There’s an unspoken rule to refrain from doing or saying anything racist during Black History Month.
People of color live history 365 days a year and as such, the seasonal, performative actions of businesses that depend on consumer dollars are noticed. Most white-owned businesses try to act somewhat accordingly for these 28 days; others either act out or sit on their hands, afraid to join in the conversation without being labeled divisive or racist. Basically, it’s difficult for white-led companies to be inoffensive, especially during Black History Month. Triad businesses are no exception.
Foothills Brewing company based in Winston-Salem built a brand on a beer based on a band from the 1988 film Coming to America, named “Sexual Chocolate.” The visual representation of the brand was a caricature of a 1970s Blaxploitation-style Black woman. The annual release of the imperial stout coincides with Valentine’s Day, which falls during Black History Month, and in 2018, the company was taken to task by this paper. Representation matters, but the outlying factors surrounding the brand made it problematic. It made it acceptable to build a business on the representation of a Black woman while reducing the origins of the beer to a joke. While Foothills remained silent on the controversy, the brand’s logo was changed in 2019. The new label depicts a couple kissing in frothy, light-colored foam. The brand failed its Black employees and customers by simply whitewashing the label while continuing to make the beer.
In yet another example of representation gone amiss, this year Biscuitville issued a press release on Feb. 1 outlining their plan to celebrate Black History Month by giving away commemorative bookmarks honoring Capt. Derrick Smith, commanding officer of the Salvation Army in Henderson; Kizzmekia Corbett, the lead scientist behind Moderna COVID-19 vaccine from Hurdle Mills; and Jamilla Pinder, assistant director of healthy communities, who designed Cone Health’s Coronavirus testing events. Each bookmark is good for a free sausage biscuit. As soon as I read the press release, I had questions: Who are these people? What is their connection to the brand? Are they former employees? Are they random Black people that this white-led company decided to print on bookmarks and splash across social media in the name of good biscuits and goodwill?
In a candid conversation, Biscuitville marketing manager Alon Vanderpool outlined the premise behind the company’s commemorative push.
“This is an opportunity for Biscuitville to highlight history makers,” Vanderpool said. “Given the time we are in, because we are in this pandemic, it was important to connect with a local person with a tie to the South directly helping the community to make life brighter.”
Still, after getting pushback online, Vanderpool revealed that Biscuitville’s new president and CEO, Kathy Niven’s No. 1 mission and task is to make sure the company puts forth the effort to listen, learn and create a place of inclusion and equity for employees and customers alike. At the end of the 2020 fiscal year, an anonymous survey was issued to employees by an independent firm in order uncover biases and to figure out the current company culture. Vanderpool says the survey was the first step to starting important conversations about equality. The local biscuit company may not have gotten everything right, but Niven’s commitment to Biscuitville and its customers is a step in the right direction.
“We could have done better tying the knot,” Vanderpool says. “It’s no surprise we received a little pushback online. We are not going to hang our hat on that. Do we have work to do? Absolutely.”
As larger corporate entities dive into the work of equity and racial justice, smaller local businesses too must reflect on the ways in which they profit off of Black bodies, customers and traditions.
In early February, Stamey’s Barbecue of Greensboro posted a black-and-white photo of six white men sitting at a lunch counter with the caption, “Come have a seat at the counter just like the ol’ days.” This 90-year-old institution’s Instagram post suffered from poor timing and choice of caption. The photo in itself is not overtly racist, but the caption, which uses white-supremacist rhetoric, was inappropriate. After being called out, the post was changed and then deleted altogether. Via Instagram, general manager, Craver Stamey was very responsive and clear.
“I was having some conversations recently about marketing strategy and we were trying to approach the ‘nostalgia’ angle on recent posts,” said Stamey. “That was the reason for ‘ol’ days’ lingo.”
And while Stamey’s intention might not have been offend, during this shortest month of the year, the bare minimum that the American delegation of the African diaspora asks of people, especially traditionally white institutions, is to respect, reflect and in some cases acknowledge and amplify the contributions that Black people have made to the world without commodifying Black bodies. When it comes to barbecue, America’s first pitmasters were enslaved Africans, tasked with arduous process of slaughtering, butchering, salting, preparing and smoking meat for plantation owners and their families. Preserving meat (predominantly pork in the South) in those times required a look to West African cuisines and the use of the hot peppers mixed with vinegar to season the pork. This pepper-vinegar combination is the foundation of Lexington-style barbecue. Acknowledging this is the bare minimum any barbecue restaurant should do.
“We definitely are just a family business trying to do the right thing,” says Stamey.
But at the end of the day, the right thing is not always easy and the answers have to mined out from under decades of the status quo. One key to dismantling decades of racism is to have awkward conversations and share uncomfortable truths. There are varying levels of activism that most area food companies are not willing to engage in because they are afraid to alienate the majority of their white customer base. As consumers, it’s easy to employ a cancel culture mentality instead of confronting local businesses about accountability for their business practices. But asking food companies to begin to do the work, continue to research and not be racist is the bare minimum. If companies want to survive and thrive, they must learn to be anti-racist too.