White Privilege, Police Brutality, Our Next Steps
Kebab Casual is an organization that represents many people, including our employees, customers and vendors. However, this is written from the perspective of the owner, Karl Shilhanek, a cis-gendered white male.
Throughout the last two weeks after the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbury, I remained quiet on social media, with the exception of posting a black square on #blackouttuesday. For me, a lot of the responses from businesses seemed well meaning, but also as a way to demonstrate their principles to a value-driven marketplace. I worried that this would amount to using these deaths as a marketing opportunity, which is yet another way that white supremacy and capitalism can work to my benefit. On Tuesday, we had a staff meeting to decide how Kebab Casual should respond as an organization. Every member of our staff right now is a person of color, and to issue a statement without their input would be wrong, and a waste of an opportunity to gain understanding of other’s perspectives. We as an organization decided that attending the Solidarity Rally on Saturday June 6th as a team would be a good use of time. The staff were paid to attend that day and we went as a group.
Two things happened at the rally that shined a light on how racism exists in this little liberal community of Bellingham. Early in the rally, one of our team members (daughter of Mexican immigrants) briefly took her mask off to enjoy the fresh air. An older white woman walked up to our group from behind, peered at her sign, and hissed at our employee:
“If you really think Black Lives Matter, you’d put your mask on right now. You not wearing a mask while black people die of COVID at higher rates is a big sign of your white privilege”.
The only thing missing was a finger wag. I walked back to that woman a few minutes later and asked her if she would apologize for her assumption and mistake. She declined of course, and went on to lecture me that despite our employee being Mexican, she, like everyone else, is still racist.
The final speaker, a Latinx person fairly new to Bellingham, described being profiled by police outside her own apartment, and being treated differently by neighbors, even told that they aren’t welcome here.
The speaker’s words echoed with me, as well as the woman talking down to our employee in the crowd. I believe that Bellingham white people have an idea of the concepts of White Privilege and Structural Racism, but don’t see how it manifests in our community, and how to tackle it in everyday life. For the record, I don’t have this all figured out either. I do believe that it is important for me to outline how White Privilege has gotten me to where I am now, and how I can use this organization to be anti-racist, and build up communities of color here in Bellingham.
Middle Eastern Food and Me
I have been asked by customers several times where I learned to cook this food. They always seem to expect a story about my grandmother and family recipes, and that unfortunately just isn’t the case.
When we opened Kebab Casual, we envisioned a “Build your own Kebab” restaurant where you could pick from a wide array of meats, vegetables and marinades, then have that skewer of food cooked in front of you. The idea was that since people are cooking food on a stick just about everywhere on the globe, you could try out new flavors every time you came to the restaurant. After a few months of business, reality struck, and we saw demand for Mediterranean and Middle Eastern style food. People requested certain things, we developed our menu towards those items, then we looked up and realized that our concept was squarely in the Mediterranean/Middle Eastern category. We put our own flair on the food to make it align with demand in Bellingham, but the obvious question arose:
Is it fair for me to make money selling food that I have no cultural connection to?
My defense (see white fragility) was that anybody can open a business and compete if they want to. That being said, it’s important to analyze how white supremacy and structural racism have given me multiple legs up throughout my life.
From the beginning, I have had a largely barrier-free path to where I am now. The school districts where I grew up were well-funded and provided me a competitive education. I never had to deal with a family member being incarcerated, and never had reason to worry about police for myself, even sometimes when I should have. When it came time to start this business, all those community connections to white collar professionals saved me time and money. When I needed a loan, I had people to co-sign. The business management degree that gave me the required knowledge and looked so good on a resume? A good portion of that was paid for me. Have I worked hard to get to this point? Of course. But has there ever been a hurdle thrown in my path just because of who I am or the color of my skin? Not once in my life.
Beginning this year, Kebab Casual has a three-phase process aimed at evening the playing field for Immigrants and POC.
First, it is important to acknowledge the issues highlighted above. To do that, we have started donating 1% of our sales to charities benefitting Immigrants and POC. Our first quarterly donation was to C2C, a local women-led non profit aiming towards food justice and participatory democracy. A 1% donation isn’t going to change the world, but it will exist to remind us that the playing field is tilted to give wealthy white men an advantage.
Secondly, we will strive to use our privilege to boost up Immigrants and POC in the business world. Part of the advantage I had when starting a business was access to accountants, lawyers, graphic designers and more. We will start leveraging our relationships with professionals in those fields to provide these services to entrepreneurs who need them.
Thirdly, Kebab Casual will begin to transfer ownership to workers, as well as provide capital to new projects for immigrants and POC. This phase is a long way off, but in this country, ownership is the key to financial success. If an employee is willing to provide labor and passion to a business, they should be able to share in the fruits of that effort.
Police Brutality in Bellingham
The best thing we can do to discourage police violence at Kebab Casual is to minimize their involvement in community issues. While we don’t experience a ton of crime at our location, we frequently witness homelessness and mental health crises. It is critical that we don’t contribute to the criminalization of these behaviors, as they are a failure on a societal level, not personal.
In the event that these behaviors disrupt our business, our staff will be trained to contact people that can actually help the person, rather than bringing in police. This process will begin with the Mobile Crisis Outreach Team. If staff or customers are in danger, we will always request that BPD sends a Behavioral Health Officer.