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When a White Company Trademarks the Word Black

As mainstream companies discover the profitability of Black consumers, Black-owned businesses are threatened to be squeezed out of existence. 

In the United States, Blackness has always been profitable—just not always for Black people. Whether through theft of labor, or co-option of aesthetics, the U.S. has continuously created ways to appropriate from Black people for profit. This pattern of profiteering is so ingrained in the country’s business culture, it’s such first nature, that when Black people try to profit off of their own work and bodies, mainstream businesses can sometimes be taken aback. And so goes the story of MANA Products’ BLK/OPL. This year, the brand BLK/OPL, owned by the large Greek makeup company founded by Nikos Mouyiaris, has become entangled in a legal trademark dispute with the black-owned marketplace BLK + GRN, over how the Black-owned company can market themselves to customers.

In the bizarre legal action, MANA Products, which has recently stylized its Black Opal brand as BLK/OPL, states that they stand to be financially damaged by the registration of Dr. Kristian Henderson’s Black-owned beauty and wellness marketplace, BLK + GRN. According to legal documents, BLK/OPL asserts they’ve “expended significant time, money and effort in promoting and marketing” their brand. Additionally, BLK/OPL lawyers advance further “BLK + GRN” could unfairly siphon off customers because the brand includes “the dominant identical term BLK plus an additional color term abbreviated to three letters.” 

But here, what MANA Products lawyers are calling a trademark violation, Dr. Kristian Henderson describes as an act of corporate blackface. Dr. Henderson says her company does not have the funds for a dragged out legal dispute, so she has fought these allegations in the court of public opinion. In May, she wrote an article titled “When a White Company Wears Blackface” for Medium.com that explained how MANA Products’ BLK/OPL positions itself as a Black-owned firm on its website, in stores, and online.

“It feels as if Black Opal is claiming to own the stylized ‘BLK’ version of Black, despite being very far from being a Black-owned company,” Dr. Henderson wrote in the article. The op-ed essay included screenshots of BLK/OPL marketing broadcasting pictures of exclusively Black women wearing their hair in head wraps and curls and prominently featuring various shades of brown makeup. “Black Opal’s Instagram feed features nothing but Black women, which would lead you to believe that Black women founded the brand,” Dr. Henderson wrote. 

In an interview with Wear Your Voice, the founder of BLK + GRN further expounded on how deceptive marketing by mainstream corporations undermine Black-owned businesses, normalize cultural insensitivity, and promote norms that prioritize “profit over principle and transparency.” 

“There are two effects to corporate Blackface,” Dr. Henderson told us of the negative externalities. “One — large corporations that appear to be Black-owned and Black-affirming prevent actual Black companies from thriving. They threaten the very existence of Black brands in spaces where they may have limited visibility. Two — More consumers who are looking to invest in their own communities by supporting Black businesses would be misled.” 

“Corporate Blackface undermines the success of Black businesses, while simultaneously muscling consumer decisions and how they can vote with their dollars,” she said.

BLK/OPL is far from the first mainstream brand seeking to appropriate Black culture for profit in an unsavory manner. In California, entrepreneur Kelsey Witherow made waves when she started an ice cream shop Doughp that used racialized marketing to sell its frozen treats through rap culture with menu items like “Cold Brew is Bae,” “This S’More is Hella Lit,” and “The OG.” Earlier this year, the billion-dollar salad company sweetgreen was similarly accused of profiting and appropriating Black culture to sell its salads by marketing them with hip hop names like “Beets Don’t Kale My Vibe,” and other Black paraphernalia. And from Sprite to Tommy Hilfiger, to Tiffany’s, many mainstream corporations have deployed what critics have described as racialized marketing practices to profit off of Black culture and promote their products. 

And as BLK/OPL seeks to challenge BLK + GRN, Dr. Henderson underscores that this trademark dispute is an evolution of the trend of culturally insensitive, insincere business practices seeking to exploit Black images and customers. Citing various examples like last year’s “blackfishing” scandal, Dr. Henderson tells Wear Your Voice that “there have been many instances of companies and individuals appearing to be something that they are not in order to be a part of the diversity conversation.”

“I’ve truly learned the power that these large corporations can have over small businesses and start-ups trying to thrive in the beauty space.” she says “Companies should be more honest about ownership when they are creating products geared toward Black women. There should be transparency with mainstream brands so that consumers, especially those who are making a conscious effort to invest money in Black-owned brands, aren’t misled.”

Dr. Henderson originally started BLK + GRN because she wanted to connect Black consumers, with small Black businesses making quality toxic free products—a mission now in jeopardy as large corporations continue to expand into black markets. “With the success of brands like The Lip Bar and Fenty Beauty, Blackness is seen as this sort of Insta-worthy “trend” that many non-Black corporations try to capitalize on,” says Dr. Henderson. “The problem with that is non-Black companies that appear to be Black through their marketing and advertising, profit while appropriating Black culture.”

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Katie is a UX writer and content creator working in the tech industry. She helps academics, professionals, and creatives share their expertise by coaching them through the writing and publishing process. When's she not writing, reading, or devouring chocolate chip cookies, she's loudly pretending to be from Atlanta. Follow her on Twitter and the 'gram @blkkatie.

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