Updated: Aug 27, 2022
We look away because it makes us uncomfortable, but that only enables white supremacy.
As a newcomer in a space, I'm acutely aware of the fact that I can't pretend to know shit about shit locally and that I should listen before I speak. I've spent a week trying to do just that as allegations in the food and beverage space have turned local social media networks abuzz, blown up my text messages, and in some cases made national news.
After a week of trying my best to sit back and learn, I can't help myself. I'm wading in. However, I'm not doing so to take sides but to say this: Local media and community organizations have a responsibility not to look away, even if it's messy and uncomfortable.
First, a quick summary of the allegations and the response.
There have been two scandals (that I know of) in the Northwest Arkansas food space that have bubbled up in the last week. I'll summarize them quickly though from my perspective, the response to the two speaks volumes. And of course, I do not know the truth of either of them. I'm just sharing what I've seen or has been reported.
That a waitress was fired from Bentonville restaurant Oven & Tap after receiving a $4,400 tip. This story went wide. I first encountered it in a viral and now unavailable TikTok video. It was also sent to me numerous times on social media and in group chats, and has made the national and local news.
That owner of local restaurant the Buttered Biscuit engaged in racist behavior at another local restaurant, Korean restaurant arkanSEOUL. I first encountered these allegations after they were shared on social media by local food blogger Joseph Nguyen of @hangrypedaler (see screenshot below) and then it was also sent to me in a variety of ways as it percolated through the food space. ArkanSEOUL has also shared about the incident on their social media. These allegations are especially troubling given the rise in anti-Asian hatred and violence in recent years. In contrast to the first allegation related to tipping, this story about racism has been ignored by local press.
Why does one warrant coverage when the other doesn't?
Local media outlets KNWA, 5News, the Arkansas Times, and the Axios Northwest Arkansas newsletter all covered the allegations surrounding the tip and firing at Oven & Tap. However, not one of them has any coverage of the alleged incident at arkanSEOUL, based on a review of recent posts and searches I performed on their sites. A google search for "arkanseoul" filtered for news results also shows nothing about the allegations except for the sidestepping mention in Axios Northwest Arkansas.
Why is that? Why the difference in coverage between a story about alleged retaliation over a tip and alleged racism, both centered around local restaurants?
One reason could simply be that they don't know about it. In my experience journalists are far more likely to hang out on Twitter than on Instagram, so an Instagram allegation of racism simply may not have risen to their attention. Personally, as I watched the local media space to see what bubbled this week I found this highly unlikely but I opted to wait and see how it played out.
The other possible reason I identified for one issue receiving coverage and the other not, a reason that I suspected was much more likely, is that we as a society are distinctly uncomfortable discussing racism. It makes us uncomfortable so we prefer to look away when possible. Many members of the Black community would point to recent viral videos of the killings of Black Americans as an example. They would say, and I largely agree, that the videos simply forced us to recognize a longstanding reality and made it impossible for many people to continue to ignore it.
I sat with this suspicion for a while, holding myself back from wading in until today. What changed?
An Axios Northwest Arkansas newsletter. Specifically, the December 15th version that landed in my inbox with a note that a writer had intentionally omitted the allegations about racism against arkanSEOUL (see the below screenshot).
This is the same newsletter that did choose to detail the allegations from the same time period surrounding a large tip and retaliation at Oven & Tap.
So one allegation in the same sector, food, in the same short time period, is worthy of discussion and the other isn't?
When you sign up for the Axios newsletter the welcome message touts its mission statement as "a chance to fill in the gaps. There’s so much happening in our region, and it can be difficult to keep up. Our newsletter will always highlight what you need to know and why." I'd say that racism, even a short blurb detailing the allegation and response so readers and locals can be informed, is a worthy issue to highlight in an outlet seeking to fill local media gaps.
I don't write this to pick on Axios. I read their roundups daily and get a lot from them. In this case, Axios Northwest Arkansas just happened to say the quiet part out loud: that at least some local journalists know about the allegation of racism and are deeming it not newsworthy.
And to address one final point that I think is crucial. We like to say that food is the great unifier. I personally believe that food and beverage do have the power to connect people across cultures. Yet food is also frequently used as a tool to demean, stereotype, and degrade peoples and cultures. If we don't acknowledge that and discuss it frankly how can we expect food to move past being a bludgeon for cruelty and actually be the unifying force we want it to be? The same applies to racism. As uncomfortable as discussions of race and privilege make us, ignoring them only allows them to fester in destructive ways. Our desire to remain in a safe and comfortable space can serve to justify why we avert our eyes from the real harm being caused in our communities. Joseph Ngyuen said it best when asked about his decision to share the allegations, racism is "downright dangerous." How can we confront it if we don't talk about it?