Black folks can’t risk cancel­ing al­lies in their right­eous anger

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - DATEBOOK - JUSTIN PHILLIPS Justin Phillips is a San Fran­cisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: jphillips@sfchron­i­ Twit­ter: @JustMrPhil­lips

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.

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