Something was different at the 2018 James Beard Awards. More women, more people of color, and more diverse voices were recognized than ever before. But the question of whether this was evidence of more profound change taking place in our industry remained unanswered. As a leading organization of the food movement in the U.S., we wanted to do more to support equity in the industry and access to its highest honors.
For advice, we reached out to some of the most thoughtful, vocal members of our community to share their opinions about how the Beard Foundation could improve. This piece continues the series of four op-eds that resulted from this outreach, which will be posted throughout the week.
As we digest the writers’ suggestions, we intend to operationalize several changes which we believe will have a substantive impact on the Awards and the industry. We will share changes to the policies and procedures for the 2019 James Beard Awards ahead of the “Open Call for Entry” on Monday, October 15, 2018. This is the beginning of a process, not the end, and we know there is much more work we can all do to ensure everyone has an equal opportunity to thrive.
Popular food, as celebrated by investment capital, mainstream media, and industry recognition programs, is flagrantly white and male. The chefs, writers, restaurants, book publishers, agents, farmers, swizzle stick–stirrers, and their consuming patrons all drip with the same skin. And the James Beard Foundation Awards, the self-styled “Oscars of the food world,” has long been an abettor to this egregious oversight.
(Oversight suggests a carelessness that implies an aberration. However the consistency with which the Beard Foundation has recognized and awarded the same group, and the fact that whiteness and maleness are similarly privileged in wider society, resoundingly reminds us that oversight is only a euphemism for racism.)
Ah, the tides they are a'changing…
But this past year’s list of Beard Award winners reads like a kaleidoscope of possibility. Finally, there’s something to preen about, or so it seems, except this current class of winners represents less a change in institutional sentiment than the supreme undeniability of talent too-long barred from the rostrum.
The full moon swells tides and its waning brings subsidence, unless we compel the moon to act right!
Let us compel the moon to do the impossible, where “impossible” means a radical reconception of power in food, starting with the James Beard Foundation and extending through its tentacular alliances. But first, let’s make a distinction between charity and parity, and distinguish radicality from the status quo, or else we will forever suffer the long memory of short victories.
In February, I ran a month-long pop-up where I offered a daily lunch priced at $12. However, I asked folks who identified as white to pay a suggested price of $30, two-and-a-half times more. The price differential reflected the current racial income disparity in New Orleans. An overwhelming majority of white customers—80 percent—opted to pay the higher price.
Convinced by the high rate of paying customers, my initial thought was that I had discovered a simple framework to model positive behavior: have the user acknowledge the problem and situate himself or herself within it as an antagonist. Then provide a tidy action which redeems the user, all the while holding them accountable.
In practice, this is what it looked like:
When white customers approached my stall, I immediately established their interest in lunch. This way, any subsequent refusal to purchase a meal would clearly indicate their qualms were with the issue being discussed, and not with the meal. I then casually explained that I was serving lunch along with a conversation on racial wealth disparity. Instead of a lecture, I asked my white customers for their thoughts and insights on the subject. Everyone was an expert—some folks even went as far as to describe, in academic detail, the litany of government policies that institutionalized present-day inequality. Who doesn’t want want to ace a pop quiz, right?
Then I pushed them further: “How did we get to this place where race is the strongest determinant of one’s financial viability?” I asked. Their responses were similar and self-indicting: structural racism was the culprit—the unfair advantaging of white people over other people of color.
With that acknowledgement settled, I offered sobering local and national statistics on racial wealth and income disparities.
After this exchange, after all these very smart white customers had theoretically acknowledged the problem, its root cause, and their role in the matter, I presented a concrete expression of disparity that demanded their attention. Would you pay $30 for lunch, instead of $12, as an admission of your privilege? I was challenging them to put their money where their mouths had literally been a few seconds prior. And I stood there, impassive and black, holding them accountable—offering the consequence of public disapproval if their actions deviated from their stated truths.
As you now know, the overwhelming majority of white customers paid the higher sum.
Ah, the tides they are a'changing…
But an interesting thing kept happening, something I was only able to appreciate in retrospect: most of the decisions to pay the $30 involved some form of negotiation. Some white folks were curious about where the extra money was going, other white folks wanted to pay something between the $12 and $30, still others wanted to pay just the $12, but offered a heftier-than-usual tip. I refused all negotiations outside of the stated terms.
Ostensibly, these were all reasonable and innocuous reactions to my payment suggestion, but in truth, these questions were an assertion and reclamation of power. Masked as judiciousness, the inquiries were an attempt to regain control in a situation where it had been taken away, and to impose a distinct agenda. This maneuvering was palpable in the moment: I felt it in the subtle shifts in posture, tone, and expression of my white customers.
What is power if not the ability to control one’s circumstances, exert influence over others, and refuse all external impositions? At the stall, white power refused to concede control, even after it had conceded the point.
When we extrapolate this interpersonal power into structural terms, we meet the most appropriate definition of white racism: the ability to control the life outcomes of other racial groups, for personal group benefit.
In wider society, we see this social control demonstrated in quality of life indices—health, educational attainment, wealth, and more—which have whites consistently at the top and people of color, specifically, black, brown, and indigenous folks, at the bottom.
In popular food, we again see this social control represented in the Beard Foundation: its leadership, programs, and award nominees and winners are overwhelmingly white.
And in all spaces, food and society, we see the faithful and continuous reproduction of this social control, which reinforces the idea that white domination is the natural order of things.
The full moon swells tides and its waning brings subsidence, unless we compel the moon to act right.
Although I am loathe to offer prescriptions (because power never wants to do the necessary work of self-discovery, but would rather shift that burden elsewhere) I will present three compulsions, hoping the James Beard Foundation acts right:
The James Beard Foundation NEEDS black and brown folks in staff leadership roles. Not just a solitary figure fighting against an army of conventional discrimination, but rather a coalition of equity-minded brown and black and women folk who are affecting the Foundation’s policy. There should be two people of color for every white person working at the Foundation, and the same for its board. Start by elevating the folks of color currently working within the organization. This is equity.
This two-for-one rule should also apply to the coterie of judges who decide nominees and winners for the prestigious Awards. This is equity.
Finally, all white people in the nominating categories should recuse themselves from the Awards for a couple years, permitting other voices the full, unshared benefit of winning. This is equity.
If this year’s Awards are a beginning and not an end, then this is the least the James Beard Foundation can do. Everything else is performative and token.
Do you have thoughts about how the culinary industry and/or the James Beard Foundation can be more inclusive? Please share your feedback with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tunde Wey is a Nigerian immigrant artist/cook/writer currently living in New Orleans. He plays soccer as often as he can.