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Right now, the United States is in the middle of the hundreds of protests sparked by the death of George Floyd. With cities reopening, restaurants are also opening their doors for service again (albeit with strict guidelines due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic). Some owners and chefs are reasonably upset that their storefronts have been damaged during the protests, an additional blow to already-struggling businesses.
While restaurant owners were vocal about the losses they suffered when their businesses were shuttered because of the coronavirus, and still more spoke out when certain big-name chefs and restaurant groups received federal loans they desperately needed, many of those same owners and chefs have been quiet about the injustices that Black people face, even as protesters show up on their doorsteps.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, though; the industry is filled with instances of racism, sexism, ageism, and every other -ism there is. Discrimination comes from angry and ignorant guests, but even more so from the people who brush shoulders in restaurants every day, working in dining rooms and kitchens. Restaurants are still often obviously segregated by staff, and Black people are often denied employment or progression in fine dining and corporate restaurants. This doesn’t even begin to cover the countless acts of discrimination and stereotyping Black guests deal with in establishments all around the country.
Throughout history, restaurants have played major roles in political movements; because they uphold unfair practices, they often become centers of protest themselves. Right now, restaurant owners, chefs, and people across the food industry should be at the frontlines with protesters, speaking as loudly about social injustices as they did about the Paycheck Protection Program and unemployment due to COVID-19. They should be fighting just as hard to end systemic racism, poverty, and the inhumane treatment of immigrants as they did to save their businesses, seeing as their entire labor force depends on it. They should become “third places” for protesters. Instead, we see our public dining institutions siding with the same people who fail to protect them time and time again.
According to the Brookings Institution, “third places” are the spaces where people spend time between home (the “first place”) and work (the “second place”). They are places of communion, where we exchange ideas and have conversations with one another. It’s no surprise that bars, restaurants, and cafes are defined as third places, but they are often spaces where Black people aren’t welcomed or don’t feel safe. So with the call for change within our communities and government institutions, we also need change to come from within the restaurant industry. New third places should be created, tearing down old racist and classist ideologies and putting systems in place that represent true inclusivity and compassion.
The Woolworth sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina, may be the most famous example of a restaurant taking center stage in a movement. In 1960, four young Black men, all students at the historically Black college and university North Carolina A&T, were fed up with the segregation they faced despite the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling that “separate but equal” was unconstitutional. Inspired by Gandhi’s nonviolent activism, the students sat at the “white-only” counter at their local Woolworth. They returned day after day with more and more people, despite being spit on, beaten, and taunted, until Woolworth and other restaurants throughout the South agreed to fully integrate.
Violence surrounded the peaceful protesters who used restaurants and other small businesses as their third place — and restaurant owners, workers, and diners allowed and participated in this violence. This story of silence and permission, tacit or otherwise, has found its way back into mainstream American life, and once again, restaurants are sites of history. At Halls Chophouse in Charleston, South Carolina, staff, diners, and protesters clashed after an employee brandished a gun and fired it to disperse a crowd that had formed outside the business. No one was severely injured in the altercation. Two days after the shooting incident in Charleston, chef David “BBQ Man” McAtee was shot and killed by members of the Louisville Police Department. According to McAtee’s nephew, he’d been standing in front of his restaurant trying to protect his niece, who had also been shot by officers, after police were called to disperse a large crowd nearby. Police officers said that they heard gunshots and opened fire in return, although accounts across social media allege otherwise.
The contrast between these two incidents underscores the total disregard for life that law enforcement and white people have for Black people: While a restaurant employee was allowed to shoot into the air amid a crowd of protesters with no intervention or retaliation from cops, a Black restaurant owner lost his life. While I’ve noticed many, many well-known chefs asking for donations to save their restaurants, I haven’t seen many send their condolences or coins to chef McAtee’s family to help keep his business open after his unexpected death.
Sociologist Ray Oldenburg, who coined the term “third places,” says that although many of our third places are virtual, the most effective spaces are ones that allow people to easily and consistently connect with each other on a physical level. To build community, society needs places where people of different races, ages, genders, sexualities, and socioeconomic statuses are on a level playing field. Restaurants and other food businesses can fit that description exactly.
Restaurants that fail to see themselves as third spaces, and that don’t go out of their way to ensure their spaces truly function as such, will be on the wrong side of history.
To create change and mobilize their businesses as third places, restaurant owners need to listen. Listen to Black communities and comprehend what is happening, how they feel, and what they need from you. Let them tell you your role before assuming one. It may be your kitchen, but you serve your community. Chefs, you can also do what you do best: feed people. Start a food bank, give out free meals, create community grocery stores and bartering programs, give protesters drinks as they walk down the streets fighting for your rights. And if your restaurant is closed because of the pandemic, or for any other reason, allow people to safely use those spaces as places of rest and repose. Let people meet and organize and know they have a safe place to go to if they’re in trouble or danger, and that you will support them to the best of your ability.
The work needs to continue after the protests stop. Hire people from the community, and not just to feel better about meeting whatever diversity quota you’ve set. It is even more important to hire Black people if you’re operating a business in a majority Black city or neighborhood: If that’s the case, you are an unwelcome guest who time and time again finds your way into Black spaces uninvited. Your accolades only add to our burdens. But since you’ve decided to infiltrate our neighborhoods, hire people from the community. And once you hire your staff, pay them equal and fair wages, teach them, and promote them; if you don’t want to do that, let them move on and flourish elsewhere. When you don’t do this, you’re upholding a racist ideology and system.
Train yourself and your staff to commit to fighting injustices inside and outside of the dining room. It shouldn’t take someone dying on camera for you to watch a video on anti-racism and advocate for appropriate workplace behavior. Fight for Black food workers, owners, writers, and chefs to have equal footing when it comes to being promoted, securing investors, benefiting from marketing, making connections, getting paid fairly, and having decent health care and work-life balance; anything you have or want, they should have too. Use your voice and your resources (including your money) to support the people who work at and frequent your businesses. Stop relegating Black culture and appreciation to one month a year, or when a hot topic arises. Food media, give stories about Black culture to Black writers, but don’t be so asinine as to attempt to put them into one box (that goes for Black chefs, cooks, photographers, etc).
Be accessible to your community. Not only should your business feel sincerely welcoming, guests should understand what’s on your menu. If you use historically Black recipes or ingredients, source them from Black farmers and businesses; if you collaborated with Black minds to create your concepts, speak about it in your pressers and in your dining rooms. You should be vocal about the harm that is done to Black people regularly, so that people know that when they come into your space, they are making a choice to support who and what you support.
Black people have always created third places for themselves and for others, especially during social movements, usually for their own safety. For Black chefs and food people, your role in this movement is to do absolutely nothing more than what you already do every single day. Keep surviving. Keep feeding your communities. Keep uplifting one another. Keep spreading knowledge. Help when you feel the need to, but take care of yourself first.
Chefs, owners, and staff who are white and non-Black people of color, we aren’t asking you to invite us into your spaces. We aren’t asking you to become allies. We can and have fought this fight without you, and will continue to do so as long as it’s necessary. It’s your time to do the work and stop asking an already emotionally taxed and physically exhausted group of people to help you do it. There is no reason you should have to be taught how to be a decent human being in 2020. I find it hard to believe you all don’t know how to be any better, but I’m sure that once again, you’ll be given the benefit of the doubt. If you choose to stay silent or act against us, that speaks volumes about your character, not ours. The time of carrying your loads while you reap the benefits of our physical and intellectual labor is over.
To those who have finally decided to answer the call to protest injustice, who wrote those beautifully worded posts and blacked out their profile pictures in solidarity, and who promised that their restaurant or publication or business will do better, remember that Black lives are worth more than your business. At the end of the day, your windows can be replaced. Your looted alcohol can be rebought. You might lose some of your clientele. Just keep in mind: You have only lost your livelihood for a moment. Black people have been losing their lives forever.
Amethyst Ganaway is a chef from North Charleston, South Carolina, and winner of the 2020 LDEI Culinary Legacy Award.