The Power and Promise of an Open Door
The role of gatekeepers in perpetuating and fighting systemic inequalityJackie Summers
November 16, 2020
As the food and beverage community adapts to the challenges of COVID-19 and looks to rebuild, we're thinking critically about the elements of a stronger, more resilient industry. Just as our nation at large is grappling with questions of equity and systemic racism, we at the James Beard Foundation are reckoning with our role in perpetuating inequality, and how best to serve our community in affecting real change.
Below, Jackie Summers explores the role of gatekeepers in his own life and in American culture, examining their inclination to preserve privilege, as well as their potential to unlock opportunity.
The first lesson I remember my mother teaching me was, “If you can read and follow instructions, you can do anything.” I now realize it is—at best—a partial truth. You can master a craft, but pathways to monetizing your skills may be blocked if you don’t know the “right” people.
As an unlettered autodidact, I’m proof of the “yes/but” nature of my mother’s lesson. Most of what I know is self-taught. Without a degree in food chemistry, I created an award-winning liqueur in my kitchen. Sans MBA, I wrote the prospectus for my business. And without a degree in literature, last year I was awarded “Best Food Essay” by the Association of Food Journalists.
There is no book to read and no instructions to follow to undo systemic inequality. While you may be able to teach yourself how to do many things, the society in which we live strictly limits exactly who gets to do what.
Still, I’m acutely aware that without certain people opening portals for me at specific junctures, none of these things would have been possible.
My experience is not unique.
“The world doesn’t care about Black people,” says chef Jonny Rhodes of Indigo in Houston. Top Chef finalist Chris Scott echoes his sentiments: “in European traditions, there’s apprenticeship and mentorship. With chefs of color, this doesn’t exist.” Says chef Elle Simone Scott, “Black people were relied on to build this country, but not to build their own businesses.” Speaking on financing, chef Jennifer Hill Booker says, “Money tends to go from old white male hands to young white male hands.” And in reference to gatekeeping and access, chef Mavis Sanders says, “The generation prior to me put real value on white validation.”
Talent and willpower will only get you so far. In a system that is designed to exclude certain people from benefiting from their own creativity and labor, gatekeepers decide who has access to funding, accolades, and public awareness.
The murder of George Floyd in May at the hands of Minneapolis police transformed Black Lives Matter from a local uprising to an international movement for civil rights. From protests in the streets to policy meetings in boardrooms, individuals and corporations worldwide have, with varying levels of success, begun to confront their complicity with white supremacy.
For some, this challenge has seemingly proved too difficult. Charles Scharf, CEO of Wells Fargo, is currently under fire for stating in a recent memo announcing diversity initiatives that “the unfortunate reality is…there is a very limited pool of [B]lack talent to recruit from.” This fallacy persists, because believing in a dearth of qualified Black applicants (in any field of endeavor) is more convenient than acknowledging the existence of systemic racism, and your own connivance.
The L.A. Times recently showed unusual self-awareness, apologizing for its “failures on race.” Under crucial public scrutiny, they outlined how, for the majority of their history, they have used the power of media as a cudgel against underserved communities. Nuance and context in stories on marginalized people were ignored, demonstrating “at best, a blind spot, and at worst, outright hostility for the city’s non-white population.” However, in light of this recent thread by L.A. Times food critic Patricia Escárcega, the gap between lofty words and practical application is profoundly disappointing.
It is one thing to admit meritocracy is a myth. It is another entirely to make the kind of structural change required to dismantle institutions that perpetuate race-based inequality. If you are an individual, or part of an organization that exists as a gatekeeper, do you contribute, either passively or actively, to a system that oppresses some to the benefit of others? What, if any, is your responsibility in changing who is allowed access?
And maybe most importantly, what’s in it for you?
Bridging the chasm between intention and action requires sustained commitment. Attention to social issues around equality tends to suffocate without the breath of self-interest. It’s simply easier to assume that the way things have been are the way they’re supposed to be. Like wealth, privilege tends to accumulate over generations, and can be enjoyed with minimal accountability.
The James Beard Foundation has always stood for excellence. Laurels from Beard can be an express elevator to the culinary firmament. For much of its history however, this has meant rewarding the endeavors of white men, despite a namesake who spent much of his career breaking down cultural barriers. As chef Booker notes: “Any time entrepreneurs are recognized by established organizations like James Beard, it’s a form of mentorship.”
I can attest to this personally.
In 2018 I was honored to serve as a judge for the James Beard Awards. I was afforded this privilege for two reasons. First, the Foundation restructured its policies and procedures to promote a more inclusive environment. Second, a gatekeeper saw fit to open the door for me.
Jennifer Colliau of Small Hand Foods is an award-winning bartender and authority in the cocktail community. A judge in the Beverage category of the Book Awards, she’s been involved with JBF for six years. A temporary opening on the judging committee became a permanent position, establishing her as a gatekeeper. Yet even in this position of power, she is aware of the ever-shifting axis of privilege and oppression.
“When I’m in an overly male space, I feel it. Women feel it, in a deep [place] where we feel our bodies are not as safe as they should be” says Colliau. “You have to learn how to notice imbalances, even (and especially) when they don’t relate to you,” she explains. “I had to condition myself to notice, then start speaking up, knowing it would make some uncomfortable.”
At first, Colliau admits, what she was doing did not feel like activism. “As we went through our list of potential judges, I noticed the pool for Beverage was overwhelmingly white, and pointed out several people who could be good candidates,” she said. “Now we constantly question our judges lists, to see if they are too homogenous.”
That same year, the Foundation acknowledged that entrance fees present a financial barrier for Media Award submissions. A policy was changed, removing entry fees for new applicants. For the first time, a (slight) majority of the 2018 James Beard Media Award winners were women, people of color, or both. The next year, the Washington Post was quick to declare “inclusiveness is the new normal” for the Awards, with women and people of color again making up the majority of winners.
The 2020 Awards were a different matter.
A combination of factors led to the cancellation of the 2020 Beard Awards. Among the considerations were an appropriate response to the devastating impact of the coronavirus on the restaurant industry, and an absence of BIPOC among category finalists. The former has been heartbreaking. The latter is evidence that unraveling the deep entanglements of white supremacy is not easily accomplished.
Forward progress is rarely without setbacks.
The 2021 Awards have been preemptively canceled, in a continuing effort to address policy and procedure, and remove stubborn vestiges of systemic bias. Additionally, new grant initiatives were announced to provide financial resources for Black and Indigenous food and beverage businesses.
“I don’t believe there’s a ‘before-and-after’ for social change,” says Colliau. “It’s just a path you get on and keep marching. I started pointing out imbalances [that] others didn’t seem to notice or be impacted by. The next step would be looking at what we can do to rectify the systems that led us to these imbalances in the first place.”
Ultimately, systems are created and maintained by people. Even if you personally are not responsible for creating a system that fosters oppression, you can share a hand in its deconstruction. This involves critically examining personal biases. If you find yourself in the role of a gatekeeper, it is worth asking why the builders felt gates were necessary in the first place. Gates exist to restrict access; to keep out and to keep in. Too frequently, this has meant sacrificing creativity to retain control over capital.
In the words of my mentor Arthur Shapiro, this is like “shooting off your nose to spite your wallet.”
“To see drive and creativity in people, you have to disabuse yourself of preconceived notions about race and gender” says Shapiro, former CMO of Seagram’s. Shapiro’s ability to look beyond the superficial and identify “grey matter” in individuals helped cement his reputation as the smartest man in the liquor industry.
Shapiro, who grew up in a poor, multicultural neighborhood in Brooklyn, points to summers spent working in hotel kitchens among the seminal moments which shaped his perspective. “From the owners to chefs, to line cooks and dishwashers, I learned people are just people,” says Shapiro. “You have to see the inner being; nothing else matters.”
For Shapiro, empowering marginalized people was a matter of efficacy: “You have to get out of your own way and get over the inane distrust of anyone who’s been ‘othered.’”
The question of what defines American food remains an unsolved riddle, worthy of exploration. Until very recently, the lens by which answers were sought was decidedly monochromatic and heteronormative. With diligence, time, and ruthless self-examination, the distance between what people can do, and what they are allowed to do, can be overcome.
Jackie Summers is the founder of JackFromBrooklyn Inc., creator of Sorel Liqueur, a food/travel writer based in Brooklyn, and a public speaker on all things anti-oppression.
Learn more about the James Beard Foundation Investment Fund for Black and Indigenous Americans, which was created to provide economic relief to majority-owned Black and Indigenous food and beverage businesses.