Monday,  September 21, 2020  7:39 am

“Really? Black lives matter to you?” Black travel pros call for accountability in travel industry

“Really? Black lives matter to you?” Black travel pros call for accountability in travel industry
From top, left (clockwise): Shalene Dudley, Kier Matthews, Jodie Glean-Mitchell, Lauren Gay.
Michael Pihach

Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and DailyXtra.ca. Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.

Why is it necessary to actively promote the hiring of Black employees? 

“If someone is hiring or advertising for employees, I’m wanting the most qualified for the position, regardless of their race, size, or sexual orientation.”

That’s an excerpt from an email written by a woman named “Karen” that grassroots organization Let’s Get Uncomfortable (LGU) received in July after hosting a virtual panel event that confronted anti-Black racism in travel and tourism.

Karen’s words suggest that she’s “colour blind” in her hiring practices – meaning, managers like her don’t need to see people’s skin colours or identities when recruiting new talent.

After all, give the job to the best, most qualified candidate, right?

It’s a response common in workplaces today and, in many cases, it’s a sentiment that is generally perceived as an act of goodwill.

However, at the same time, it’s an attitude laden with complexities, pointing to a much greater problem in the realm of promoting racial diversity and change at work, advocates say.

This topic – reading Karen’s email aloud to an audience over Zoom, specifically – was what kicked off Part Two of LGU’s virtual panel series about creating diverse, safe, inclusive and welcoming spaces for people in the travel industry.

While July’s edition revealed the realities of being Black travellers and Black travel professionals, Tuesday’s Aug. 25th follow-up took things one step further, focusing on themes of accountability and change.

Enough is enough

The panel unfolded just days after Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, was shot seven times in the back by Wisconsin police, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down.

That incident comes after the murder of 46-year-old George Floyd, a Black man who was killed in May after a white Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes while he was pinned to the ground.

Then there’s 26-year-old Breonna Taylor, a Black emergency medical technician who was fatally shot by Louisville Metro Police Department officers in March.

The list, sadly, goes on, and in the wake of these widely-publicized atrocities, combined with the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, industries and corporations are (finally) reassessing the ways in which racist systems are intrinsic to life.

“Having conversations about anti-Black racism – broadly speaking or specifically as it relates to travel and tourism – is incredibly important,” panel moderator Shalene Dudley, founder of Latitude Concierge Travels and LGU organizer, told just over 50 attendees.

However: “What happens next – the follow through,” she said, is what identifies the “true work” being done to end problematic practices in travel that are damaging to Black, Indigenous and People of Colour’s communities.

Shalene Dudley, founder of Latitude Concierge Travels. (Latitude Concierge Travels)

“You’re not accessing the best”

Tackling the issues were panelists Lauren Gay, founder of Outdoorsy Diva Blog and Podcast, and founding member of the Black Travel Alliance; Kier Matthews, director of sales at Classic Vacations; and Jodie Glean-Mitchell, antiracism, equity and inclusion educator, and founder of REACTCanada – Race Equity Advisory Consulting and Training.

Glean-Mitchell first dissected Karen’s email, which, as per above, questioned why companies should actively promote the hiring Black people for positions at all levels.

READ MORE: Travel industry takes a stand against anti-Black racism

Glean-Mitchell calls this a “microinsult” that’s part of a greater system of “microaggressions” – daily slights or hostilities (verbal or non-verbal, intentional or non-intentional) that tell underrepresented and often racialized communities that they don’t belong, or that they’re “less than.”

“What it’s indicating is that there seems to be some contradiction between best, qualified and Blackness,” said Glean-Mitchell, especially when the email was in response to an initiative designed to increase racial diversity and Blackness in a space.

“When you do not have a racially diverse [talent] pool or staff, that in of itself means you don’t have ideal candidates. You’re not accessing the best. You’re not accessing excellence,” said Glean-Mitchell.

She also dispelled the myth of meritocracy – the notion that if you work hard and get your degree, you will achieve the success you are seeking.

What this myth does, said Glean-Mitchell, is that it “erases and dismisses the lived realities of the barriers that are in place due to social identities.”

“We can’t have and be open to conversations about bias and not yet connect that to the very practices around recruitment that bar folks from even gaining access to interviews,” she said. “There is more than enough research indicating that even the names on a resume that are not white or Eurocentric-sounding don’t even end up in the “no” pile. They’re not even fully considered.”

Colour blindness, or what Glean-Mitchell calls “racial invisibility,” is counterintuitive, she implied.

“What you’re doing, in essence, is removing the intentionality of increasing your diversity within your teams [which is] a necessary ingredient in being able to address racism in all of its forms and manifestations,” said Glean-Mitchell.

“When you do not have a racially diverse [talent] pool or staff, that in of itself means you don’t have ideal candidates," said Jodie Glean-Mitchell.

Matthews had direct advice for hiring managers: 

“Hire people of colour, and let the magic happen,” he said. “When you do that, you unleash a response that overwhelms them. When you do the work, the work will speak for itself.”

Challenging assumptions of what Black travellers do

Gay, who spent 17 years working in the corporate world and now works as travel blogger and influencer, shared her first-hand experience in working with travel brands.

As one who focuses on adventure travel, she still battles the assumption of what Black travellers do and don’t do.

“We do everything,” she said, “and there’s a market for it.”

One challenge that Gay often experiences in the influencer world is how brands quickly pass on partnering with Black content creators who are more than qualified for a social media campaign. 

Meanwhile: white influencers and bloggers who are new to the scene, and “with no credentials to speak of,” are signed almost immediately, she said.

“They don’t have to jump through the same hoops that we do,” said Gay.

She encouraged companies to look beyond the “shallow metrics” of Instagram, pointing to the classic example of the 5’11 blonde girl whose Instagram pictures are of her hand extended out in front of her boyfriend and who has 100,000 followers.

“You have to look at our engagement, our influence, connections and what we can bring of value to that brand," said Lauren Gay.

Metrics matter, of course. However: “You have to look beyond that,” she said. “You have to look at our engagement, our influence, connections and what we can bring of value to that brand.”

So, what’s changed?

As brands jump to support causes like Black Lives Matter, it begs the question of what companies have actually done over the past several months to make their workspaces more diverse and inclusive.

The COVID-19 pandemic, of course, hinders progress.

“A lot of companies are just trying to keep the lights on,” Matthews acknowledged. 

What hasn’t changed, he said, is that black men are still getting shot in the streets for no reason, and people are still sending prayers and wishes, talking about racism in an “abstract, weird way.”

What has changed, said Matthews, is that people who are anti-Black or racist have now “dug in deeper.”

“They are showing who they really are,” he said. “And those that are doing the work…it remains to be seen if they are actively engaging in a dialogue and conversation in a meaningful way.”

To that end, Matthews said his own workplace, Classic Vacations, which is owned by Expedia,” is “doing the work.”

“This is not going to be solved overnight,” he said, adding that he believes “there are some tough conversations going on” right now in the business world.

Addressing racism, intentionally

While the panel agreed that Black pandering is in full swing right now, Glean-Mitchell stressed the need for companies to address racial discrimination in a “meaningful and intentional way.”

“Real seeds have been planted,” she said. “The issue [comes down to] whether or not the seeds were sowed on fertile ground.”

Committees and advisory groups are “an essential step,” she said.

However: “These processes must be done collaboratively, in consultation with the entire organization,” she added.

“The piece where I think many organizations are a bit uncertain about is after you have folks around the table, now what? How do you identify where the gaps are?” she said.

Referencing a fireside chat with Professor Ibram Xolani Kendi, a scholar of race and discriminatory policy in America, that Expedia recently hosted, Matthews said hiring managers should be treated like football coaches who recruit and retain Black talent.

“You attract the talent and make this place diverse, or you go,” he said.

Kier Matthews, director of sales at Classic Vacations.

Holding brands accountable

In June, many well-known travel companies began posting black squares to their Instagram accounts to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

While done with good intentions, this trend left members of the Black Travel Alliance scratching their heads.

The Black Travel Alliance is a group of Black travel content creators (writers, bloggers, influencers...etc) from all over the globe that met in the wake of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

Gay, a founding member, said her peers were surprised to suddenly start seeing well-known travel brands post black squares on their social media.

“We were like, ‘Really? Black lives matter to you?’ she said. “That’s cute, but in our experience, you weren’t trying to work with us. You weren’t hiring us.”

And so, the “Pull Up For Travel” campaign was born, an initiative that publicly challenges travel companies to reveal their Black representation.

The alliance developed a score card, establishing KPIs, such as a company’s track record for using Black influencers, how they’ve showed Black representation in their press and marketing, and in their philanthropic work.

“They were shook,” Gay said of the initial response they received from brands.

While select brands have supported the campaign, the project revealed that many travel companies actually don’t have the data to track their diversity initiatives, said Gay.

The campaign “wasn’t meant to be accusatory,” she said. “It was meant to be illuminating so that [companies] can acknowledge and see the error of their ways [of doing business].”

So far, more than 65 brands – from airlines to DMOs – have engaged with the alliance, Gay explained.

It wasn’t about individual asks, either. In June, the alliance issued a globe press release and received coverage in major outlets like Forbes and the New York Times.

“If you were in travel, you can’t say you didn’t see it,” said Gay.

After a busy summer, the alliance continues to work on growing its membership, while establishing new partners in the travel industry to increase Black representation.

“We want allies, we need allies,” said Gay.

But what the alliance doesn’t want is Black tokenism.

Gay revealed that some travel brands have a habit of using the same Black influencers, over and over again.

Or, they’ll just focus on linking Black content creators with campaigns that are rooted in the history of slavery, such as touring a plantation.

“There’s so much more across the globe than just that,” she noted.

If anything, travel companies should pay attention to what data does exist.

According to a 2018 study by Mandala Research, African American travellers are a significant travel group who contribute about $63 billion (USD) to the U.S. travel and tourism economy.

Matthews said that number is likely much higher and believes the consumer research that’s currently being done will soon prove that.

“When [brands] see what Black people spend in travel, it’s going to shake the earth,” he said.

What can travel agents do?

Travel agents are a “big component” in the accountability piece, said Gay.

As advisors work directly with airlines, cruise companies, hotels, and PR firms, they’re in a position to call brands out for failing at Black representation, she said.

“If you do a quick scroll test [on Instagram], how far do you have to scroll to see Black people?” said Gay.  

This isn’t just about Black travel agents either.

“This is for everyone,” said Gay. “You can hold them accountable. What do you see in their campaigns? What are they doing publicly that shows they’re paying attention to [Black people] and their money?”

Advisors can approach this, intentionally, by partnering with Black-owned businesses, tour operators and other Black travel agents, said Gay.

It’s also important that travel agents “have a real conversation with themselves,” first, she said.  

“What does your representation look like in your association? Are there Black people in leadership positions?” she said. “Look in your yard first, especially before you go barking up somebody else’s.”

Logical next steps

Accountability begins by acknowledging that racism exists within an organization, the panelists said.

Glean-Mitchell outlined steps companies can take to nurture diverse and inclusive workspaces, such as:

  • Ensuring an organizational buy-in (is the leadership/managers/staff committed?); establish committees/advisory boards to begin the consultation process.
  • Establishing feedback mechanisms. For example: creating a mechanism that allows staff to submit anonymous feedback; asking strategic questions about potential gaps in the organization.
  • Bringing in experts. Equity work can’t be done just by anyone.
  • Implementing a plan that promotes education and accountability to ensure managers and staff are fulfilling their commitments.
  • Evaluating philanthropic work to support Black charities, schools…etc.

Can these duties be carried out solely by HR departments? Glean-Mitchell doesn’t think so.

“HR training does not do an adequate job at providing this type of support around equity, diversity and inclusion,” she said, suggesting that companies hire dedicated professionals to support equity work, if they can.

Matthews added that travel brands will have to revaluate their inclusivity practices, in due time, as public pressure mounts.

“You won’t be able to get away with it,” he said, adding that anti-Black behaviour combined with COVID-19 has become a “crisis within a crisis.”

If anything, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced people to listen to what’s going on, he said.

“I’m not celebrating [the pandemic] in any way shape or form,” he said, “but something amazing has come from it, and that is folks paying attention and listening.”

At the same time, Matthews said the travel industry tends to have a false sense of its racial inclusion and diversity commitments.

“Taking a picture of yourself in your first-class seat on your way to Africa – that’s a big old bucket of fake news,” he said. “When you think about the changes you want to see, you have to have diverse people at the table, advising you on what’s going on.”

Anti-racism work starts with one’s self, said Glean-Mitchell.

“It’s not a list of tools and strategies that you can pick from a book and begin,” she said. “Anti-racism work starts with self-work [that acknowledges] who you are, the power and privileges you hold as an individual, in your position [and] within your organizations, and then asking yourself the hard questions around what your responsibilities are within this global dialogue.”

Additional Resources:

Jodie Glean-Mitchell (REACTCanada) – reactjodieglean.com; services@ reactjodieglean.com

Lauren Gay (Outdoorsy Diva Blog and Podcast) – outdoorsydiva.com/ @outdoorsydiva

Black Travel Allianceblacktravelalliance.com


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