Black folks can’t risk canceling allies in their righteous anger
Last week when I read about Fresno State University rescinding a faculty job offer to a graduate student because the student lied about being Black and Latinx, I couldn’t help but think, “Here we go again.”
White people pretending to be Black for various social and economic benefits is such a confounding trend that I, as a Black man, struggle to understand it, even though we’ve seen numerous highprofile incidents of this kind of race fraud over the past few years.
The one we all think about is former NAACP chapter President Rachel Dolezal, who was outed as a white woman in 2015. Then there’s the more recent saga of Jessica Krug, an activist who taught African American history at George Washington University, who identified for years as Black and actually outed herself as white in a blog post this month. The Fresno State University job candidate was also exposed in a blog post, which claimed the individual was Italian, not Black.
These people treated Black identities as costumes allowing them to reap the love of a marginalized community, while having the option to dispose of it once the appeal waned. But when I noticed Brenda Buenviaje, the owner of a few popular Bay Area Creole spots, taking heat for pretending to be Black, I wasn’t angry, I was confused.
In my other role with The Chronicle as a food writer, I know Brenda well from covering her restaurants, Brenda’s French Soul Food in San Francisco and Brenda’s in Oakland. We also have a deeper kinship: We’re both Louisiana natives, and through this, I know Brenda’s ethnic background — she’s the child of a FilipinoCreole mother of French and Italian ancestry, and a Filipino father. Her Filipino grandparents lived in South Louisiana and worked in the shrimping industry. Not once has she ever described herself to me as Black.
But her ethnicity became a topic of conversation last week when people noticed her restaurants often get listed as Blackowned businesses. This isn’t an unusual mistake. Restaurant websites like Yelp, and delivery apps, often conflate cuisine with ethnic identity. But in reality, race in no way limits culinary expertise. I know Black chefs cooking Italian food, and as is the case with Brenda, a multiracial Filipina chef cooking Creole food.
“I don’t know what to do here, because I’ve never at any time said I was Black,” Brenda told me last week when the dialogue around her race was reaching a peak. “I’ve talked about my identity before, and even on my YouTube page and on my website, you can see pictures of me. I wish I could clear this up.”
I imagine some of this anger was born out of disappointment, as Black folks who only knew Brenda’s food and not her hoped her popular Creole spots were Blackowned. And, honestly, I can understand that desire. Eventually, the situation cooled off for Brenda online as people talked, and some clarity was gained about her background.
The situation got me thinking about life as a Black person in America today, especially one in tune with society’s racial reckoning. It’s hard not to be angry about the state of this country’s race relations, but if there were a painseverity matrix for this moment, the sphere for racial injustice would only lightly cross into that of race fraud. Cops shooting and killing unarmed Black people, court systems disproportionately sending Black men to jail, Black people being denied access to pathways leading to economic success — these are the issues at the forefront of the current movement.
White people stealing Black identity as a way for them to better navigate the world feels small compared with these other issues, but it’s still important. Here’s where I’m nervous: With so much justified anger to dole out, we have to be careful not to vilify the wrong people.
The Rachel Dolezals of the world are easy to cancel, as are the Jessica Krugs. Their sins are quantifiable, and deserving of shame through loud public discourse. Even if these kinds of people were to realize their mistakes and try to address them in some financial or culturally appropriate way, they still could not be seen as allies. But people like Brenda are. I know this because I’ve spoken to Brenda about Black issues. She’s interested in listening, and in finding her own ways of being a friend to the Black community at a time we need them most.
I’m as ready as the next Millennial Black person to cancel a nonBlack person for something offensive. In 2020, we’re going to continue having opportunities to do so, but knowledge is key. Our reactions must be based on research, because without it we’re destined to accidentally cancel allies. Once the world cools down a bit on social issues, it’s these allies, people like Brenda, who will help us keep the fight for Black representation and fair treatment alive.