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The Model in ‘The Racist Dove Ad’ Just Spoke Up–and Taught a Major Lesson in Emotional Intelligence

Lola Ogunyemi, the face of the controversial Dove ad that went viral, shares a very thoughtful take.

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BY Justin Bariso - 11 Oct 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Lola Ogunyemi, the model at the center of the Dove advertisement that many have accused of having racist overtones, wrote an editorial that was published yesterday on The Guardian. (If you haven't yet read the entire piece, I strongly recommend you do so.)

I found Ogunyemi's piece to be a masterpiece of emotional intelligence, the ability to make emotions work for you, instead of against you. (Emotional intelligence is the topic of my forthcoming book, EQ, Applied.) It's fair, balanced, and shows a deep level of understanding of emotions, why this narrative went the direction it did, and what we can learn from it all.

Here's a breakdown of why I love Ms. Ogunyemi's take:

She begins with a common ground.

"From a very young age, I've been told, 'You're so pretty ... for a dark-skinned girl,'" explains Ogunyemi. As a Nigerian woman, born in London and raised in Atlanta, she comes from a diverse background and can speak to many different perspectives.

"I've grown up very aware of society's opinion that dark-skinned people, especially women, would look better if our skin were lighter," she explains. "I know that the beauty industry has fueled this opinion with its long history of presenting lighter, mixed-race or white models as the beauty standard. Historically, and in many countries still today, darker models are even used to demonstrate a product's skin-lightening qualities to help women reach this standard."

By beginning her piece in this way, Ogunyemi shows empathy and understanding for those who are outraged by the ad. She validates their feelings and finds a common ground to build on, so they are more willing to listen. Doing so promotes respectful discussion that is includes emotion, instead of being ruled by it.

She took a pause.

Ogunyemi says she woke up one morning to find that she "had become the unwitting poster child for racist advertising." Having originally felt the advertising campaign was a way to promote the beauty of dark skin, she found it upsetting that so many were looking down on the ad.

"If you Google 'racist ad' right now, a picture of my face is the first result," she explains. "Calls were being made to boycott Dove products, and friends from all over the world were checking on me to see if I was OK. I was overwhelmed by just how controversial the ad had become."

Ogunyemi could have immediately given public comment. That's what the world expects nowadays. Have you been emotionally impacted by something? Tell us how you feel. Right now. On social media, for the entire world to see. If you don't, there's obviously something wrong with you.

But Ogunyemi showed us a better way.

She paused. She took time to think things through, to process her feelings, as well as the feelings of others, before issuing a response.

When it comes to dealing with powerful feelings, remember:

Thoughtful responses are always better.

She provides context.

According to Ogunyemi, Dove's complete vision of the ad celebrated diversity.

"All of the women in the shoot understood the concept and overarching objective--to use our differences to highlight the fact that all skin deserves gentleness," she explains.

According to Ogunyemi, the first Facebook ad featured a 13-second video clip that begins with her, followed by a white woman, and then an Asian woman removing their tops and changing into each other. "I loved it," she says. "My friends and family loved it. People congratulated me for being the first to appear, for looking fabulous, and for representing Black Girl Magic. I was proud."

Next, a full 30-second TV commercial was released in the US, featuring seven women of different races and ages, answering the question: If your skin were a wash label, what would it say? "I was over the moon again," exclaims Ogunyemi. "I loved it, and everyone around me seemed to as well. I think the full TV edit does a much better job of making the campaign's message loud and clear."

One of the major reasons for backlash, though, was that very few people saw the ad as originally intended. Instead, they saw a series of screenshots showing a black woman turning into a white woman.

It's easy to see why this would spark outrage among many, especially considering the history of racism throughout the world, including here in the U.S. Further, Dove (and its parent company Unilever) have had problems in the sensitive topic of race before, and Ogunyemi highlights this as well:

"I can see how the snapshots that are circulating the web have been misinterpreted, considering the fact that Dove has faced a backlash in the past for the exact same issue. There is a lack of trust here, and I feel the public was justified in their initial outrage. Having said that, I can also see that a lot has been left out. The narrative has been written without giving consumers context on which to base an informed opinion."

Ogunyemi's take provides much needed context. It focuses on understanding the issues instead of promoting further division--and that's vital when trying to make progress.

It is Ogunyemi's conclusion which is the most powerful:

"While I agree with Dove's response to unequivocally apologise for any offense caused, they could have also defended their creative vision, and their choice to include me, an unequivocally dark-skinned black woman, as a face of their campaign. I am not just some silent victim of a mistaken beauty campaign. I am strong, I am beautiful, and I will not be erased."

Balancing the power of emotions, reason and empathy to reach others--and also to make sure your voice is heard.

That's how to make emotions work for you, instead of against you.