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AFAR Is Too White—and We Plan to Change That

By Julia Cosgrove

Jun 5, 2020

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Our company is committed to racial justice, and this is our pledge.

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Like many of you this week, our team at AFAR has been grappling with racial injustice in America. The murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and George Floyd are the most recent deaths in what seems to be unceasing violence against Black Americans. We feel an urgent moral imperative to do something as a company.

Earlier this week, we publicly shared that AFAR stands in solidarity with protestors, neighbors, and leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement as we demand systemic change.

In honor of Blackout Tuesday, AFAR paused on publishing any stories and went dark on social media. We used the day to meet (virtually) with our 51-person staff to hold important and candid conversations, to listen, and to begin to plan how we as a company can take action beyond one day in a week. 

I thought I would share what we have done—and what our plan is at this point—in terms of how we as a company will address issues of systemic racism against BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities. This begins at home—with self-reflection, and within our teams and extended network of contributors and advisors. We have to recognize our biases and privilege and work to fix inequities ASAP.

I’m the editor in chief of AFAR. I’m also a 39-year-old white woman. I’m sharing what follows not to virtue signal but with the thought that some of you reading this might find value in these approaches, and use them in either a personal and/or professional context.

I’m also sharing this because I don’t believe we have all the answers as individuals, as a leadership team, or as a media company. I acknowledge that we still have so much listening and learning to do.

And lastly, I’m sharing this because when AFAR launched more than a decade ago, we committed to being a mission- and values-led company. It shouldn’t have taken this long for us to get on this path. There are many people who are deeply skeptical about statements like these from companies and brands right now. It is perhaps the safest time for companies to make these statements publicly, in concert with thousands of other companies. They can feel like lip service if action is not taken, and for some people they feel too little, too late. I understand that skepticism. But I believe that staying silent right now would be a continued failure on our part. And I believe there’s value in stating things publicly because it’s a way to hold ourselves accountable. 

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During our all-staff meeting, I shared the following remarks:

In an Op-Ed published last week in the Los Angeles Times, the author, activist, and all-time NBA leading scorer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote, “Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible—even if you’re choking on it—until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere. As long as we keep shining that light, we have a chance of cleaning it wherever it lands. But we have to stay vigilant, because it’s always still in the air.”

That’s it. That’s the truth. Racism is everywhere.

For years, I’ve heard white people say, “I’m color-blind, I don’t see race. America is a melting pot, a salad bowl.” And I’ve tried my hardest to believe that. But the fact is it’s just not true. Police brutality disproportionally affects Black men. Black people are treated differently than white people every single day in America.

In his book How to Be an Anti-Racist, Ibram X. Kendi writes, “One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an anti-racist. There is no in-between safe space of ‘not racist.’” 

So what are we going to do? I don’t believe it is incumbent on our Black colleagues, friends, and loved ones to solve this. The trauma of simply living as a Black person in America at this time is more than enough. It’s going to take all of us to try to dismantle the systemic racism that sadly defines our country. 

We are committed to the following:

  • At AFAR we believe that we must root out racism and other forms of discrimination, and we pledge to be better and do the work. 
  • We pledge to consciously and with purpose work toward justice and equality for all. 
  • We pledge to become better-educated global citizens. 
  • And we pledge to use our privilege as travelers—and as a media company—to continue to engender empathy through the sharing of stories from around the country and around the world. 
  • We believe that travel is a force for good and that as travelers we have a profound responsibility to step outside our comfort zones, open our minds, and acknowledge and respect each other’s perspectives. Travel informs how we understand and experience the world, and it starts when we step out our front doors.

These pledges cannot be empty platitudes that we forget in a few weeks, if and when the news cycle moves on to the next cataclysmic event. This is a marathon, not a sprint. And this work—if done with conviction and buy-in—will not be complete or fully realized anytime soon.

As a company, we’ve encouraged our staff to participate in personal activism and to set aside time for self-education. After our all-staff meeting, we formed subcommittees around four types of anti-racist action: Educate; Protest; Policy; Fundraise. The thinking behind these committees is to give staff members the resources and time they need to continue on the path of their own individual action and activism.

Team members have shared anti-racist resources and joined protests in San Francisco, Oakland, and New York City. And there are plans for additional participation in cities and towns across the country, where many of us continue to shelter in place. 

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Today, we are committing to buying from Black-owned businesses and fundraising via our personal social networks for a variety of nonprofit organizations, including Equal Justice Initiative; Son of a Saint, a Learning AFAR partner; Black Lives Matter; Black Visions Collective Minneapolis; Fair Fight; Vote Save America; the Media Education Foundation; and more.

And on Monday, our Policy group will be working together during a two-hour block to make calls, write emails, and mail letters to try to change legislation in jurisdictions across the country. This week Campaign Zero launched #8CantWait, an initiative urging city mayors to limit or ban eight specific actions police officers take in the field, which have cumulatively shown to cut down on 70 percent of police violence.  

Our editorial team met this week to talk about ways to further diversify our writer,  photographer, and illustrator base so that more voices can be heard and seen. The team also talked about how to consciously and deliberately increase coverage of Black-owned businesses in our travel guides and other digital and print coverage. And we discussed the importance of providing more resources and travel intel for BIPOC travelers, specifically. We formed a new editorial taskforce that will work more closely with leaders in the Black travel space to improve our coverage.

Next week, we’ll create a new internal panel to augment our existing efforts as a company around diversity and inclusion. This panel (including employees from throughout the company) will draft a strategic plan for continuing to increase employee diversity and provide leadership opportunities to BIPOC. These are institutional shifts that will involve interrogating our hiring practices and dismantling the ways white supremacy manifests in our company culture. 

Diversity on our staff and in our stories matters to us not just as people but also because it’s a truer reflection of the world, and because the white reference point is not universal—and nor should it be.

I would be remiss if I didn’t thank our readers who commented on our social media posts and responded to our newsletter earlier this week with productive suggestions for how we can do better. We hear you, we’re listening. I sincerely hope that line of communication stays open as we move forward with a focused commitment to racial equity at AFAR. And if the statements we have made don't align with your beliefs or make you uncomfortable, we invite you to stay engaged in the conversation. Our goal is to inspire open discussions that move the national conversation toward decency and empathy.

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I acknowledge that these first steps are modest, and we will no doubt make mistakes. But we won’t let the fear of what we’ll get wrong stand in the way of what we can try to do right.

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