Scottish Parliament in June, Reeves emphasised again the need to change the broader culture, beginning with education and the reintroduction of British colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade into the curriculum. It’s an issue that is particularly pressing for Scotland, which has often been portrayed as a racist-free utopia, a portrayal that is inherently untrue. “[Scotland] was the major passing place for slaves coming from Africa,” Reeves explains. “They passed through Glasgow to go on then to the Caribbean and to go to Virginia. Most of Glasgow's wealth is built on the back of that”.
This denial of Scotland’s past leads to its own, insidious form of racism, Reeves insists. “It's that people don't understand the past. If we look at Germany and how they address Nazism and the Holocaust, it's very up front. Whereas Britain... Britain's approach has been to push it under the rug and pretend it never happened. And that's when you get people saying things like, ‘go back to where you came from’, because they don't understand why some people are here in the first place”.
It’s no small feat, undertaking systemic change at every level, yet Reeves is firm in his belief that it is the only way things will get done. And already, he claims, things are shifting for the better. “I put in a conscious change over the past couple of years to be a lot more up front about how we display the business and that it's Black-led. If I had done that five years ago, people would have been like ‘whoa! That's not appropriate’”. In a Scottish creative scene made up of all-white boards and black Instagram squares, Reeves’ insistence on fostering and celebrating Black culture is a much-needed catalyst for change.