Ofer Eitan Imply: Bay Area black chefs find rewards in speaking out on racial... - Jonathan Cartu Restaurant, Baking & Catering Services
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Ofer Eitan Imply: Bay Area black chefs find rewards in speaking out on racial…

Bay Area black chefs find rewards in speaking out on racial...

Ofer Eitan Imply: Bay Area black chefs find rewards in speaking out on racial…

A few days after George Floyd died under the knee of a police officer in Minneapolis, chef Toriano Gordon, who is one of a small number of black restaurant owners in Oakland, turned to Instagram to share his thoughts.

Gordon found a photo of Floyd online with the words “My stomach hurts. My neck hurts. Please, please. I can’t breathe,” which were reported to be among Floyd’s last on May 25, the day he died. Gordon posted the photo on May 31 and prepared himself for backlash on social media. It never came.

“I thought I was going to take a hit (financially) but it didn’t happen. In fact, I got more business after that even though I was closing two hours early at that time,” said Gordon, who owns Vegan Mob. “It showed me people know what’s happening in the country is too big to get mad at a post like that.”

Black Bay Area restaurant owners have long struggled with whether to be politically vocal, fearing that being outspoken about black issues could drive away white dollars. But since Floyd’s death last month, a tide has turned in the industry. Black chefs are speaking out on the news and in social media, about police killings and assaults of black people. And their honesty doesn’t appear to be hurting their bottom lines.

Many black chefs say the dining public is beginning to understand that speaking out in support of valuing black life is more of a human rights issue than a political stance.

“This country was built on the idea and fabric of racism. This is a pain deeply etched in the soul of our nation and in the hearts of the people of color that live here. To say racism doesn’t exist or to put the blame on those who have been oppressed for hundreds of years is simply pure ignorance and an unwillingness to face the truth of this country,” said Michele Wilson, who is in the process of opening Gussie’s House of Chicken and Waffles in Uptown Oakland.

Even as protests continue in honor of Floyd in the Bay Area, and most are attended by people of varying ethnic backgrounds, San Francisco chef Simileoluwa Adebajo said she’s reminded each morning why it’s important for chefs to speak out about racism, especially in the Bay Area.

“I find myself looking over my shoulder during my morning run, because I am tall, lanky and androgynous looking when I run,” she said. “I worry consistently about my black friends and brothers who are profiled and could end up dead simply because of their hair and allegedly ‘threatening’ demeanor. … It’s not enough to say that we are not racist or do not support racism. In order to dismantle a racist system, we must aggressively be anti-racist.”

Like Gordon, countless black-owned food businesses are taking their messages to social media. Matt Horn of Horn Barbecue, who is known for hosting pop-up restaurant events with lines stretching entire city blocks, posted a black square on Instagram on June 2 as part of the social media movement known as Blackout Tuesday. “We have the people behind us and the people are our strength. We are one with the people. #stopkillingus,” the caption read.

Fernay McPherson of Minnie Bell’s Soul Movement in Emeryville, a soul food business, has posted on Instagram multiple times about participating in protests and the Black Lives Matter movement. Black-owned Oakland coffee company Red Bay Coffee recently posted an image of a black person kneeling in protest in front of armed police officers, and it included the caption: “Change MUST come. Time is up. #blacklivesmatter.” Meanwhile, Red House in San Francisco, a black-owned Jamaican restaurant, also posted a black square as part of Blackout Tuesday. The accompanying caption simply said, “We matter.”

The posts are inundated with supportive comments.

“Stories told of hanging bodies swinging from the trees, visuals of crosses burning in the yards of black families, and the batons of hate filled police officers are forever etched in my mind,” Horn said. “We have all seen the old black and white images of Jim Crow violence. The country clearly has not evolved. George Floyd’s lynching in Minneapolis is an awful reminder that to be black in America is to live under terror.”

But alongside advocating against police brutality, local black chefs are also speaking out about protests in the East Bay that have been accompanied by vandalism of local businesses. Emeryville’s Public Market was broken into earlier this month, which forced the temporary closure of Minnie Bell’s.

“Most changes in this country have come as a result of protests. I understand how anger and frustration will lead to shouting and yelling. But we must not begin to take our anger out on those businesses that keep our communities alive,” Wilson said. “We need our businesses to be here when this is over. We need more businesses to want to do business in our cities. We must redirect our anger to the proper channels.”

This new landscape of acceptance for black activism in the food world is a byproduct of the country’s growing chorus to end racism and police brutality against black people. Triggered by Floyd’s death, there have since been Black Lives Matter marches in all 50 states, more than 75 U.S. cities, and places like London, Copenhagen, Toronto and Berlin where citizens have protested in solidarity.

Chef Matt Horn, who is opening Horn Barbecue in Emeryville, has found a receptive audience when he speaks out against racial injustice.

In the food world, corporations are venturing into the world of activism to varying degrees. The CEOs of General Mills, Land O’ Lakes and Post Consumer Brands, among others, released a joint statement on May 28 saying Floyd’s death “reflects deeply ingrained, long-standing injustice within our society.” Ben & Jerry’s, an ice cream maker long known as a proponent for social activism, recently called for consumers to “dismantle white supremacy.”

On a smaller scale, Black Lives Matter signs are increasing in number in the windows of restaurants throughout region, and black Bay Area restaurant owners say they’re noticing. But more needs to be done, they say.

“Our people may be terrorized, but we have dignity. We seek justice. We seek…

Jon Cartu

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