Dear Mr. Burke,
I have read your open letter to me and appreciate that it is considerably more thoughtful than many of the comments below my original story, left by people who clearly didn’t read my piece very closely. Unfortunately, I don’t think you read it very closely, either.
In the email to which you attached your letter, sent to Nashville Scene editor Jim Ridley and freelance contributor Chris Chamberlain — but not to me — you wrote, “Steve raised some interesting issues about this business, but he also said some pretty harsh things about me and my team.”
"Pretty harsh things."
What did I say that was harsh? Here’s what I said the only time I referenced you and your team by name: “The owners of Two Ten Jack, Patrick Burke of Seed Hospitality and chef Jason McConnell, are white. Executive chef Jessica Benefield is white.” Apart from that, I noted that the entire staff of your “authentic” Japanese restaurant seemed to be white, I described a bartender crushing ice and mentioned a maitre d’ telling me a table was ready. I counted the number of minutes it took for my party to be seated. If you find these words to be “harsh,” then I doubt you’d last a week in this country with a face and eyes that look like mine.
But let’s return to your letter.
"I obviously can’t completely empathize with you, Steve, or anyone else from a minority group who’s experienced prejudice,” you say. “But that shouldn’t stop me from working to share a love of Japanese cuisine with others. Should it?”
I never said it should. I never said that.
And that is what’s so disheartening about your letter, Mr. Burke. In my piece, I write, “To be clear: I have no problem with white people making Japanese food.”
That is literally what I said. So why ask me a rhetorical question when I’ve already answered it?
Elsewhere in your letter, you say, “The lesson Gary instilled in me was that ethnicity didn’t matter — anyone could make quality Japanese cuisine if they studied and worked hard enough.”
Again, if you’d read my piece carefully, you might have noticed the part where I say, “Food is culture. It’s transmittable.”
That is literally what I said.
My larger point was that yes, ethnicity shouldn’t matter — but for some of us, despite our best efforts, it does. We are despised, belittled, poked at. But I suppose I can’t expect you to engage with my larger point when you don’t seem to have noticed even the most basic ones.
There’s a word among people of color for when our views are disregarded and then told back to us as if we’d never considered them: whitesplaining. Oh, it’s a silly term, but you get the idea.
In your email you also wrote, “I’m hopeful my passion for the business I’m in is evident.” You know who else has a lot of “passion”? People who are … not well-intentioned. Let’s leave it at that.
I called for no boycotts in my article. I proposed no legislation. The only request I made of anyone was this: “Before you play the authenticity card, don’t forget who still has to live with the negatives.”
Don’t forget. That’s all I asked.
And in asking, I hoped you would consider how, in a city that is both booming and becoming increasingly unequal, presenting your restaurant as “authentic” and “the real izakaya experience” — the real experience — might be perceived by people who are despised, mocked and marginalized. I hoped you would consider what “the real Asian American experience” is like, and how your claims might sound a little discordant in that context. I asked you to check your privilege, but I didn’t ask you to wreck it.
So what, then, was your response, that you asked the editor of the Nashville Scene to print for all to see?
Your response, in essence, was to post a selfie.
For sure, Japan is quite conspicuous in the background, as are your non-white associates over the years. I especially enjoyed the story you told of the late Gary Flood, the African American sushi chef who was your first mentor. He seemed like a fascinating guy, and I wanted to know more about him.
But the real hero of your letter, of course, is you.