16 Things to Know About Diversity and Racism in the Hospitality Industry

A virtual panel discussion amongst local and national bar and restaurant employees revealed some important thoughts and ideas about diversity and inclusion in the hospitality industry.


Last month, Amber Jackson, owner of The Black Leaf Tea and Culture Shop in Providence, organized a virtual panel discussion on Zoom about Racism in the Hospitality Industry. For the discussion, she called on food and drink industry professionals from local restaurants and bars and from cities as far as Chicago and San Jose, California, to talk about topics related to diversity and racism at food and drink businesses, as well as workplaces in general. 

On the panel were the Eddy bartender and hospitality consultant Leishla Maldonado; north sous chef Brandon Puckett; local bartender and owner of MXR cocktail kits Michael Silva; San Jose, California, bartender Mary Palac; and Chicago writer and restaurant server Raeghn Draper.

Each panelist shared their experiences and thoughts about working in the hospitality industry as well as ways local businesses can make positive changes for diversity and inclusion. Here are some of the things we learned from the panel (You can listen to the full 97-minute recording here):

  1. There is a lack of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) representation in management positions in the hospitality industry, and that needs to change. “There were very few women, if any women of color, in leadership when I first started bartending,” says Mary Palac, who has been bartending in San Jose, California, most recently at Paper Plane. “It was toward the early stages of the cocktail renaissance, and the only way you saw a mixologist or cocktail bar represented was like a white dude with a mustache or a beard and suspenders. That was my uniform in my first fancy cocktail bar. I also had to look like that.” Leishla Maldonado, hospitality consultant and bartender at the Eddy, adds that there’s a need to diversify leadership in management. “We need representation not just for servers and bartenders, we need representation for the line cooks, sous chefs and the back of house. We need to find out how to integrate these perspectives so we can put people who are diverse into positions of power.”
  2. Working in the hospitality industry isn’t always a choice. Says Leishla Maldonado, For me, when people ask why you chose this industry, it always makes me cringe. Because it’s like, ‘Oh this industry chose me.’ But it’s just not true. For non-BIPOC, we just don’t have that luxury of running into something and having it work out, so we have to try to fit in, and try to speak the same language, make all the same movements to try to understand the food being served when it’s completely different from what we are used to culturally. And trying to navigate power structures that don’t include us. It takes a lot of energy, so I chose this industry because it was a means to survival. I chose to stay here because of its structure, and my desire and fight to make it better…I want to be a part of its restructure.” 
  3. Amber Jackson describes some BIPOC hospitality workers having to do some “code-switching,” to try to fit in in the workplace. “We have to read the room to fit the room, and coat-switching is exhausting; having to constantly filter yourself and audit yourself to make sure the people that employ you are comfortable,” she says. “It’s a lot of work and it’s exhausting.”
  4. Sometimes it’s not an outright act of racism, but an atmosphere, in general, that is not inclusive in the hospitality industry. “I don’t have one outlier episode in the hospitality industry, not that I need one, because it’s still prevalent every single day, says bartender and MXR cocktail kits owner Michael Silva. “I’ve been in the hospitality industry for five years now, and what keeps me going is walking into places and being one of two people who look like me. I want to be in places where people look like me, walk like me, talk like me; that’s what’s kept me going over time. How can we create spaces we can all enjoy?”
  5. Sometimes BIPOC are asked to speak on behalf of their race, and that’s not cool.  “I’ve heard overt comments of racism, but also the other side of it, where I am tokenized,” says Raeghn Draper. “Where I am the only Black person expected to speak for all Black people, and if I do speak on my Blackness, then I am seen as aggressive or seen as opinionated or argumentative inside the workplace.”
  6. Don’t assume because someone is Black that they should (or want) to help with a company’s Diversity Inclusion Initiative.A lot of my friends are being asked to join their company’s diversity inclusion initiative for free,” says Amber Jackson. “As Black women, Black men, People of Color, that’s a lot of emotional labor and revisiting trauma. That is exhausting, and how unfair is it to ask your employees to educate you now that you need to save face? It’s a lot of work. Ask the company what actions and changes are you going to implement in the culture of your restaurant, your bar and your corporation? What are you actually going to do to ensure that I have a fair chance, and for people who look like me to have a fair chance?”
  7. Do not ever ask another person, “What are you?” “I have a completely different experience as a Filipino person, obviously, but it’s those little every day cuts that we have to face,” says Mary Palac. “This industry has conditioned us all to suck it up. To not hinder the guest experience, even though the thing I got asked that was always the trigger was, ‘What are you?’ I feel like that is so dehumanizing, that first word, ‘what.’ It took a really long time to figure out how to address that. It was exhausting because I was bottling it up every day. You think it’s just this little thing, you can move on, you have bigger things to worry about. But compound that every day for years and it festers inside of you.” 
  8. The key to having a more diverse workplace is to hire outside of skill level. “It’s not always about hiring the best person, or the person with the most amount of skills,” says north sous chef Brandon Puckett. “Because you can teach skills, or there’s a certain set of skills that you can teach, and some that you can’t. Just because someone is the fastest doesn’t mean they are the best for your establishment. You have to look at how they will mesh with people you already have on your team and on your staff.” Puckett says he’s thankful for his job at north, and credits owner James Mark for being a great leader and staying vocal about current events in order to try to move things forward. “I never have felt so comfortable in a workspace ever before in my life in these past couple of years. It was turbulent getting there, but being at north is a dream world as far as cooking and maneuvering through spaces, and existing in my Black body. It’s been incredible.” 
  9. Don’t say you’re an ally. Be an advocate.For the ones that are actively doing the work we have to recognize them. You see some people putting action in, but you do have a large portion of people trying to save face,” says Amber Jackson. “I don’t like the word ally…Advocates actually do the work and push for change. Be an advocate. You can have the bumper sticker, the tee shirt and the buttons. When you are silent, that speaks louder than your bumper sticker.”
  10. If someone holds your business accountable, consider it a gift.Accountability is a gift,” says Mary Palac. “When someone is holding you accountable, it’s to give you the chance to change. That’s telling you that they care enough about you to want to see you grow. It’s not a call out to kill your business or publication or whatever, it is a chance for you to do better.”
  11. Be vocal about hiring practices at work.I am very annoying when it’s hiring season at my job and I say, ‘Have any Black people applied? Have you hired any Black people? Have you interviewed any Black people?’ I am very annoying at hiring time,” says Raeghn Draper. “I’ll post on any Black and Brown groups that I am a member of on social media. I am like, ‘Hey my job is hiring.’ I will always be willing to give a Black person my name to put down on their resume as reference. I also advocate for other people to do that. If you know a Black or Brown person who needs a job, and your place is hiring, put your name forward. That’s a huge help.”
  12. Be bold in your ask and advocate for people.Say ‘Hey, out of your pool here, there’s not a single Black, Brown or Asian person in this group.’ Call it out when you see it,” says Amber Jackson. “You can’t be fired for saying, ‘Hey you have no people of color on here.’ I think it’s important to open your mouth and speak loudly and advocate. Be bold in your ask.  A lot of us are very timid because we are unsure about representation, like I don’t want to rock the boat too much. You have to be audacious. No one is going to advocate more for you than you.” 
  13. Do the work to hire BIPOC and foster a more inclusive workplace. “There are steps to take to create more equitable spaces…There are so many restaurants that I know want to do this work, and I see you and I appreciate you, but the problem isn’t that people aren’t applying, the problem is we aren’t applying because there’s still something about it that doesn’t make us feel comfortable or welcome. If you want to hire more people of color, then do the work, go to high schools, put an ad up for an internship for seniors,” says Leishla Maldonado. “We have tons of high schools and aspiring chefs here. We have one of the best culinary schools in the country in Rhode Island. You can work with social groups that help build connections with older students in disinvested areas, you can network outside of your social circle, and find spaces that challenge your ideas. A lot of businesses aren’t doing that.” 
  14. Hire outside of meritocracy and encourage positive mentorship in the hospitality industry. “We need to hire outside of meritocracy and we need to lessen these interview standards. Professionalism is something we all interpret differently and we need to put leaders in place that understand there are different ways to approach these things. We need to focus on mentorship, mentorship, mentorship. I am not talking about the mentorship we are used to, like the chef culture, that kind of mentorship that is low-key aggressive,” says Maldonado. “Mentorship doesn’t mean you can be abusive. That’s abuse. We need to knock what it has been for so long, and bring it back to its real definition…The hospitality industry is often a BIPOC’s entry into the workforce, so statistically, a lot of us stay here, and we need to put leaders in place who are cheering you on. I mean mentors that understand that the point of this process is to make this person better than you, not better for business.”
  15. Continue to support Black-owned businesses, not just when it’s trendy.We are here. We’ve been here. And now that you know that we’re here, hi and welcome, and please stay, share and support,” says Amber Jackson. “I can’t blame you if you didn’t know we were here, but now that you know, hi, welcome, and please stay.”
  16. Be patient with Black-owned businesses. “They might not have the infrastructure to get you what you want on demand since the demand is so high for all Black-owned businesses right now,” says Raeghn Draper. Amber Jackson also adds that she knows that feeling. She has been selling out of tea ingredients quickly and has been having trouble staying stocked up due to delays as a result of the Covid-19 crisis. She recently started a GoFundMe campaign to help her upscale her business by increasing her inventory so she can keep up with demand. “I have never had these numbers or demands before. We are grateful for the business, just give it a little time. We are not Amazon. We don’t have customer support. My business is me, and solely me, so every label, sticker on the bag, every package, every email is me. That is similar for other small Black-owned businesses. It’s just us.”

Amber Jackson from the Black Leaf Tea and Culture Shop.


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