The owners of the acclaimed restaurant Luca on West James Street in Lancaster and its sister restaurant Ma(i)son on North Prince Street announced Monday they will be closed “until further notice.” This came after a video was posted Friday to Instagram in which two black former Luca employees criticized the company’s ownership for its silence on racial injustice, LNP | LancasterOnline’s Chad Umble and Tim Mekeel reported. In their widely viewed 55-minute video, Brian Graves and Janelle Evans explained why they were dissatisfied with the company and why they quit their jobs at Luca last week. In response, as Umble and Mekeel reported, restaurant owners Taylor and Leeann Mason posted on social media “a series of progressively more emphatic comments in attempts to make amends, as some commenters ripped the ownership for its belated efforts to step up.”
This story is not about “extortion,” as some commenters on LNP | LancasterOnline have asserted.
This is not about two young people in need of “coddling,” as another commenter put it.
And this is not about “bullying someone on the playground.”
We’re not sure in what context two twenty-something college students of color could “bully” owners of a restaurant so prominent it’s been nominated for a prestigious James Beard Foundation award.
This is a story about employers who clearly did not know how to talk about race and so figured — as so many of us do — that silence and business as usual were the safer paths.
We watched the Instagram video of Graves and Evans and didn’t think they were asking for much. They weren’t asking Luca’s owners to join the Black Lives Matter protests in the city’s streets. They simply wanted some acknowledgement that the people for whom they worked understood the pain being expressed outside the restaurant’s walls and being felt by their black employees. Some gesture of support. A few quiet words of concern and empathy from the people whom they were urged to see as family.
What they say they were met with was stony silence and an admonition that they shouldn’t bring their personal concerns to work. They say they were told essentially to clock in and do their jobs, and have only work-related conversations with their co-workers — which, as Evans pointed out wryly, should mean no more conversations about fantasy football in the workplace.
More seriously, Evans explained that as a black person, she doesn’t have the privilege of ignoring race in any part of her life. Her skin color, and the risks she faces because of it, are a “24/7 reality” for her — and for all other African Americans, she said.
There is no bubble in which African Americans can live free from disturbance, risk and reality.
The owners of Luca, however, seem to have been trying to live in such a bubble. We take them at their word that they had been single-mindedly focused on the struggle of operating their restaurants in a pandemic.
They may not have felt they had the time — or the ability — to address the protests over the May 25 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the fears that horrific killing evoked in their black employees.
Like most of us who have the privilege of ignoring the issue of race, because it isn’t a life-or-death matter for us — because our children aren’t being harassed, or worse, by police — they may have genuinely believed it wasn’t a priority.
But as Graves said in the video, “If you’re not going to publicly denounce racism, what does that say about you?”
And as Evans put it, “If you’re silent, that automatically puts you on the side of the oppressor.”
That is an uncomfortable reality with which employers now must wrestle.
Many other Lancaster restaurants and bars have posted expressions of support for the Black Lives Matter movement on their social media accounts and websites, and we’re glad they have.
But this moment requires more of them. More of all of us.
We’re going to need to learn how to talk about race honestly and empathetically. This may be uncomfortable, but as Graves noted in the video, the racial injustices visited on African Americans are “disturbing. Everybody needs to be disturbed.”
Because we’re human, we’re going to make mistakes. But humanity demands that we at least try, because silence — as Evans pointed out — only adds to the oppression of people of color.
That’s the lesson that Taylor and Leeann Mason have been forced to learn.
On social media, they apologized for not adequately addressing or supporting “the black members of our Luca family,” thanked Evans and Graves for the change they had created, and vowed, “We will not let you down again.”
That apology wasn’t extorted from the Masons — and it is presumptuous for their restaurants’ fans to accept it on behalf of other people and effectively declare the matter resolved.
The Masons haven’t shut down their restaurants for an unspecified time because they’re being bullied. They said they’re going to use this time to learn how they can become “advocates for change.”
Graves and Evans talked on their video of the “family meal” that Luca employees share each day. That seems like a perfect opportunity for talking about the qualities — empathy, kindness, compassion — that true families cultivate in order to be happy.
Don’t blame Graves and Evans and other young African Americans for putting the subject of race on the table. It’s been on the shelf for far too many of us, for far too long.