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Profiling the Restaurant
A new column by Yvonne Maxwell
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Hidden in Plain Sight is a new monthly column by Yvonne Maxwell focusing on the stories, foodways, customs and traditions of the Black communities across the UK, as well as the global Black diaspora; ones that have been here for years and decades, in plain sight, yet are rarely written about.
This column will usually be paywalled, but today the article is free to read for everyone.
Profiling the Restaurant, by Yvonne Maxwell
In October last year, a group of Black diners posted videos on Twitter and YouTube detailing confrontations with management at a Turkish restaurant in Woodford, near Walthamstow, called Lokkum Bar & Grill. The argument started when one of the diners, celebrating their birthday at the restaurant, found a crying girl in the toilets. She told the diner that her brother, a new member of staff, had been abused by his colleagues with the word “darkie”. When the kitchen staff were pulled up on their language the diners were met with hostility and anger; Lokkum staff can be seen on camera arguing with a Black woman and a Black man who comes to join her: both were visibly disturbed by what had taken place. Things escalated as diners rose from their tables and left the restaurant in coordinated fashion. Management at Lokkum acknowledged these accusations once the incident had gained traction on social media, and posted an apology on their Instagram page – one of those generic “we do not tolerate discrimination… and yet, here we are” responses. Lokkum turned off the comments on this post.
There are multiple conflicting versions of London and the UK – when I was approached to write this series of columns, I knew that I wanted to share the stories of those that I experience; stories that reverberate throughout Black spaces. The situation at Lokkum is particularly striking as a story of Black London because while we expect to be met with racism in outsider spaces, it is not something we expect to navigate in spaces that we deem partially our own. Turkish restaurants, to a large extent, are Black spaces in that they have been adopted by Black communities across London and form part of a common experience. Black diners flock in droves to the numerous Kervan branches across North London and the grill houses that line Green Lanes. These restaurants benefit and make their money from catering to a Black consumer base; when a restaurant treats its Black workers with disrespect it makes explicit that our presence within the dining space is conditional.
Often these incidents often go unreported at a mainstream level; the incident at Lokkum, by the way, was not covered by a single food publication. Three years ago, Shaun Beagley – the former chef at the East London restaurant Som Saa who was exposed for his caricatures of Thai and Chinese people – was rightly made an industry pariah, yet his earlier YouTube videos where he could be heard calling Black market sellers “monkeys” slipped below the radar. When accusations of racism are treated as quantitatively different, we miss the opportunity to discuss how these racisms intersect and manifest in qualitatively different ways. A restaurant that made headlines last year with shocking visual racism against the East Asian community has long been infamous among Black Londoners in a more insidious practice of everyday exclusionary racism in the form of heavy-handed use of racialised entry requirements disguised as dress code. Oh, how quickly do the ‘no trainers, no hoodies’ policies mysteriously morph into mechanisms for racial profiling!
The mistreatment of Black people within dining spaces is a global phenomenon – replicable enough to cross borders and cultural lines yet local in its execution. I have been racially abused and profiled in restaurants from London to Manila, from fine dining restaurants to holes in walls. I have been left hungry and humiliated on a global scale, whether it was being intrusively photographed while eating, casually being called racial slurs, or point-blank refused service and entry into a Soho brunch establishment. In an account of dining as a Black woman working within food criticism, the American restaurant writer Korsha Wilson explains that, for many Black diners, “being in a dining space can often mean choosing between being ignored, interrogated, or assaulted”. These situations have become normalised or embedded in standard hospitality practises; from the over-policing of who gets to enter an establishment to the careful dance that undulates between hyper-attention and snubbing. In the end, I have always opted for the non-confrontational route, leaving without uttering a word in response.
This makes the process of evaluation for Black restaurant writers like myself all the more complex and nuanced. By nature, the restaurant writer is traditionally anonymous at the table, hoping to receive through food and through service, the median level of hospitality an establishment has to offer. Black diners have no option to fly under the radar in this way. There are countless restaurants I could reel off which have been given rave reviews, featured in every food publication under the sun and recommended to everyone as the ‘go to’ spot, where I can guarantee that a Black person will have a completely different dining experience. I envy the frictionless ease with which my white counterparts slot into the frame of most dining rooms; a luxury both my Blackness and womanhood do not afford me. I cannot forgo my Blackness or cover it with a cloak of anonymity – it is an everyday existence with no way of switching on and off.
I sometimes think about the Black staff member who was racially abused by their co-workers at Lokkum, and how exhausting it must be to navigate such hostility. This feeling of exhaustion from having to constantly negotiate one's very own existence in a space is felt by so many Black people; a reminder of the unspoken conditions placed on us as we move through these spaces. Of course, this issue of racism within the hospitality industry cannot be extricated from racial hierarchies that exist across all other institutions. The restaurant space merely mirrors these pre-existing attitudes which are inherited from the racial hierarchies embedded in the city, the country and society at large.
Yet, I find myself inspired and uplifted by the outcome of that story, that the diners simply got up and left. It displays a type of collective power among the Black communities who have been at the helm of call-outs and boycotts of known racist dining establishments. Retreating into invisibility is no longer a viable solution, but it is through the sharing of our experiences in public forums that we demonstrate that the Black Pound is a force to be reckoned with. After all, we want more than to be barely tolerated; we want to be seen.
Yvonne Maxwell is a documentary photographer, cooking enthusiast and traveller, whose work focuses on telling stories of food, culture and people across the African Diaspora. You can find her on Instagram at @passthedutchpot.
Pictures of tweets credited to a thread by @hewantswealth