Photo: Clay Williams

Racism Shaped Restaurants. Chef Aretah Ettarh Knows What Needs to Change.

Restaurants + Bars Activism
by Elisabeth Sherman Jun 17, 2020

In the first week of June, when Black Lives Matter protesters flooded the streets with their grief and anger, megaphones pointed at the sky demanding that their country finally treat them with humanity and compassion, a much quieter movement swept social media. On Instagram, lists of Black-owned restaurants went viral. Non-Black and white restaurant owners expressed support for the protests, and promised “solidarity” with the Black Lives Matter movement in so-called blackout posts.

While these posts are well-intentioned, their performative nature soon caught the (righteous) ire of Black chefs who have been advocating for equality in restaurant kitchens, long before it was trending in the news. In a short essay she posted to Instagram, Gramercy Tavern sous chef Aretah Ettarh called out “disgenious and performative” promises of solidarity that aren’t backed up with real action, including “amplifying [and] mentoring” Black chefs and partnering with Black-owned businesses.

Ettarh, who has been a professional chef for six years, grew up in Fort Lee, New Jersey, eating jollof rice and fufu with her Nigerian family, and Korean cuisine at the restaurants in the neighborhood she grew up in. She’s never shied away from speaking her mind, and her response to what felt like empty gestures from an industry that routinely dismisses and disenfranchises Black chefs and businesses owners was no different.

“I’m very opinionated and I enjoy sharing my hot takes, sometimes as a means to just stir the pot, but also as a way to open it up to have those larger conversations,” she tells me.

Here, Ettarh expands on her thoughts about how performance can transform into action, the hard work white people have ahead of them if they want to prove they’re committed to the Black Lives Matter movement, and why it’s time to tear the whole system that restaurants rely on down and begin building anew.

In your Instagram post, you briefly touch on strategies for supporting Black-owned restaurants and Black chefs in the long term, especially from white industry leaders who have expressed “solidarity” in words alone (but not yet in action). Can you expand on what you want to see happen to make sure that Black-owned restaurants are not just supported financially but that Black chefs feel safe/mentored in the industry beyond this moment of political uprising?

Honestly, I think this is too narrow of a question. We can’t talk about mentoring Black chefs in the industry if we first don’t talk about what the culture of the restaurant industry is. It has historically been an industry that has valued the work of straight white men above all else. There’s no denying that. You look at the most famous and revered chefs in the industry in the last 20 years and most of them fit that category.

You can’t talk about mentoring black chefs if a restaurant doesn’t even have more than a handful of black cooks (if that) employed at any given time. So if you want to talk about making black chefs feel safe and mentoring them? First we have to talk about why the spaces that restaurants tend to create don’t usually foster an environment where Black cooks feel welcome enough to want to stay and be mentored in the first place. It’s critical that we focus on restructuring and reimagining the restaurant industry’s culture as one based on equity and not strictly based on diversity in order to foster environments that promote authentic safety and mentorship for cooks to flourish and grow.

In an op-ed for KQED, Ruth Gebreyesu writes that eating at Black-owned restaurants is not an effective way to “address the brutal and deadly force that police continue to unleash on black people,” and at best it, “scratches the itch of ego-driven guilt.” I wonder what you make of this statement — obviously there’s an active good in supporting Black chefs with our dollars, but as Ruth writes, “temporary patronage as a viable solution to an enduring problem” kind of lets white and non-Black diners off the hook, maybe?

Very much so. If white and non-Black people just start going out to eat at Black-owned restaurants and don’t actually interrogate why that wasn’t always part of their rotation of eateries, then how genuine is it? And even going beyond that, it needs to be an interrogation of why it took countless Black people murdered for you to really see the humanity in us and to see the value of our work.

One element of posts about solidarity is that they are “performative,” as you wrote in your Instagram post. Can you expand at all on the difference between being performative and actually being effective? What does it look like to take shows of solidarity to the next step?

These solidarity posts are interesting because it’s not like Black people haven’t been saying for years that we’ve been mistreated. None of this pain and marginalization is new. The Black Lives Matter movement started in 2013 and these businesses didn’t say a damn thing. Black employees have talked about the mistreatment they’ve faced from their employers and coworkers for years and were gaslit. So to see “solidarity” posts now? With no sort of acknowledgement of the harm they’ve done? That to me is part of the performance. That is attempting to erase their own history as opposed to acknowledging that they have also perpetuated the problem. The only business I’ve seen do it right is Ben & Jerry’s. Every other business should take notes.

A related sentiment you touched on is that you’re “tired of Black lives mattering only in death.” One element of the criticism around the sudden push to support Black-owned businesses is that it took multiple deaths for lists like this to go viral. Is it difficult to take efforts like this seriously when they only become popular in the wake of another death?

To be honest, if we were living our “normal” lives and these murders happened, we probably would have seen the same thing happen that we always do: Black people express their pain and outrage, protest, rally, support one another, and find strength in our community while white people offer surface level support and move on with their lives. But we aren’t living “normal” lives.

A convergence of multiple factors happened that I think resulted in this moment. Black and brown people are being disproportionately affected from COVID-19. Millions of people lost their jobs. Most of the people on the front lines in these essential jobs are BIPOC. We have this joke of a president trying to insight a race war by tweeting things like “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” So there are all these factors outside of just the loss of Black life that play into why we’re seeing white people joining the anti-racism party.

On the one hand, do I believe white solidarity is sustainable? I’m not really convinced, but time will tell. On the other hand, do I believe that the changes we’re seeing happen like Derek Chauvin’s charges being upped to second degree murder, Breonna’s Law being passed in Louisville (ironically without the officers who murdered her actually being arrested), and the repeal of 50-A in NYC were because white people joined the anti-racism party? Yes, and it pains me to say that. I guess Black people trying to explain that our humanity is worth value for centuries wasn’t enough.

Right now, it feels like we’re in a pivotal moment in which people are willing to take action but it still feels like we’re very much in the first phase, and that the hard work of supporting Black business people, restaurants, and chefs is still to come. What’s next?

Sonya Renee Taylor has this amazing video on Instagram where she basically spells it out. White people shouldn’t be arguing and defending the value of Black life, they should be asking themselves why whiteness has made it so they don’t see the value in Black humanity. Dwayne Reed said, “White supremacy won’t die until white people see it as a white issue they need to solve rather than a Black issue they need to empathize with.”

The priority for white people should be unpacking that — use that as fuel to learning about the very mechanism of systemic racism and white privilege. Non-Black people should be learning about anti-Blackness and how that affects their interactions with Black people. Hell, Black people should be learning and unpacking their anti-Blackness, too. Racism is so ingrained in the fabric of our society that it’s going to take more than a couple of weeks of social media activism to unpack all those layers. It’s going to take a lifetime.

We must arm ourselves with the knowledge and tools now in order for this to be able to go beyond and sustain past quarantine. My fear is that white people aren’t used to this level of mobilization and activism. What happens when we all get back to our “normal” lives? What happens when you’re back to seeing your friends and family again who three months ago had no problem saying a racist joke or microaggression? To me, none of this will matter if we’re not putting in the work to educate ourselves now. For white people, this has always been a trend. Prove to us that you can make this a movement.

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