Equitable Representation in Food Media
Creating Systems to Uplift BIPOC Voices & Talents
The two overarching questions this initiative aimed to answer were:
How can media better present BIPOC food cultures and foodways without tokenizing or appropriating them?
How can media organizations implement systems-based change to build equitable processes to represent BIPOC food cultures and treat BIPOC contributors in a respectful manner?
Food media in the U.S. — or, media organizations that specifically cover the food (and relatedly, the beverage, health/wellness, and hospitality) industries — is, and has always been, overwhelmingly white. Most media organizations continue to be headed by almost all-white leadership teams, and their coverage often takes a white, affluent (upper-middle-class), suburban, heteronormative, female perspective on food — the assumed 'typical' consumer.
How food is represented in mainstream media has important implications beyond just cooking or eating. Food is inherently political, and can be a source of power, freedom, or deprivation depending on the context. How BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) food cultures are written or discussed, holds far-reaching implications for the people behind these foods. For example, only featuring "ethnic" (non-white) restaurants in the Cheap Eats section of a food publication furthers stereotypes about worthiness and pay equity for BIPOC workers; the systematic erasure of Indigenous genocide behind the family-friendly image of Thanksgiving undermines the ongoing fight for Indigenous food and land sovereignty; the proliferation of the racism-tinged coverage of ingredients from MSG to palm oil emboldens problematic stereotypes. In all, whiteness is upheld as the ultimate arbiter of goodness.
Before, throughout, and after media's "reckoning" in 2020, food-focused publications have attempted to diversify their white-centric viewpoints. Some have published BIPOC-authored personal essays; others covered new global ideas in food. However, many of these actions are performative in nature and continue to cause harm to the BIPOC food industry professionals and consumers. In particular, the tokenization of BIPOC to deflect criticism has remained a major obstacle to true accountability. Additionally, as media puts renewed energy towards DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) efforts, many difficult changes still lack commitment from senior leadership teams, and are not rooted in the necessary systems to ensure long-term implementation.
"Consumers do not produce these flattened, generic [ideas about food] in a vacuum. It’s a result of centuries of blurring and erasure of geographic, historical, and cultural nuance, socialized into an idea that 'other' places are more homogenous and less important."
We started by gathering a diverse cross-section of food media professionals to understand how tokenization generally manifests in their industry. Here are a few ways:
BIPOC-centric foods and foodways shine only as “trends”, or novelties that require additional explanation because they are different from the “status quo” that centers a white, upper-middle-class interpretation of food.
BIPOC food professionals (writers, chefs, makers, etc.) are pitted against each other, vying for limited opportunities to be featured. The few who "make it" are too often made to be tokens — standing in for entire countries, cultures, or peoples, as opposed to individuals.
BIPOC writers are expected to cover stories about their ethnicity, regardless of familiarity or interest.
BIPOC food stories are often styled in ways that are misleading and prop up a white PoV. For example, herbs and utensils may be added that would never normally appear with that dish in real life.
The complete Toolkit for Recognizing, Disrupting, and Preventing Tokenization in Food Media is available here, complete with definitions of tokenization and individual solutions that gatekeepers and new media professionals can adopt.
After our first toolkit, we realized that our initial solutions focused on what individuals could do. While we were excited to see our solutions adopted by leaders everywhere, we realized that what the food media industry lacked were systems and processes that can sustainably build equitable representation. Thus, we convened another series of Accountability Salons with senior-level editors and leaders in food media publications to understand the challenges (and successes) they faced during the implementation of DEI initiatives at their respective publications. Below are some high-level considerations; the full toolkit is available here.
Create Processes, Not Just Metrics. When DEI work becomes a series of numerical targets or one-off goals, the onus falls onto a few people instead of becoming fully integrated into the company’s regular operations. In lieu of this, organizations need to create processes and thorough documentation (e.g. handbooks, playbooks).
Create Transparency into Power & Capital. It’s difficult to empower change agents and hold people accountable without insight into who has what forms of power, including budgeting power.
Systematize Care and Conflict Mediation. So many DEI-related problems come from a culture of fear; staffers and contributors with less seniority, proximity, or general power are not able to voice their thoughts upward and across, perpetuating cycles without inclusion.
Encourage Long-Term Financial Integration, Not Just Budgeting. DEI can no longer be a checklist it needs to be integrated into an organization, whether in the form of an ERG's operational budget, budget for longer timelines, compensation for sensitivity reviews or other defense mechanisms, etc.
Dive into our Toolkit for Implementing Systematic Changes Towards Equitable Representation in Food Media Companies to learn how these considerations translate to solutions that relate to Editorial, Art, and HR teams, among others.
"The Studio ATAO toolkits contain real life, actionable advice that is applicable to the day-to-day work of writers, editors, social and video folks, and managers and leaders. They are required reading for our staff when onboarding, and we've included them as essential resources in our DE&I work."
"Working with Studio ATAO on our whitepaper was a great learning experience for me. As an HR professional who is always tackling new DEI iniatives, I found it incredibly helpful to have their team not only as a resource but to hold us accountable for the things we set out to do last year."
VP People Operations, Apartment Therapy Media
Learn from the Community
Our methodology is rooted in centering the ideas, needs, and suggestions of those most impacted by existing problems. As we alluded to above, in early 2020, we gathered a group of food media professionals via our Experimental Salons small-group discussion model to understand the obstacles they face when it came to equitable representation. Our participants ranged from freelance writers and video producers, to podcast hosts and editorial staffers. Our goal was to gather a diverse cross-section of the food media industry that often do not have their voices heard in editorial boardrooms.
Based on our initial learnings from our Experimental Salons, we launched our Toolkit for Recognizing, Disrupting, and Preventing Tokenization in Food Media in April 2020. This toolkit has since been shared widely and integrated into the DEI work of many organizations, from Eater and Bon Appétit, to TASTE/PUNCH, and the James Beard Foundation.
This first toolkit offered an in-depth look at why and how tokenization pertains to, and shows up in, the media industry. After its release, we recognized the need for more publication-specific guide detailing the many obstacles - and potential solutions - for addressing current inequitable systems.
As a result, we launched a year-long series of Accountability Salons (see below) with editors across 10+ media publications to capture their journey of implementing the initial suggestions in our first toolkit. These learnings were detailed in our second major resource, A Toolkit for Implementing Systematic Changes Towards Equitable Representation in Food Media.
At the end of 2020, we scheduled a years' worth of Accountability Salons with folks in editorial leadership to discuss the implementation of equity-based initiatives within their respective organizations. Findings from these discussions were presented in our Toolkit for Implementing Systematic Changes Towards Equitable Representation in Food Media.
In addition to our two toolkits, we followed two media publications — The Kitchn and Well+Good — across the span of a year to document their ongoing DEI efforts as it pertained to their content as well as their internal (and freelance) staff members. These two white papers gave clear, specific details of each publications' successes and challenges faced, with step-by-step actions that other media companies grappling with the same issues can readily utilize. Read the resulting white papers here.
In addition to our Salons, we also hosted public Town Halls (loosely based on legislative Town Halls) open to anyone in or interested in the food, beverage, and hospitality industries to interface with, and provide real-time feedback to, editorial leadership on issues surrounding equitable representation in media. We believe that creating proactive scenarios for this type of open discourse is instrumental in disrupting the cycle of gatekeeping within media that has led to many of today's problems.
In order to build on the momentum and engagement we saw from our toolkits, we also hosted group learning opportunities, such as our panel discussions Tokenization in Media: A Case Study In Food and Conversations About Appropriation series (collectively amassing over 1,000+ signups!), and Instagram Live sessions with our white paper stakeholders.
Even after years of research, Experimental Salons, and events, our work advocating for equitable representation in the media industry is far from over. In addition to creating infrastructure for our Salon participants to support one another and continue their conversations independently, we are continually updating our two toolkits with new learnings from our networks; providing social justice resources for the industry, hosting more town halls and group learning events; publishing newsletters on related topics within food, beverage, and hospitality; and incorporating media into our upcoming initiatives.
In particular, we see our our 2022 initiative, The Neighborhood's Table, as an opportunity to positively involve media organizations in reshaping how we write and talk about the concept of gentrification as it pertains to the hospitality industry. One of our main deliverables will be a publicly available rubric for journalists and award organizations to evaluate hospitality businesses on community investment before coverage.
Using the foundation from our past work, we also work privately with media organizations to host internal seminars and workshops, as well as long-term projects to create new company-wide guidelines, milestones, and documentation on equity for both people and content.
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