The White Problem of "Chocolate Chipping" in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Efforts
Collage by the Terra Team with borrowed images from Alex and Brooke Cagle.
Questions to never ask a panel comprised of people who hold marginalized identities, particularly Black folx, Indigenous folx, and folx of color:
How has the lack of diversity in the outdoors impacted you?
What can a predominantly white environmental organization do to support the work that you do?
What does meaningful engagement look like?
A couple weeks ago, the Audubon Society hosted a “Nature Night” at the Ecotrust building in Portland, Oregon. Teresa Baker spoke to the evening’s purpose of discussing, “Why Environmental Sustainability Depends on Diversity In Our Movement.” It was a packed room and everyone was enthusiastic to hear Mercy Sham, of Wild Diversity, Miché Lozano of Latino Outdoors, and Greg Smith, a Field Biologist, who came to be a part of the panel discussion with Baker. Their vulnerability, labor, and strength to speak to the exclusion of the outdoors was humbling to witness, and everyone in the room learned a lot about what it will take to create inclusive environments and cultures. We also witnessed some disturbing trends that show up when white people moderate these discussions and want to share them with you. It is important for those of us who are white to find our own answers to these questions. Racism is our problem. White supremacy is our problem. We need to figure it out on our own. At the end of this piece, we share concluding thoughts and offer some suggestions for white people who want to create inclusive cultures.
There was one great question from the moderator at this event:
What’s a common misconception about you or the work that you do? This allows folx who are consistently attacked for the identities they hold, or misunderstood about the work they do to fight for social justice and equity, to set the record straight about the focus of their message and work.
We noticed that the entire room, the way the evening was set-up, as well as the structure of the event was stiff and felt forced. When possible, chairs in a circle make for a more welcoming space, or U-shape if a circle is not possible. There was no space for actual dialogue or discussion between panelists. The question-answer dynamic was specifically between panelists and the white moderator, which gave the feel of interrogation rather than the panelists leading the discussion and offering their thoughts on their own accord. We definitely wondered, why wasn’t the moderator a BIPOC leader in the outdoor industry?
When asked the question (that should never be asked), What can a predominantly white environmental organization do to support the work that you do? Mercy Sham of Wild Diversity responded with:
“I think the way people can support Wild Diversity and the work that we do is to create meaningful partnerships with us. And create support that is not about checking off your DEI box, but actually supporting us because you do want to foster diversity. Something meaningful means supporting us in a way where, one, we can empower ourselves to do more outdoor work, and also support us in a way that helps support diversity for the future, not just a one-off event, not just small things, something that can support diversity today, tomorrow, and the future. Something that feels more like a seed that’s being planted than something you did in the moment just to feel good.”
The moderator followed her response by saying, “I often use the phrase ‘meaningful engagement’ in my work.” And then suggested maybe some of the other panelists can offer insight into what meaningful looks like, but there was silence from everyone in the room, including panelists. Kia from the Audubon Society spoke up from the audience and explained what was probably happening:
“I just want to say that this question, the posing of this question, we are centering white-led organizations in this question, and I just want to throw that out there that there might be some people who might be having some problems answering this question because we are centering something that we are trying not to center in this conversation. So, I don’t know if we want to move on, and I don’t know how the panelists feel, but this is something that was discussed earlier and it might be useful to take another question.”
After agreement that the group would like to move on from this question, Teresa Baker offered her thoughts:
“I think it’s important that we have conversations that can lend guidance to people, to individuals, to organizations, because all too often what I hear is: ‘We don’t even know where to begin,’ ‘We’re afraid of making mistakes,’ ‘What do we do?’ ‘How do we engage,’ so I think it’s important that we have those conversations. But I also think it’s important that the people that are posing those questions to us offer something other than the question. Because we want this to feel like it’s a two-way conversation, not just us giving you the answers. And sometimes it feels that way. And even when we give you the answers you still don’t act, and it’s frustrating.
Like I said, this isn’t going to be an easy conversation to have, but we need to have it. And you need to hear it. And you need to understand it. This work is not easy, it’s not easy for us, we do it day in and day out. You can move away from it and not have to deal with it, but we have to. We wake up everyday in the same body, in the same skin,with the same concerns.
So, I think it’s important that when we have a question like that, that it’s a two-way conversation, and that you’re not just taking, but giving as well. What can you give us, what you can do for us, how can you work with us? That’s what I’m looking for. Not just us giving answers because that’s not going to help because we’re not going to always be in your meetings giving you the answers. So, we need to find a way to make this a two-way conversation.”
Instead of mining for BIPOC knowledge, as white people, we need to come up with our own solutions to exclusion and racism. Often we extract without concern for the harm we are doing. Our racism is present in our language, in our questions, in what we think are benign conversations, but the impact is not benign.
On the podcast Hoodrat to Headwrap, in the episode called “Diversity and Inclusion is for White People: Beyond Bruno Mars and the Love of Light Skin, Ericka Hart talks about the phenomenon of “chocolate chipping” and how this plays out in white organizations when they say they want to be more diverse and inclusive:
“Lots of people are saying things, and putting people in spaces, predominantly white spaces, and saying, ‘look, we’re diverse!’ For me it feels almost like a GAP commercial...Chocolate-chipping means that you take dough...so you’re making chocolate chip [cookies] and you have the dough and the dough represents whiteness, right, and then you just throw in some chocolate chips and that’s what, the chocolate chips are brown people, throw in some chocolate chips and that’s how people do diversity.
And my thing is that people don’t get how problematic that is, but further from that… folx are...riding this diversity wave...but never actually dealing with the systems that would have it be that Black people weren’t going to be there otherwise. Or that the whole of it isn’t Black people. That even a term like ‘diversity and inclusion’ even exists because the only reason why we need ‘diversity and inclusion’ is because the foundation is white, and you’re not dealing with that the foundation is white. You’re not dealing with it in the contracts you wrote, you’re not dealing with it in the interactions and how you book people, you’re not dealing with it in your day to day, in your office, you’re not dealing with it at all, you’re just saying, ‘Oh, we just want the event to be inclusive.’”
As white people we need to be looking at the ways in which we are causing harm and violence towards Black folx, Indigenous folx, and people of color (BIPOC). We need to figure out ways to interrupt white supremacy in our work spaces, as well as try to dig internalized white supremacy from ourselves. We also need to start talking about reparations. Ericka Hart emphasizes this and encourages white people to advocate for reparations for BIPOC folx. What does that conversation look like for us? Where and when will we have it? How can you, dear reader, create space for these conversations in your workplace, organization, or social circle?
In the panel discussion Miché Lozano offered some great suggestions for how this could look:
“I worked for Portland Parks and Recreation for a while as a naturalist, and one thing that I really appreciated was that we would have paid discussions around racism, and how we could dismantle it. And that was by far one of the most progressive acts I have ever seen in an organization, in a conservation field. Somebody mentioned having coffee and talking about this and that’s exactly what we did and I still look back at it and sometimes I felt like I did most of the work, and people showed up ill-prepared, and it was like, ‘alright guys come on, get it together,’ and they were like, ‘okay sorry,’ and then everybody showed up next time was better prepared, and it was a learning experience for everybody.
What we would do is we would go pick a topic and one person would be responsible for basically organizing everybody to come together, and then we would all do our independent research on a topic whether it was the historic racism in Portland, or queer erasure. We would each do our research and come together and talk about it, like a podcast episode or something. We should have recorded it because the conversations were great. I think that that was a great experience I had and I felt supported by my co-workers and by my supervisors. And if that’s what people need to do to like have those conversations flowing so you’re not just like awkwardly like, “I’m not trying to be racist how do I stop!” It’s like having conversations, and it’s a great idea. Go grab coffee and talk about racism.”
Mercy Sham shared that for many of her friends she is their only African American friend, and that it can be extremely taxing to have conversations about racism:
“It’s really oppressive to really talk about oppression.” - Mercy Sham
Oftentimes, we can find the answers to the questions we have by doing some research, speaking to white people, or going to trainings. The burden of education should not be on BIPOC.
Miché Lozano suggested that workplaces have white caucuses where white people talk about strategies of inclusion and dismantling oppression within the organization. They expressed appreciation about their previous place of employment because of this. Lozano explained, “...so I didn’t have to be there and relive all my trauma. But then we brought it together and there was a POC one, and I felt ready to have these conversations. Yeah, very important don’t force us to do that anymore.”
Shaking his head, Greg Smith said, “Too much coffee.”
The crux for us white people is how to avoid sitting in our comfort because we love to talk and sit and drink coffee. We love a good book club. How can we avoid intellectualizing about these issues that are not things we can fix simply by reading or having coffee dates? In order to educate ourselves, reading and discussion are crucial and necessary, but simultaneously we need to be actively making changes in our behavior and work culture too. Internal work leads to external change, and at the root of this is inner healing from white supremacy culture. This is work we can do on our own personal time while we implement direct and active changes into our work cultures and systems.
Greg Smith also expressed how he is “...wanting to talk about different things. I’m a bird biologist. I know a lot about puffins.”
“Did you know I can do a really good eagle call? We’re nerds. We’re nature nerds. That’s what is inside us.” -Miche Lozano
Earlier in the conversation Miché Lozano shared a similar sentiment that really struck a chord:
“The last thing I want to say is so when you look at your board it’s mostly white members, for most organizations, most of these organizations I imagine have a DEI committee. Now, look at your board and contrast your DEI committee. And what do you see? Now, the message that we get when you see a DEI committee of three Black guys, an Asian person, and whatever, the message we’re getting is that’s the only thing we’re good for. And I’m haunted by this because I want to do more, not that I am not doing a lot already. I’m more than just my skin and my experiences and because of my skin and I’m the passion for the planet and for animals, and for conservation. Why can’t you see that?
I would love to see more white people in DEI committees who are doing the work, who are informed. Like the person who said: ‘I’m constantly doing that, I’m constantly checking myself’ -- good for you. I think we need more people like you doing the work instead of it falling into my lap and me having to do it all the time. Because I want to be out in the field with a pair of binoculars, looking at some birds or something.”
This is quite possibly the most important takeaway: white people need to be pulling the weight behind diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. We are the reason why these spaces aren’t inclusive, so we need to be the ones who brainstorm new work spaces and cultures that engage in anti-racism practices.
Throughout my day I try to be conscious of how I am upholding the tenets of white supremacy culture and coming up with ways in which I can detach from those things. I look for ways in which I can locate and take note of white supremacy culture in my relationship dynamics, in my language and thinking, as well as in the structure of my day and/or environment. Then I come up with some changes that I can implement to curb perfectionism, sense of urgency, fear of open conflict, worship of the written word, and other characteristics of white supremacy culture. How can we encourage and support each other to actively shift away from our conditioned impulses to center whiteness?