Not in Kansas Anymore: on the (limited) value of rainbow-washing*

13 July 2021

By Eden Kaill

Do you remember the scene in the Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy steps out of her door and the world is transformed from monochrome to brilliant full colour? 

I feel like that’s what early June looks like on social media.  Suddenly, rainbows are EVERYWHERE. So many companies, Babin Bessner Spry included, change their logo to rainbows (I threw a little glitter on ours too, just to be Extra) and post a Happy Pride message.

And then on June 30, just as suddenly, they all fade back to business as usual. I’ve seen this phenomenon called “rainbow-washing”, and criticized as empty virtue-signalling: “a public expression of a moral viewpoint with the intent of communicating one's own good character” .

While I’m not someone who really understands what the problem is with signaling virtue (like being called a Social Justice Warrior, it sounds pretty awesome to be honest), I also understand why many in the LGBTQ2+ community, a community built on protest against injustice and oppression, would be frustrated by being treated as basically a PR opportunity.  Where are those rainbow-flag-waving companies when their queer employees are discriminated against? Where are the gender-neutral bathrooms?  Where are the inclusive hiring practices?  Etc., etc.

But is it possible there is some value in simply declaring “Happy Pride” and doing nothing concrete to support the LGBTQ2+ community?  My answer is…not much, but also not nothing.  Of course it means more when a company puts their practices and policies where their Twitter is. If rainbow-washing is the only queer-friendly move they make, it’s weak, but I’m hesitant to say they shouldn’t do it.

The thing is, I can’t help but find it thrilling that it’s now broadly considered a good PR move to enthusiastically celebrate Pride. It’s one of those complicated victories, like when being environmentally responsible becomes cheaper than polluting. At least in Canada, a company is going to get more accolades than condemnations for putting up a Pride flag. That shouldn’t be why they do it, but realistically that’s sometimes going to be the reason for progress. The motivation sucks, but the context is hopeful and the result is good, or at least better. That scene in the Wizard of Oz changed everything, and I like to think rainbow-washing is a sign of that kind of fundamental change.

Sometime soon we’ll go back to our regular logo.  It’s time to ask ourselves what we are going to do to make sure the rainbow wasn’t an empty gesture.


*Author's note: I had a moment, when I sat down to write this, of wondering if I’m Queer Enough to take a public-facing position on rainbow-washing. This is a pretty common worry for queer cisgender women who sometimes date men, and I’ve decided to ignore it.


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