AUTHOR: Stephanie Teekaram
Food Startup Excerpt: Food Startup Help recently asked Chef Stephanie Teekaram to share any thoughts after her recent return as an administrator and chef instructor for several years at the Pastry & Baking Academy in Trinidad. We originally met Chef Stephanie at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York and respect her opinion on trends she has seen working in New York and abroad (including Greece).
As a young black woman in the food and hospitality industry, the Black Lives Matter movement has evoked some thoughts and feelings that I have never had. I have been in this industry practically my entire life and all of my careers have been predominantly in the New York City area with some International posts thrown in. With the arrival of the Coronavirus and subsequently the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter Movement, I’ve had a lot of time to think.
I was born and raised in Georgetown, Guyana in South America to a black mother and an East Indian father. Guyana is made up of six races but the Blacks and Indians are the dominant races, hence I am considered a biracial child. Growing up in Guyana in the 80s and 90s, my experiences would have been different from a child of the same age growing up in the United States.
Guyana was a British Colony that experienced slavery as did the United States. Unlike the United States, however, slavery was abolished in Guyana in 1834, about 30 years earlier than in the United States (December 1865). As a people, Guyanese had more time to come to terms with slavery and its ramifications; to heal and to build a life. Even then, in Guyana although blacks were the dominant race and the whites were the minority, whites were those who controlled the economy and the legal systems. They used these measures to keep the blacks subjugated. In the United States, after slavery was abolished in 1865, whites were the dominant race and blacks were the minority. And yet again, whites those who controlled the economy and the legal systems and used these to keep the blacks subjugated.
By the time I came on the scene, slavery was nonexistent but there was still a system in place that perpetuated the same subjugation I alluded to earlier. Guyana had become a multiracial society aptly called A Land of Six Peoples (Africans, Amerindians, Chinese, Portuguese, East Indians, and the Europeans). Our racial situation existed mainly between dominant races, blacks, and Indians. While I never felt like my opportunities were limited as a result of being black or biracial, I was well aware that racism existed-just that I never felt like I was exposed to it. That, I believe, is due to two main reasons.
Firstly, my mother taught us never to see color. Of course, I could look at someone and see that they were different but that never impacted my opinion of them. For me, people were always judged based on the content of their character, not what they looked like. My expectation was that I would be treated the same as anyone else and I never had the feeling that I wasn’t.
Secondly, in my everyday life as a child and teen, I never wanted for anything. Guyana had evolved into a society that provided many avenues to equalize opportunities afforded to anyone throughout the country. I went to the best schools; participated in whatever sports, clubs, activities that I wanted to; I went basically wherever I had to or wanted to go; my friends were from different races and socio-economic backgrounds. By all accounts, I had a normal middle-class upbringing. I never felt like any of my childhood experiences were restricted as a result of being black/biracial.
A few weeks ago, I listened to Meghan Markle give a graduation speech and she talked about having memories as an 11-year-old of curfews and seeing burning buildings and smoke; men with guns and rifles and burning trees during the Los Angeles riots in 1992. You hear accounts from other people of seeing their loved ones - mothers, brothers, fathers, sons, and daughters arrested, brutalized by police, hung, unjustly murdered because of their race and so much more. In 1992 at 10 years old, I honestly cannot remember what I was doing but I do know that in all my years until now, I nor any of my relatives, to my knowledge, have had similar experiences.
Hence, I came to the United States as an adult who, for all intents and purposes, had never experienced racism and had always felt like anything was possible with hard work, education, and determination. The idea that opportunities would not be available to me because I was a black woman was not something I thought of.
At the beginning of my career, I worked long, arduous hours, and sometimes without pay, never for free as I was always receiving some form of knowledge and tuition wherever I went. I believe that a willingness to learn, the determination to succeed, and a kind demeanor has made me a better person and chef in the industry.
Did I miss some opportunities, or not get some promotions or positions that I wanted or felt should be mine? Definitely. Were they a result of my race or gender, maybe? But how do you know for sure? Unless it’s explicitly said or subtly implied, how do you identify that one conversation or occurrence that makes you say, “that was a result of me being black or a woman?” That’s one of the big questions that has been plaguing me since the Black Lives Matter Movement has emerged. I have now started rooting around in my past trying to pinpoint specific episodes, conversations, anything that may have happened to give some kind of an indication whether any of my experiences were racially impacted - I haven’t found one yet!
If I’m being honest, everything good or bad that has happened in my life and career so far, I could say has happened as a result of race or sex. I didn’t get that job because I’m a woman or maybe I did, I didn’t get that promotion because I’m black or maybe I did, but where’s my proof? Unless it’s overt, this is what makes racism so difficult to identify sometimes. Where’s that definitive evidence that supports it?
Now, I’m not saying that racism is not a reality. I’m sure many people have experienced blatant racism or sexism in some form. But if after my almost 20 years in the industry, I haven’t felt like I have experienced it - does that make me a bad black person? Does that make me not black enough or insensitive to the cause because, in my opinion, I don’t approach situations with the intent to find racism? I’m aware that it exists, but I always feel like I’m impervious to it.
I have always been accused of living in a bubble and it's true. I generally don’t take notice of issues and happenings until they’re at my front door and even then, they have to knock. So, was it easy for me to maybe overlook some form of racism that was directed my way? One hundred percent. But does that then mean that going forward, I should be approaching every instance with caution, picking apart every situation to make sure that an injustice has not been done to me? The next time I don’t get a job, do I look for some indication that it was because I was a black person or a woman?
While writing this article and thinking of my journey in this industry, I was remembering a time when I was asked to be a hand model for a notable food magazine. They simply told me that they wanted the hand of a person of color in the magazine. I didn’t make the food, I didn’t do the food styling, it was just my hand holding the dishes. Was this racist? For me, this was an opportunity for inclusion. I was happy to do it.
To conclude, the Black Lives Matter Movement has most certainly opened my eyes to what’s happening around me, but I’m still very unsure of how this will all play out in the food Industry. Reflecting on my experiences has led me to realize that it has been very different and difficult for many black people living in the United States and other parts of the world. One only has to listen to the horrible stories of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd to name a few. It is time we move in the right direction after coming to this inflection point in modern American history. We must somehow end up on the right side of history.
Many things still remain uncertain for me. What I know for sure though, is that this industry is a resilient one that will bounce back eventually with some changes. What will not change is the value and importance of hard work and respect.