Sustainability pros, do better on DEI
Posted in GreenBiz
April 25, 2022

Sustainability pros, do better on DEI

During my last breakfast at GreenBiz’s flagship conference this year in Scottsdale, Arizona, a joke was made about blackface — and the people in the conversation laughed throughout. To this day, they are probably blissfully unaware why the joke was unprofessional — and this is where the problem lies.

Let me recap the conversation.

There are four people at the breakfast table, three of whom are white American and I’m Asian American. 

The conversation starts when I mention my (now former) role as a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) communications manager at UPS. 

Participant 1 brings up the fact that his wife is Black: “She’s from the ‘hood-hood’. She grew up in Compton.”

He then shares some jokes that his wife made when they were visiting her hometown. While Participant 1 was driving, his wife said, “Don’t drive so slowly. They’ll think you’re doing a drive-by.” When he asked if his wife wanted to join him for a walk, she responded with, “Are you crazy? You’ll never come back.” 

I’m going to pause here. Is it inappropriate for the husband to call Compton, California a “hood-hood” simply for being majority Black? Yes. Is it inappropriate for the wife to joke about her neighborhood? No. Her jokes may be edgy, but she can say what she feels about a neighborhood and community she’s a part of. 

At this point in the conversation, a woman at the table – I’ll call her Participant 2 – starts engaging more.


Participant 2 jokes that to fit into his wife’s hometown, Participant 1 should “wear a hat (gesturing to his blond hair), wear a hoodie and look a little darker.”

I understand the weight of her comment and am stunned. The whole group laughs in the background.

My inner thoughts are swirling: “Did she just joke about blackface?” 

Insinuating that people in Compton just wear hoodies and are not allowed to have blond hair is an inappropriate overgeneralization. Adding the suggestion that Participant 1 should go into this neighborhood looking darker refers to blackface. 

If you’re wondering at this point if this is really a blackface joke or if it is offensive, I’ll ask how could he apply her advice to look darker? He would have to put on makeup darker than his skin tone. This is uncomfortably close to how white actors across history would put on dark makeup to deride Black people. So, yes, this is a joke about blackface and, no, I’m not going to spend any time entertaining the thought that people are being “too sensitive” with this “obvious joke.”

A few notes about this exchange

  • No Black people were around during this conversation. The one Latinx person who was originally at the table had just stepped away for coffee before this conversation started. This exchange probably would not have happened in the company of fellow Black conference participants. 
    • Why it matters: Inappropriate comments such as these shouldn’t be saved for when it’s “safe.” They’re inappropriate and racist whether the people around us laugh, correct us or stay silent.
  • I won’t name names because that isn’t the point. This isn’t the first time a cringy joke was made at a sustainability conference, and this likely won’t be the last. It’s easy to put ourselves on pedestals and say “Oh, I’d never do that” rather than owning the possibility that we could be harming people with our actions. 
    • Why it matters: This goes back to the Golden Rule. We are all capable of continuing to learn how to treat those around us with respect.
  • We keep learning how interwoven racial injustice is within our systems, including our environmental systems. Now we need to actively embed justice throughout our ESG and corporate sustainability work. 
  • As a minority, I’ve witnessed firsthand how anti-Black even other minorities can be. Anytime someone from my community makes insensitive racist comments, I make sure to speak up in a kind but assertive way. Am I sometimes perceived as annoying for naming problematic “jokes”? Sure, but we can’t keep making entire groups in society the butt of our jokes. It’s honestly not good comedy. Plus, I’ll take the heat because speaking out in these situations is the right thing to do.
    • Why it matters: Allyship, especially in private or casual conversations, is critical to stopping these cycles of racism. 
  • I’ve been thoroughly impressed by how GreenBiz builds equity within its frameworks — whether it’s a small email signature recognizing the Ramapough Lenape Nation where one GreenBiz staffer is based or the equity built within the organization’s Emerging Leaders and 30 Under 30 programs. 
    • Why it matters: The DEI sessions at sustainability conferences are not made for the few Black and Brown people in attendance. People affected by racism are not supposed to fix the problem. Every single person in the sustainability community can and should be more involved in these easy learning opportunities. 

So how can we prevent such incidents of racism from occurring in the first place?

  • We need to continue learning so we reduce microaggressions. Culturally sensitive workplaces increase retention by creating welcoming atmospheres for everyone. 
  • We need to include marginalized populations in our climate impact, philanthropy, DEI and other ESG plans. We need to include the people most affected by these issues in these discussions — and pay them for their labor.
  • We need to understand that actioning racial justice isn’t a choice anymore. Your own reputation and your company’s reputation are at stake.
  • We need to incorporate DEI into our job descriptions even if it’s not explicitly there. I promise that everything you touch can be done more equitably.

Sustainability colleagues, we are literally changing the world. Those of us that don’t fit in just want to be treated with the same respect that you’d expect for yourself. Please, do better when it comes to racial justice. Continuing to bring this up with no change is truly exhausting.

April 25, 2022 at 02:33PM

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