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Charleston Wine + Food Festival blasted by activists for taking 'easiest stance' on racism

Charleston Wine + Food Festival 2019

Opening Night at the Charleston Wine + Food Festival in Marion Square on Wednesday, March 6, 2019. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Longtime advocates for racial justice are assailing a Charleston Wine + Food Festival statement calling for the removal of the John C. Calhoun statue from Marion Square.

Charleston Wine + Food Festival since 2006 has staged its annual tasting extravaganza in the shadow of the towering stone tribute to the slavery defender. But it now plans to boycott its signature venue, and “work with community leaders, local nonprofits and lawmakers to see (the statue) removed,” according to an Instagram post.

Mayor John Tecklenburg on Wednesday announced that City Council will vote next week to remove and relocate the Calhoun statue. It followed demands for its removal from civil rights groups and several state lawmakers.

While the festival’s Tuesday afternoon declaration garnered some social media support, activists immediately took issue with the festival focusing on a pre-Civil War racist instead of addressing contemporary allegations that the organization slights the contributions of black chefs and overlooks black consumers.

“Frankly, it feels kind of performative,” says Reina Gascon-Lopez, a Charleston-based chef and writer behind The Sofrito Project. “It’s great they stepped up, but where has this energy been the entire time? The festival is inaccessible, and we don’t see faces that look like ours.”

A spokeswoman for the festival did not return messages seeking comment.

The nonprofit’s policy of asking chefs to work without pay figured into many of the detractors’ complaints. While failing to compensate chefs has long been common practice in the food event industry, the setup has lately come under fire for placing an unfair burden on chefs from marginalized communities.

Around the same time that Wine + Food put out its statement, The James Beard Foundation announced it plans to fully restructure its programming to remove financial barriers to participation.

“When we resume events at the James Beard House and around the country, it will be with a new financial model that prioritizes compensating talent,” CEO Clare Reichenbach wrote in a statement which also pledged to examine internal structures, leadership and its awards system.

“My ire for (Wine + Food) is informed by personal experience,” Tamika “Mika” Gadsden said in a video posted to Instagram. “I witnessed them ask for black artists, black performers, black influencers to promote the event, to add to their diversity, but really just paying them either peanuts or what I call exposure bucks.”

Considering her experiences, Gadsden dismissed the festival’s gesture as “like the easiest stance you could take: We want the racist statue to come down. You don’t lose nothing.”

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Gascon-Lopez also said the festival should come up with money to pay the people who are integral to creating and executing its demos and dinners, many of which bear three-figure price tags.

“It’s laughable when they can put celebrity chefs up in The Dewberry, but they can’t pay the people doing the work,” she says.

In addition to condemning the Calhoun statue, the festival also said it will no longer hold events at plantations. A spokeswoman did not respond to a message asking if the ban would extend to urban residences associated with slavery, such as the William Aiken House, a popular Charleston Wine + Food event location.

Of the more than 700 comments on Wine + Food’s Instagram post, a significant percentage criticized the festival’s stance, citing the beauty of plantations and War of Northern Aggression. Gascon-Lopez said she was disheartened by the festival allowing white supremacy to flourish on its watch.

“They’re not moderating their feeds, so it’s like, ‘yeah, you spoke up, but you’re not addressing your fan base’,” she says. “Addressing the issue means you have to look within. If that means alienating racists, so be it.”

Gadsden in a phone interview said she would like to see the festival “stop the PR machine” and “solicit the opinion of black critics.”

Pointing out that a mass gathering in Marion Square was already unlikely to happen in the wake of the coronavirus, she urged festival organizers “to do more than take the easy stance of denouncing racism.”

“We need to wait and see what some of these powerful cultural strongholds can produce in terms of real change,” she said. “I want to see leadership interrogated.”

Ideally, Gadsden said, Charleston Wine + Food would think about dismantling its board. But she added that an active board is harder to pull down than a 124-year-old statue.

Reach Hanna Raskin at 843-937-5560 and follow her on Twitter @hannaraskin.

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