In recent months, Portland has resounded with cries of protesters denouncing police brutality and demanding justice for the police murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd – as well as those of Portlanders Head Gulley, Quanice Hayes, and Patrick kimmon. Thousands expressed their solidarity with the movement, whether by marching, participating in “die-ins” staged in the street, or supporting the demonstrators who continue to demonstrate night after night. In the face of tear gas and rubber bullets, the Portlanders have continued to show up night after night for direct actions, although media coverage has waned in recent months.
Portland restaurants and the people who run them are apparently no exception: food carts like Kee’s Loaded Kitchen have used their Instagram accounts to educate their followers about cases of police brutality in the Portland area; Vietnamese Matta Cart sales data the George Floyd Memorial Fund; and bottled cocktails company donated $ 2,000 to Unite Oregon.
But the complicated relationship between some of the city’s most visible players in the restaurant scene and its communities of color, especially its black community, has posed deep questions about how best restaurants can support the Black Lives Matter movement. and its broader racial justice goals. How does an industry plagued by a history of appropriation and performative alliance significantly support black communities, in particular in the middle of its own running calculation with systemic racism and the devastating economic headwinds of a pandemic? And how can these commitments to supporting black communities persist beyond a few social media posts and initial responses?
For many in the industry, these questions are not just hypothetical. In July, for example, a white local chief, inspired by the “block of moms and dads in protest” known as the Mommy’s Wall, tried to independently organize a “block of leaders” to march for the lives of black people. Although well-intentioned, like other militant blocs that had formed in recent months to show solidarity – which at best can ease the burden on the marginalized, who are forced to overcome the effects of discrimination on a daily basis. in addition to advocating for a more equitable society – it was also an example of how much more needs to be done within the industry to focus the work, needs and perspectives of the black people activists claim to want to help .
A starting point for the restaurant industry to support racial justice is to fill in the gaps in itself, according to Nick Charles, a former staff member of Yonder – the best-selling fried chicken spot owned by Maya Lovelace – who spoke this summer on the treatment of employees by the restaurant and its laundering of southern cuisine. As a city of restaurants, Portland is in part known for its establishments which tend to “take inspiration” from the kitchens of people who are not enjoying their critical or financial success. So the job, at a basic level, “just begins with an appreciation for the food of the culture you are serving,” explains Charles. Staff “needs to be better trained on how to explain the culture of food.” We can’t get away from catering and bar service without telling these stories. It allows racist ways to creep in because you shut off a whole cult of people by not telling the story of their food.
A key problem, notes Charles, is the lack of representation of BIPOC in restaurants, especially in managerial positions. “There are a lot of blacks and browns in the food industry, but not as many as you might expect,” he says. What he experienced as a result was that “as a black person in front of the house, I often had to start at the back of the house even though all of my experience was in front of the house… you have to do more your proofs as a Black or Brown Person.
At a minimum, improving the restaurant culture for BIPOC workers, especially in white-owned restaurants, requires creating an inclusive atmosphere that promotes meaningful feedback and dialogue between management and staff. staff. “Either way, every restaurant should have someone designated who you can talk to and who isn’t a manager or owner,” Charles says. “If you want to create a healthy work environment, build these healthy relationships. “
This perspective is echoed by Nikesiah Newton, the creator of Meals4Heels, an overnight delivery service that caters to sex workers, in part to avoid the toxic culture she experienced in traditional restaurant kitchens. A fairer industry means “being upfront about creating safe spaces; have systems in place for staff to voice concerns about racism, misogyny, transphobia, etc. ; listen to those who have concerns; and check your own privilege, ”she said.
Yet the easiest way to address the lack of representation and opportunity for blacks in the industry is to direct money and resources to black-owned bars and restaurants. BIPOC business owners, especially black entrepreneurs, faced exceptionally difficult barriers to entry into Portland: a century-old history of racist displacement as its development grew Black business owners further and further from downtown: A number of development projects in Portland’s history, from the expansion of Emanuel Hospital at I-5 expansion, specifically affected the black neighborhoods of north and northeast Portland. Over the past decade, the number of small business loans given to blacks in Oregon fell 96%. This is why, says Newton, “to present oneself to me means to buy black, to buy black, to support black.”
Beyond working to address issues of equity and opportunity within the industry itself, for aspiring allies who want to engage in direct activism, the most important thing is to connect. to the communities with which they are trying to show solidarity, and to engage with the work that is already underway, according to Danté Fernandez, the sous-chef of the Philippine restaurant SE Clinton Magna. Fernandez spends much of his free time volunteering as a parent and regularly attends protests. “They should find a pre-existing [organization] or start one with a black person who is already working in the community ”if they are looking to support Black Lives Matter, he says. “Everyone wants people to start showing up, but once they start showing up they start to take over and it starts to concern them and less to black lives.”
As part of how white-owned restaurants in Portland frequently co-opt cuisines from cultures other than their own, white chefs and owners, in their attempts to present themselves, intentionally or not, may position themselves as leaders or faces of the movement if they do not proceed with caution. “That’s what I see with a lot of chefs coming out and trying to do their things – they don’t connect with the community like they should,” Fernandez said. “I want whites to come forward, I want them to be there and speak out, but they don’t need to take a leadership role.”
There is a real danger in leadership being co-opted by people outside the community, that is, the focus on what really matters can be lost. “People were so focused on the federal government and it was a distraction,” Charles says. “We try to fight the police in the streets every night; it’s inevitable at this point. But we need to refocus the whole movement on [Black lives] if we want to achieve our goals.
“I think the most important thing,” Charles adds, “is that you have to let the dark voices lead.”
Ultimately, allies in the restaurant industry need to bring the same energy and commitment to kitchen transformation, protest and activism, and it’s a job they should be doing in working with the communities and people they try to uplift and amplify, wherever they choose to focus their efforts. “Building basic relationships with black cooks is essential,” Newton says. “We can do this over a meal, over a drink, by making cheese or by feeding the homeless in our community.”
Celeste Noche is a documentary and editorial photographer based in Portland, Oregon and San Francisco.