Let's Talk Rainbow Washing
Every June, in recognition of Pride Month, we see an abundance of rainbow flags and other signs of support for the LGBTQIA2S+ community. Many organizations, including the National Runaway Safeline, even adjust their branding to include colors from the rainbow flag or the Progress Pride flag, showing their support and allyship with the LGBTQIA2S+ community. While well intentioned, the use of such symbols and branding can create backlash when incorporated without additional activities and messages showing further allyship.
To the public, rainbow symbols suggest inclusivity, acceptance, and a supportive environment. However, if rainbow branding is not part of broader efforts to support the LGBTQIA2S+ community, it may be perceived as an empty or even exploitative gesture. Critics may interpret rainbow branding as a ploy for such companies to improve their brand’s reputation or to make money rather than to create positive change. Rainbow branding within companies should exist to foster a safe corporate culture with initiatives that boost diversity, equity, and inclusion. Though, some may be dubious of a brand’s intentions when they incorporate the flag into their branding or products without any further positive action.
This is how the term “rainbow washing” was coined. Rainbow washing refers to using rainbow imagery in a way that is misleading regarding a group’s actual policies and intentions. An example from a Fortune 500 company is a recent tweet that stated, “We can #TURNUPTHELOVE for LGBTQ+ youth together,” followed by a line of hearts in the colors of the rainbow flag. While this seems like a kind gesture, that same year, this company donated over $1 million to anti-LGBTQ+ politicians. Thus, the company “rainbow washed” their message, likely using the messaging not to reflect their true corporate values, but to capitalize on Pride Month and potentially increase their revenue.
While it may be challenging to know a company’s true motivations behind their Pride month efforts, you can get a better understanding of their level of support for the LGBTQIA2S+ community by considering several questions: How has the company shown their support for the LGBTQIA2S+ community in the past? Have they set measurable goals for providing support in the future? Are their goals and actions informed by people within the LGBTQIA2S+ community? How do they treat LGBTQIA2S+ employees within their organization?
We applaud companies and organizations that showcase the rainbow flag during Pride Month — it represents hope, resilience and solidarity for a community that has been marginalized throughout history. However, it is essential that the inclusion of this symbol be reflective of the broader work that companies do during Pride and all year long to demonstrate true allyship to the LGBTQIA2S+ community.