Anti-Racism: Action Guide for White Creatives

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Image by: Brazhyk

It’s OK to Not Know Sh*t About Taxes 

Alicia, a budding web and brand designer, was excited about working for herself and choosing projects that spoke to her. She loved to get to know her clients and help them create brands that allowed their personalities to shine through. Her artistic sense, ease with technology, and insights into social media made this work a perfect fit for her. But when it came to dealing with taxes, she felt completely lost.

I'm not going to lie—taxes are complex, bureaucratic, and use jargon with random letters and numbers like W-9s and Schedule Cs and Form 1040s. 

As a CPA with six years of experience, I’ve seen how incomprehensible taxes can be to creatives who just want to do the work they love to do, and the tax aspect can be the hurdle that trips them up. As a writer myself, I always wanted to help when I saw creatives struggle with financial issues, which was why I chose to focus on creatives when I started my own accounting practice.

Disclaimer: While the terms freelancer and independent contractor have different meanings in terms of how people relate to their work, they are all considered self-employed and file taxes the same way.

What do I mean by self-employed? You may call yourself a freelancer even if you are taking several jobs on payroll, but if you get a W-2 (or several of them), in the eyes of the IRS you’re considered an employee, even if you’re jumping from job to job. You file your taxes as a regular employee would—a lot simpler. But if you get paid without having any taxes withheld, or you get a 1099 for any kind of work you do—you are considered self-employed—so this guide is for you. 

Tax filing is arguably one of the most daunting aspects of being self-employed. It can be especially challenging for creatives because 1) tax and finance aren’t mandatory subjects in school, 2) this left-brained, follow-the-rules thinking needed is the opposite of the right-brained, outside-the-box thinking creatives excel at, and 3) there are real monetary consequences for getting it wrong. 

Unless you’ve studied business and accounting, there’s no reason why you would suddenly know all this. When you’re self-employed, you are responsible for withholding, filing, and paying the taxes that businesses do. Even though it can be intimidating, one of the worst mistakes people make is to bury their heads in the sand, since back taxes and penalties can add up, fast.

Compared to selling products, hiring employees, or having business partners, being a one-person service-based business is relatively simple. Once you know what to do, the process is largely the same from year to year and is definitely doable by yourself.

This article is a “quick and dirty” guide to what -self-employed creatives need to know about tax filing, whether you’re self-employed full-time or get 1099s for side gigs. I’ll walk you through how to get organized so you can track your expenses and maximize deductions. Then we’ll look at whether you need to register as a business and what that means. Lastly, we’ll get into the nitty gritty of the taxes you’ll need to pay and how to calculate them. This overview will equip you with a foundation to setting up a system for yourself, so you can feel confident at tax time instead of overwhelmed. 

Let’s Get Organized

Tracking Expenses

I told Alicia that when you first start out, don’t make it more complicated than it has to be. The first thing you want to do is start tracking your expenses.

One of the mistakes new freelancers make is not tracking their business deductions. If you are self-employed, the bad news is you pay your taxes out of pocket rather than have it withheld from your paycheck. 

But the good news is—you also get to deduct business expenses from your income, thereby reducing the taxes you have to pay. This is why good record keeping is super important—it’s your first step to making sure you don’t pay more taxes than you need to.

Don’t go out and get Quickbooks right away though—accounting software has its own learning curve. Instead, you can track income and expenses on a simple spreadsheet – or even on paper if you prefer something more tangible. There’s no need to go crazy with formulas, either, unless you’re a spreadsheet nerd like me. Simply list the income and expenses separately and add them up. 

Here’s a simple Google Sheets template you can copy and use for yourself:
Additionally, you don’t need a separate business checking account if you don’t have a lot of expenses, but it might be a good idea to have one eventually for easier tracking. As you can see from the above screenshot, you can add expenses no matter what account the money came from.

If you work with few clients on longer-term projects, this may be all you need. You can always upgrade to a software solution as your volume increases, or if you need something that allows you to invoice clients and take payments all in one place.

Max it Out

(Your Deductions, Not Your Credit Card)

What kind of deductions can you take? Business deductions are any expense that is “ordinary and necessary”—meaning anything that people in your line of work typically spend. For example, a drawing tablet would be a common deduction for graphic designers, but it wouldn’t be for a hairdresser. Here are some common deductions for freelancers.

Advertising and marketing – Google or Facebook ads, sales conventions or conferences, networking costs, graphic design, social media marketing, brochures and flyers, business cards.

Computer and software – Adobe Suite, website expenses, new computer purchase, computer accessories, accounting software, project management software.

Education expenses – Training courses and books related to your work.

Health insurance – Sole proprietors get to deduct health insurance premiums if there is net income from the business, although it only reduces income tax, not self-employment tax (see below for definitions).

Retirement contributions - If you have extra money to sock away for retirement, contributing to a retirement plan will help reduce your income tax. You can use a traditional IRA and contribute up to $6000 (as of 2020 and 2021, $7000 if age 50 or older), or use a SEP IRA and contribute up to 25% of net income to a maximum of $57,000 in 2020.

Interest paid – Such as interest on a business credit card or line of credit if the money was used for business.

Meals expenses – Coffee or meals with potential or existing clients and vendors.

Office supplies – Paper, ink cartridges/toners, pens, printer/copier.

Phone and Internet – Your phone and Internet expenses are both deductible if you use them for business.

Professional fees – Legal and accounting fees, virtual assistants.

Travel expenses – Flights, hotels, taxis, car rentals are deductible if the primary purpose of the trip is business.

(Slightly) More Complex Deductions

Mileage – You may not realize that you shouldn’t deduct gas expenses directly if you use your car for business. Instead, you have to track both business miles and total miles driven on your car to calculate percentages used for personal and business. You can either take the business percentage of all vehicle expenses (gas, insurance, licensing, and maintenance) or use the IRS standard mileage rate times the number of business miles. The standard mileage rate is 57.5 cents per mile in 2020 and 56 cents per mile in 2021. Track miles on a notebook in your car or use an app like MileIQ or Triplog to track miles automatically using the GPS in your phone.

Home office deduction – If you work from home, you can deduct a portion of your rent or mortgage interest, property taxes, utilities, repairs, and insurance as business expenses. Calculate the percentage by measuring the square footage of your space dedicated to work – this may be a desk, a room, or part of a room – and divide it by the total square footage of the apartment or house. You can either take a simplified deduction of the business square footage times $5 (current as of 2021) up to 300 square feet or the business percentage of actual expenses, whichever is greater.

The Golden Question: Should You Set Up a Business?

Emily was a video game artist. Her character designs have appeared in small indie games, and her Instagram has started gaining traction. She recently moved to Seattle from Denver, CO, and lined up some contract work in the area. She wanted to know if there was anything she had to register before she started working as a freelancer.

Good News—You can Start Working Without Paperwork!

Most discussions on business taxes start with your business entity, because this determines which tax forms you'll file. For those who are self-employed, this is simple—you’ll file as a sole proprietor. You don’t need to do anything to set up a sole proprietorship—the business is automatically tied to your Social Security number (SSN).

Should You Get an EIN?

While not mandatory, it would be a good idea to get an EIN, or Employer Identification Number, also referred to as FEIN or employer ID, for security reasons. You can use the EIN in place of your SSN on a W-9 (see definition below) and other places where it’s requested (like when applying for a business license). You don’t have to be an employer to get one! You can get an EIN for free on the IRS website.

Do You Need a Business License?

In Washington, if you make over $12,000 a year as a freelancer, you’ll need to get a business license. You would also need a business license if you want to use a business name that is different from your name (also called trade name or DBA – “doing business as”), or if you sell products that require you to collect sales tax. For other license requirements, visit the Washington Department of Revenue

You don’t need to register a trade name as long as your full legal name is in the business name, for example, “Jane Eyre Design,” but you do if the name implies there are more people working with you, such as “Jane Eyre Company” or “Jane Eyre and Associates.”

If you’re wondering whether you need a business license and don’t meet any of the above requirements, just know that once you register, you’ll need to start making business tax filings at least once a year even if you don’t owe anything. Don’t give yourself additional paperwork if you don’t need to.

City Business License

If you need a Washington business license, you may also need a license to do business in your city. Look for your city on this list to see if you need to get a city business license.

What About LLC’s?

You may be considering forming an LLC, and wondering how that affects your taxes. Going that road is a whole other story with its own legal implications, but for the purposes of this guide, just know that if you are a single member LLC, you must choose to file taxes as a sole proprietor or a more complex entity, such as an S Corp. Most people choose sole proprietor for easier filing, in which case this guide would still apply.

Your New Besties: W-9 and 1099s

Get ready to know the terms W-9 and 1099 really well. Like it or not, these numbers and letters will sear into your brain come tax time!

W-9 – This is a form you fill out to provide your clients with your legal business name (your name for sole proprietorships), trade name, EIN or SSN, and address so they can send you a 1099. It is not filed with the IRS. Feel free to fill it out once and give a copy to each client -- just be sure to update the address if you move. The form can be downloaded here.

Form 1099-NEC - Businesses are required to send 1099-NEC (previously called 1099-MISC; NEC stands for “non-employee compensation”) forms if they paid at least $600 to sole proprietors who provided services. It is filed with the IRS so that it knows to expect at least that amount of self-employment income on your tax return. If you get one, make sure the amount is correct and include it on the Schedule C (defined below). 

You won’t receive a 1099-NEC if you were paid with a debit card, credit card, or third-party processor like Paypal (in which case, the payment processor is responsible for sending you a 1099-K if the total amount of transactions exceeds $20,000 or the total number of transactions exceeds 200). You also won’t get one if you did work for individuals (as a photographer might) instead of businesses. 

It’s Tax Time, Baby!

Get ready to party, tax style! Here’s where it all comes together. At tax time, if you’ve done the above and have your income and expenses in order, filing will be a piece of cake. You might even enjoy it! First, let’s discuss what taxes you’ll need to be aware of:

Federal Income Tax

This is the income tax calculated on your individual tax return, or Form 1040, that you’ve always filed. But instead of simply inputting your W-2 information, you will now list your 1099 income and tracked expenses on a Schedule C. (This is why it’s so important to make sure you track your expenses.)

If you worked as an employee and freelance at the same time, you’ll have the fun of doing both!

Here’s what the Schedule C looks like. A tax filing software like TurboTax or TaxAct can walk you through filling it out for a cost.

Self-Employment Tax

If you worked as an employee or currently do, you might have seen Social Security and Medicare contributions withheld from your paychecks. But you probably didn’t know—you were only paying half of it! 

Your employer paid the other half, which don’t show up on pay stubs. At 15.3% of your net income (12.4% for Social Security and 2.9% for Medicare), self employment tax is likely the bulk of the taxes you’ll pay.

However, one silver lining is that you get to deduct half of your self-employment tax as a business deduction, just like an employer can deduct the half that they pay.

Check out this IRS article on self-employment tax for more details.

Paying Estimated Taxes

By law, we have to pay taxes as we earn income throughout the year. Self-employed workers make these payments on their own instead of getting them withheld from a paycheck.

Estimated taxes are not an extra tax, but the quarterly estimates of your total taxes, which includes income tax and self-employment tax. The due dates are April 15, June 15, September 15, and January 15 and can be made by mailing in a Form 1040-ES with a check or online.

If you both freelance and work for an employer, you can also pay estimated taxes by increasing your withholding at your job to cover estimated taxes—it all goes into your account with the IRS.

The most important thing I have to say about estimated taxes is make sure you set aside money for it each month, such as in a separate savings account. People often make the mistake of thinking they had extra money to spend and end up getting caught with a large tax bill.

To calculate your estimated taxes, you’ll have to update your income and expenses at least quarterly. You’ll also need to know the deductions you’re likely to take on your personal tax return, which can get complex if you’re married or own a home. You’ll also need to consider your tax bracket for income taxes. 

For single filers, estimated taxes can be roughly 25% of your net income (15.3% of self-employment tax plus about 10% for income taxes). To calculate your quarterly payment, subtract your total expenses from your total income, and multiply by 0.25. You can also do this on a monthly basis so you know how much to set aside for taxes. This is a broad estimate that doesn’t take into account individual situations, but it should work for most at or below the 22% tax bracket. You want to err on the side of paying a little too much and getting a refund rather than not enough and getting hit with a big tax bill.

For a more accurate estimate, IRS’s Form 1040-ES contains worksheets that walk you through the calculations. You can also try online estimated tax calculators like this one.

‍A simpler way of paying estimated taxes uses what’s called the “safe harbor” rule. Even if you don’t get the calculation exactly right, the IRS won’t charge a penalty if you:
The safe harbor rule works best if your income doesn’t fluctuate too much from year to year.

State and City Business Taxes

Washington is one of the few states without a state income tax, but we do have something called business and occupation (B&O) tax to be paid by all businesses. The filing frequency is annually, quarterly, or monthly based on the amount of tax liability. Service businesses typically file quarterly or annually if they don’t collect sales tax.

The B&O tax is much easier to calculate than federal taxes. For service businesses, the tax rate is 1.5% of your gross income. There’s a small business credit at lower income levels so you actually don’t pay B&O tax until you’ve earned above a certain income. If the service is considered retail sales, it is taxed at a different rate (see Sales Tax below). 

The B&O tax is filed on the Combined Excise Tax Return, which includes sales tax and other taxes levied by the state. It can be filed on paper (the form is mailed to you before the due date) or online.

Cities in Washington that require a business license usually also require their own B&O tax return to be filed. Find out if your city has a B&O tax here.

Other resources:

Washington business & occupation tax rates

Filing Deadlines

- Annual filers - April 15th
- Quarterly filers - Last day of the month after quarter-end.
- Monthly filers – 25th of the following month.

Sales Tax

Some services are subject to sales tax in Washington and are categorized as retail sales rather than services. Most of these won’t apply to creative fields, but here’s the full list. However, if you sell products or artwork to consumers (not resellers), you’ll need to charge sales tax and forward it to the state. As digital products have become a popular way to sell your work, you may not be aware that some states, including Washington, require sales tax to be charged on them, just like physical products do.

Digital products include:
Click here for a full list of examples and definitions.

Sales tax issues can get complex very fast, especially if you sell online. Tax rates differ by municipality and need to be tracked based on delivery location or sales location. In Washington, sales tax is forwarded to the state through the Combined Excise Tax Return, the same one you file your B&O tax on. Sales to other states usually aren’t taxable until you reach a certain level of sales in that state (commonly $100,000).

Look up sales tax for cities and municipalities in Washington here: Washington sales tax lookup tool.

Pandemic Weirdness

2020 was a weird year. Your tax situation may have been impacted by COVID-19—stimulus checks, unemployment, PPP and SBA loans, and other special one-time situations. Here are some resources to find out more about the latest COVID relief bill and how it impacts your taxes, help you figure out your COVID deductions and credits, and how PPP forgiveness will affect your taxes.

Inspiration Takes Work. So Do Taxes. You’ve Got This!

Taxes may be more complicated when you start working for yourself, but it’s a skill that you can learn. In this guide, I’ve given you a comprehensive overview to get you started. You’ve learned that you need to track your expenses and make sure you take all the deductions you can, obtain business licenses if required, and calculate the amount of taxes you need to set aside. It can be a lot at first, but soon enough it will just be another admin task you do.

Despite the stereotype of creative work as “coming out of inspiration,” as a working creative you probably know that there’s a lot of planning and systems that go into any successful project. So consider the skill of self-employed tax filing as another tool that will financially empower you to keep creating and choosing the projects you prefer. 
Now go forth and file!

It’s no secret that working in creative fields can be challenging in any city and at any point in time. We navigate industries that support creative people, artists, designers, storytellers, dancers, that are in flux or inconsistent. We rely on the gig economy and we’re often not considered a priority if budgets run thin.

And the precariousness of steady creative work  and the crushing impact of COVID-19 to the arts sector weighs heaviest on BIPOC (Black person, Indigenous person or person of color) communities. 

In addition to finding opportunities and juggling projects, we are often navigating white-dominant culture while experiencing any of the million manifestations of racism reserved for Black and Indigenous folks along with our POC community. If you experience the world as a BIPOC creative, your life and work intersects with systems that perpetuate bias, exclusion and many other forms of oppressions rooted in racism. 

This article is not about how hard it can be, but rather some back-to- basics tips for how we can take care of ourselves as working creatives. If you are a BIPOC creative doing the work you love, you are an inspiration and a gift. I hope my words of guidance remind you that you are deserving of respect, protection and care in all aspects of your life, including your professional life. 

Who am I? I’m a connector and creative who has been a part of the Seattle arts community for 15 years. I have been able to work directly with artists, specifically Black and brown artists to help their work get seen, sold and shared—and it has brought me tremendous joy. 

I have sat on more arts selection panels and grant committees than I can count; I’ve served on arts boards, attended hundreds of artist show openings and events; I’ve collaborated, partnered and contracted. I’ve been a guest curator, museum administrator, gallery founder and most recently, freelance corporate arts consultant. 

I’ve seen creatives flourish and I’ve seen (and experienced) the hard lessons that many creatives have had to recover from. In the spirit of care, I offer here some notes of guidance that may be most relevant to both BIPOC creatives at the beginning of their journey or reminders for folks who have been in the game. 

I hope to focus this piece on the things that you can control—maintaining your integrity and creativity while acknowledging these harmful systems and their impacts on our practice.
 
There are lessons that are just not taught to us in art school and that’s why we gain so much from being in community and sharing stories.There are points that can only be shared by hearing it from our folks who have failed, who’ve struggled and who’ve thrived. This is not an exhaustive list of tips and ideas, rather these few points are the “each one teach one notes” that I hope will help keep us from being exploited and / or undervalued.


Let your work shine—and be easy to find

This is not always a popular piece of advice. I love social media for sharing work; however, I don’t yet think that social media platforms have evolved enough to replace a website as a hub of information. I have encountered enough artists who have some work on Instagram, different work on a website and, if they are cross disciplinary, have some other medium posted somewhere else. 

Love that your social is poppin’—that’s great AND the truth is that, like anything these days, we need to have quick easy references or ways to see all your work and contact you. Unfortunately, it might be difficult to send an Instagram link to a gatekeeper, but I can email a link to a website. 

If you’re an interdisciplinary creative, it’s easier to see your graphic designs, writings, paintings, poetry, dance footage etc. all in one place. Because, (unless you’re already ultra-connected) if you’re looking to book a large business and someone is recommending you, they often need to sell the idea of hiring you to someone else or a group of people. 

The ease of sending a link and not having to log on to social media to see your work and contact you in your DM’s saves everyone time. I’ve done this—when I worked for a museum, it was so much easier to send a web address than an Instagram link with only visuals and not enough bio info or contact info. A website with a resume, images or video, short bio and images of past work and an active email address for contact can save time and make it easier for your contact to make the case for contracting/hiring/commissioning you. 

Keep your social sites, but please take full advantage of low cost or free website tools if you can. 

Get information, find out the process

There are as many processes for seeking out artists as there are artists. If you know you would like to work with a company or firm you need to know what their process is for getting artists involved in an activity. The way museums, galleries and businesses actually go about selecting or hiring artists has not always been transparent to most of us, so it can be hard  to plan an approach. 

When I worked for a small community museum, artists would sometimes approach me about showing their work and selling it, mistaking the museum for a gallery, which was understandable. As an arts consultant, I know now that for-profit businesses could be hiring for a myriad of projects all handled by separate departments and people. It’s just not a straightforward formula and that’s why you need to get to know the process for the area  creative field you’re looking to work in. 

Learning the process requires some research and outreach. If you’re looking for gallery representation, know what type of work the gallery sells and how they decide on who to represent? What’s their process? 

Get yourself in the stream of information and apply for opportunities. Find out if the business, gallery, or museum hires freelance creatives or if they work with an agency, arts consultant or gallery. And what their online discovery tools are—if they use the Linkedin search directory or have some other way of finding artists for projects, programs, or shows. 

It just helps to understand how these processes work so that you can dive into the stream of information—and it doesn’t hurt to build relationships in the process. 

Align your network with your values

Once you’ve done some research, contact someone. Have all your info in one place, make sure you have a pitch, references or a CV (even if it’s short!). The creative community often moves on the power of word of mouth—but not always—and COVID-19 has stifled informal, natural networking for now. 

I’ve worked with businesses who put out a call and the artists they select may not be known to the business prior to the call.  There are plenty of ways to network, and much of it relies on you knowing your work and being able to connect your work to the goals of a project. 

There is a flip side to making an approach as a BIPOC creative. We often have to work with clients or seek work from businesses or  institutions that have historically excluded BIPOC creatives (and there are many). 
If you know that your work aligns with their activity, then you may be able to build a relationship that leads to a partnership, but please don’t feel compelled to if you suspect bias, or any disrespect to you—either as you approach them or in your working relationship. 

At this moment, with all the statements being made in support of BIPOC people, there’s been greater cause for reflection on exclusionary practices and policies in companies, venues and institutions. This does not change the fact the people who hold decision making power over gallery representation, corporate arts programs and museum curation are overwhelmingly white and still have a long way to go. Do your research and pursue your goals, but don’t compromise your dignity. 

You deserve respect! 

Get a contract—and read it

If you have experience with contracts and agreements, go forth and prosper; but if you don’t, please have a trusted friend, mentor, or lawyer who can interpret the fine print. Not reading contracts, or even not having them in the first place, can leave you exposed and poised for disappointing outcomes. 

Not having agreements—even general written agreements— is a very common mistake, and one that I’ve made myself. The mistakes I’ve made with not having agreements have led to my work being exploited and, in one case, a catastrophic break of a cherished friendship, all because there were no terms, no way to know what was expected and how much each person would be recognized for their work.  

The expectations within an agreement between you and the entity you are partnering with are negotiable before you sign but difficult to change after you’ve already agreed.  

Make sure that the deadlines, rates, deliverables and other details of YOUR specific activity are well understood. I learned this the hard way while volunteering for a project with a partner. The expectations were not articulated on paper, things went sideways and the relationship dissolved. For better or worse, getting everything on paper is one of the practices that the dominant culture values. Though sometimes it seems too formal or like it might kill the spirit of a collaboration, this is the one practice that, when done well, prevents misunderstanding, hurt and reputational damage. 

Ensuring you have even a simple agreement for what you will do, what’s expected, and what the other party will do (with timeline details) can serve to benefit both or all parties involved in a project. 

Keep Creating

BIPOC cultural contributions to our community, the economy and the wellbeing of our society are valuable beyond measure. We deserve to thrive and create while having our work respected and protected. In order to push through we need to know the game and the process by which people are paid for their work. 

We need to be clear in our intent and understand the intent of partners, organizations and other opportunity forming entities through written agreements. We also need to build our networks boldly and our communities intentionally so that our reputations can live strong and open doors for us to do what we love.

I hope these foundational reminders guide you through both smooth and rough parts of your journey. Whether you’re a musician, graphic designer, writer, visual artists, filmmaker, animator, dancer or anything else—keep creating, keep your voice centered and keep loving yourself and community.   

Anti-racism is now a common term heard in conversations about race since the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and too many other Black people in 2020 alone. This language, elevated by the Black Lives Matter movement, has taken root—pulling many of us towards new levels of engagement with racial justice.
If you happen to identify as white, you may be responding to all of this with a range of reactions: Maybe questioning your privilege, or getting involved in conversations; you might be defensive, or dismissive, or you’ve taken to the streets to protest injustice and fight for equity at all levels. 

Wherever you may be on the spectrum of understanding racism, anti-racism and racial equity, the movement is happening with or without you. So if you haven’t yet and you know what’s at stake, now is the time to engage. My day job is in the equity and inclusion field in higher education, but I’ve been working in the creative industries, starting with museums and galleries, and then working directly with artists, musicians and performers for over 15 years. 

If you’re at the point where you’re asking questions about how to help move racial equity forward as a creative, I hope this article steers you in the right direction. How to be a Better Ally is meant as foundational guidance, offering ways you can get engaged in the work. Some of my examples are drawn from the visual arts world, but most of what you’ll read applies to disciplines in all creative fields. 

Be uncomfortable, be pissed, be whatever—just be real and get to work.

Conversations about racism often butt up against egos and old narratives that reinforce beliefs in superiority and privilege. I often hear the phrase “It makes me uncomfortable to talk / write, speak about / acknowledge racism” or “I feel guilty” from white peers and colleagues.

The truth is this: The days where Black and brown people are harmed, excluded, rendered invisible and silenced so that you can remain comfortable are coming to a close. Your comfort is a small sacrifice for building a world where groups of people are not oppressed, and we need you to get through and make a commitment to change the system. 

Guilt and other responses to racism by white folk early in the journey are normal, but wallowing is useless. Trying to shed the guilt only serves to center your comfort. Consider that we’ve all been sold a bag of white supremacy bunk, so we all have to work against it. I hope you might sit with any discomfort at least for a little while as if our lives depend on it (because they do).

Who’s keeping those gates?

As creative professionals, many of us grow into our careers through a network of supporters—who we find, and who find us. Who you rub elbows with can lead to a venue for a gig, a new commission or client, or representation of some kind. The possibilities are real when you can meet the “right” people. 

But the decisions of who gets in the door and the economy built around that door has almost entirely been in the hands of white people. White-dominated creative fields have for hundreds of years replicated themselves to the point where most of my art history lessons in college—almost exclusively—valued only white artists and white-led arts movements.

If we can agree that this has been the case historically, then you must also come to know that it has taken activism and labor by Black, Indigenous, People of Color, mostly womxn, to demand that we be valued  for our genius, complexity, depth, brilliance and all of the wonderful dimensions of our humanity and creativity. 

It is because of the hard work of BIPOC that we have insights into what we can do to advance the movement for racial equity and anti-racism as individual artists, creatives and people who work in the arts. With some of this foundational knowledge behind us, we can now think about how to interrupt the systems that have for so long advantaged one group over others. 

Show up for BIPOC creatives

One of the most potent interruptions to a system that promotes individual icons (usually men) is to become an active, reciprocal member of a community. Now I’m not saying to go reach out to Black and brown artists and insist on friendship.

I’m saying do some research into what’s happening in your city and show up for performances or art shows from folks who are outside of your regular circle. It’s likely that you have built authentic relationships and networks in your own career-— the approach here is no different. 

Showing up in support of Black and brown artists is a sign of respect. Amplifying other people’s work on your channels is a show of support. Extending and honoring invitations to engage are normal and non-intrusive actions that can cut through bias and enhance our ability to authentically value each other. 

If you’re interested in educating yourself further about how to be a better ally, there are several resources that speak to authentic community building here, here and here

Positioning Your Power and Privilege

In my experiences, there are far more word of mouth opportunities for creatives than anyone wants to talk about (no pun!). I already gave you the short history of who holds power in the arts and associated creative industries so you can guess who makes up the majority of decision makers, curators, contract providers,  consultants, grantmakers, venue owners, show bookers and so on. 

Because of this word of mouth deal, artists whose proximity to white decision makers often make them first in line for submitting proposals. These are the folks who get more access to big opportunities, and the cycle continues. 
It’s no surprise that creatives of color are underrepresented in almost every industry—here are just some examples in design, music, publishing, and the arts

These stats give us a picture of the system we need to disrupt. This list does not even account for the many ways exclusion impacts BIPOC creatives. Also know that BIPOC folks have -innovated and persevered despite a system of disenfranchisement, often leading disruption and innovating solutions along the way.  

The last couple of years alone we’ve seen more and more actors and artists of color in the forefront to address the underrepresentation issue, but that’s not the whole story. Seeing overrepresentation in one area does not translate to representation in the boardroom, director’s chair, casting office, C-suite or any other position of authority, power or agency. Even if there is representation in a creative space, just know that it doesn’t always mean equal pay for BIPOC folks for any given gig.  

If you’ve found yourself in a position to be invited to submit your work for a job, or someone has found you or vice versa, you can interrupt the system of replication by knowing of (or actually knowing) BIPOC creatives and ensuring that the person who has the decision making power knows of them as well. 

Through the working relationships and partnerships you build with people in organizations or companies, you have the choice to ask if they have a history of working with BIPOC creators—and if they don’t, make sure you're raising the visibility of BIPOC through those interactions. I’ve seen this work! 

This action relies on you authentically doing the work of knowing about artists and creators in your community and valuing the work of BIPOC artists in such a way that you would ask uncomfortable questions of the people who are paying you. But it’s also the least you can do to fight as an accomplice for BIPOC artists to be seen, heard and known.

How to Have Better Conversations

Developing an anti-racism practice means having a conversation with fellow artists and others about being white and having privilege—and what that has meant for your career advantages. 

Consider the fact that if BIPOC artists and creatives experience racism and oppression to the point where they are excluded from opportunities, we live in a distorted reality—whether or not you think you get advantages from the system. 

The distortion pushes us to recognize that being white means you can be “not-so-good” yet still be successful within this system—- simply because the Western world has decided that whiteness is superior. (See Ijeoma Oluo’s book “Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America”).

Questions for reflection:

While you have that conversation, consider the loss for all of us when creative industries do not acknowledge or bolster BIPOC creators  in meaningful ways. Imagine all of the ways our collective understanding of art and culture might have looked different had that not been the case. What would the arts look like had the thousands of would-be BIPOC artists been recognized as participants in shaping the canon, becoming the decision makers and resource distributors? 

Talk to your folks about the present and how things are changing; who are the artists, creatives, and culture workers making your city great? Where are people the most impacted by inequity in their creative fields and what are they experiencing? And look at history. What strategies have been implored in the past to bring about equity and change?  

Learn how to apologize

If you-value the work of anti-racism, chances are you’ll make mistakes and get called out

When this happens, acknowledge the impact of what you’ve said or done and apologize. I’ve known white creative professionals and white-led institutions who’ve been called out for cultural appropriation, language, exclusion or ghettoising artists (for example, by featuring Black artist’s work only during Black history month). 

Know this: 1) Your response to getting called out is everything, and 2) You’re fortunate that people care enough to take the time to make sure you are not able to cause harm to others. An authentic acknowledgement of the impact and an apology followed by corrective action is the way to respond and oftentimes are the initial steps to more trust and understanding between individuals and groups.

Don’t say, do

Being self proclaimed “anti-racist” is more said than done. Consider being less eager to give yourself the title, and far more interested in  being active in the struggle to end racism and all of its manifestations. 

Anti-racism can go beyond reading books and articles, and it even reaches beyond talking to your friends and parents and community. It’s taking action that will have a positive impact and disrupt systems of oppression. What is our work as creative professionals if not to disrupt business as usual and make us pause and consider building something beautiful, meaningful, hopeful, raw and honest?

Caveats:

You can go about your life, be the artist or creative that you are and take action against racism. As you become more confident in your values for racial equity and anti-racism the choices about what to do will become clearer.

Remember, we must hold a vision for a world where race is not a determining factor in your success as a creative. 
We can’t change history, but we can change the way it’s told and we can definitely shape the future of culture. What does that future look like to you?

Whipsmart’s How To Guides are like having a good friend in the industry who knows their sh!t—someone you know you can always take out to lunch to pick their brain, and who won’t judge you for asking questions!

For our How-To Guides, we lean into experts to give us the advice they wish they knew years ago, to uncover the secrets of their field or the unspoken mysteries of being successful as a creative professional—all broken down in step-by-step, easy to access and understand guides. Hover and click on the boxes below to launch into a specific section. Or just dive in and read the whole thing!

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What Social Media Is—and Isn't

Creativity thrives on connections, and creative professionals often make a living on the basis of the community they build and interact with. Now more than ever before, those connections are discovered, developed, and sustained online. Maintaining a presence on social media can be a powerful tool for business—but only if it is approached thoughtfully and intentionally. 

As a communications and social media professional with over a decade of experience in social media and public relations , I can personally attest to the power that a great social media presence carries -- and the pitfalls that can come. For creative professionals, a well-managed social media presence simply can’t be beat. 

Over the next five articles, we’ll outline everything you need to know to put the power of social media to work for your creative business, from defining your brand voice to picking platforms, technology tools to interaction strategies.

Before all of that, however, it’s important to establish a baseline of what role social media plays. 

What social media isn’t
Nothing can kill  a great party faster than someone who only talks about themselves, and just about every social media network is much the same. Though it can be tempting, if you treat social as nothing more than a digital telephone pole to put your poster on, your effort will be less successful. 

What social media is
Definitions for what counts as “social media” vary widely - and for good reason. The exact networks and functionality may always be shifting, but there is one thread that connects them all.  In the end, there are people on both sides of the screen, with the network facilitating communication. As online communities, they’re also places to build relationships, share your work, and communicate. They are the digital version of a community, and need to be treated as such -- communities. Think about it this way: Facebook is a living room where you invite in your friends and family. Twitter is a cocktail party where you meet new people interested in the same things you are. LinkedIn is a conference networking event, where you may have informal conversations, but about business topics.

No matter what creative field you’re in, you’re already surrounded by content that tells the story of your business. Figuring out what to post just means identifying how you want to tell your own story—and sticking to it. Not-so-coincidentally, the posts that are the most successful on social media are the ones that have that undeniable ring of authenticity about not just your work, but who you are.

For example, check out these posts from Washington State creative professionals below. As these examples show, authentic posts can be short or long, personal or political. The form itself isn’t the most important thing, the sense of the post fitting who you are is.

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Kira Tolman (@becomingkira)

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Victoria Wright (@veekster)

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Terrain (@terrainspokane)

Figuring Out What To Post

Building your brand

Your “brand” really is just the collection of feelings and ideas that you want someone to consistently have when they interact with you. Much like building a friendship over time, the more often someone encounters a similar experience with your brand, the more clearly they’ll understand and remember your work. If you’re not entirely sure what you want your brand to be, start by asking yourself these questions:

Using the answers to these questions, you’ll be able to develop a brand ideal that can drive your decisions about social media -- as well as your business in whole. For example, leather workers Colladay Leather put their brand message this way:

“...we want our products to cause you to ponder beauty and inspire you in your own creative journey.”

This is effective for two reasons: it focuses on a feeling and experience rather than a specific product or service, and it speaks to the values behind the business.

Developing your voice

Once you understand what your brand’s about, you can create general guidelines for how you communicate -for and about your business. It can be easy to get caught up in the culture of the social network you’re on and lose your brand voice. Guidelines will help ensure that across networks, your posts always sound like they were written by the same person, even if they’re not. Answer questions like:

What to actually post

So how does all of this translate to actual content for social media? Use your answers to the questions above to guide the choices you make about what to share, and how to talk about it. 

A big part of sharing online isn’t just about sharing the big successes or big ideas - that only creates a 24/7 highlight reel that’s exhausting to see, and even more exhausting to create. Instead, look at the words and phrases and feelings of your brand, and then look at what happens in your everyday work that demonstrates those things. 

The posts that will get the most engagement, and be the most successful for your business, are the posts that help the people out there get to know your brand better. It can be scary to think about letting others into your everyday life, but keep in mind that you’re not necessarily creating social media content for people exactly like yourself. The things that -may seem  very everyday and banal to you are exactly the things that are fascinating to others!

Picking Platforms

There’s currently somewhere around 50 “major” social networks. Some (like Twitter) have proven they have staying power, while others (RIP Vero) are practically forgotten in moments. When you’re deciding where to represent yourself as a creative professional online, which networks you start with can help communicate your brand identity to the right people.

The medium is part of the message.

There are three things to keep in mind as you consider this choice:

  1. You don’t have to be everywhere. With time and effort at a premium, it’s always better to start small and master one or two networks before you consider adding others. It’s better to do a few networks well than several less successfully.
  2. The work you do should drive the platform(s) you pick. If you work in primarily visual mediums, then picking visual networks would be a more natural choice. If most of your work is written, networks that focus on text would be more successful.
  3. Even if you’re not there, claim your name. Your brand name is your online identity, so it is worth protecting. Once you’ve settled on a username, sign up for accounts on most networks with it. That way, you won’t get into a situation where your username directs a visitor to a person not affiliated with your business.

Networks to consider

Just like you’d never have a conversation with your mentor the same way you would a client, the communities that you are involved in online each have their own personality. This is why you’ll never want to cross-post the exact same content to different networks. Even if it’s minor edits, customize what you post to the community you’re in.

There are more details about network best practices in the calendar template also provided as a part of this guide.

Tech Tools

In social media, the tools that you choose to use can make your life easier. There are three areas where technology that works for you can help: planning, content, and metrics. While there are paid options that can help with all of these, starting out with free options to figure out what works best for you will lead to a better result.

Planning

The best content is both consistent and intentional, which benefits from structure and planning. It can also save you quite a bit of time to plan ahead, because you can batch-create part of your content. 

There are two ways to approach your planning—with either a content focus or a network focus. A content focus means listing what things you want to post about, and then placing your posts about those topics on a calendar. A network focus means planning day-by-day what you’ll post on each network. 

Generally a content focus puts what you’re communicating about your brand first and foremost, and allows you to vary what you post across whatever networks work best for you. This is what our free week-by-week social media template calendar starts with-—but figure out what works best for you. Google Sheets, a calendar, or even a set of post-it notes across the bottom of your monitor can all be used to plan what you’ll be posting each day based on the content you have available.

Organizing that content in some way is key. Our calendar can help here, too. Facebook and Instagram allow you to schedule your posts ahead of time.

If you decide to use a social media scheduler, there are several free and paid tools that can serve you well:

Content Creation

Most social media networks have content creation tools built in, but most social media pros use additional tools. No matter what tools you use, it’s helpful to have a folder in Google Drive, Dropbox, or another backed up storage solution to keep track of what you create.

A few to check out:

Metrics

The performance of your social media should help guide your strategy. Most networks will give business accounts access to some kind of metrics.

First and foremost, pick which metrics you want to focus on. Depending on your goals in social media—selling products, reaching a new audience, nurturing an existing community, or maintaining visibility—you may be looking at different metrics.

Sales, reach and impressions, engagements, or audience size could all indicate success. Review your metrics with those key performance indicators (KPI) in mind.If you have posts that consistently do well, try testing out more posts like those. If you have posts that consistently under-perform, try something different. Either way, your metrics can help guide what you plan.

Intentional Interaction

Now we know that  on social media the content - you put out is a major part of what leads to your success. But the interactions you have with others on the platform matter just as much. Changes to algorithms have also meant that the interactions and communities you build are essential. With that in mind, you should spend at least as much time interacting as you do creating content. 

There are three primary elements to interaction: building a following, directly interacting, and handling conflict carefully.

Building a Following

No matter how good your content, without a following, it may be falling on deaf ears. Building a following on social media can be a slow process, but consistency will win in the end.

No matter what network you’re on, the formula is generally:

Interacting With Your Community

Across just about every network, interacting with your community is the number one way to build a successful presence. You can do so in a variety of ways on each network, but it comes down to four basic steps:

Handling conflict

While it’s usually the number one fear of creators on social media, complaints present an excellent opportunity for you to change a negative to a positive. Research says that most social followers are willing to give your business the benefit of the doubt when you respond, and it helps show that you’re listening to your potential customers. 

There’s a few major things to keep in mind:

You Got This!

Social media is one of those tools that can give back three times more than you put into it, as long as you treat it as the community it is. With a strong sense of your brand, the right tools for the work you want to do, and intentionality blended with authenticity on your side, your creative work can truly benefit from the social community.

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