Not Safe Spaces: On Protest & Exclusion in DC Restaurants

David Beriss

It seems like every social crisis gets played out, one way or another, in restaurants. Lately, a few people who work in the Trump administration have found themselves the objects of protest when they have gone out to eat in public. First, Trump advisor Stephen Miller was shouted at and called a fascist while dining at Espita Mezcaleria, a DC restaurant that serves food that is inspired by Mexico and goes by the motto “Authentic, not Traditional.” Then, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen was confronted by protesters at MXDC Cocina Mexicana, another DC restaurant featuring Mexican food. Most recently, White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, was asked by the owner to leave the Red Hen, a fancy restaurant “featuring the bounty of the Shenandoah Valley,” this time in Lexington, VA. President Trump may not be known for his sophisticated dining habits, but the people who work for him seem to like trendy places for their dinners.

Reactions to these protests have been varied. President Trump tweeted out a harsh evaluation of the Red Hen in response to the ejection of Ms. Sanders and the restaurant’s reviews on Yelp turned sharply negative for a while, although few of the critics seemed to know anything about the food. Representative Maxine Waters called on people to continue to protest Trump workers in restaurants and, perhaps unsurprisingly, Trump responded with threats. On the left, people were mostly thrilled about the demonstrations against representatives of Trump administration policies. There was also some hand-wringing about whether such protests would further poison the atmosphere or bring the left down to the level of discourse that seems to characterize the right. The Washington Post editorial board argued that Trump officials should be allowed to eat in peace. Others predicted that these protests might be analogous to events that preceded the Civil War. There was collateral damage, as restaurants with similar names got drawn into the fray. And New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik invoked the anthropology of commensality in his cleverly hedged defense of excluding Sanders from dinner (the book he cites is here).

Commensality—the sharing of food at meals—is not really the right concept for interpreting these events. When we eat in restaurants, we don’t share food with all the people in the restaurant. At least, not since the invention of modern restaurants in the late 18th century. Usually, you sit down and order your own meal from a menu. You might share with the people at your table and if commensality is going to be invoked, it is there that you will find it. There is a lot going on, socially and culturally speaking, in restaurants, but in the cases involving Trump administration officials, I would argue that we should start thinking about them by invoking Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of “distinction.” Bourdieu argued that people demonstrate their place in society through aesthetic choices, including where, what, and how they eat. Being able to eat in an expensive and sophisticated restaurant (and knowing the right ones to choose) is a way of demonstrating social distinction. Trump, the billionaire, can demonstrate his wealth through his disdain for sophistication. His less-wealthy acolytes demonstrate their taste by picking the fancy and trendy places, in this case “Mexican” restaurants owned and operated by famous non-Mexican chefs and a very trendy looking farm-to-table operation in Lexington, VA. These are not chain restaurants and they are definitely not taco stands. Eating in these places is not about sharing a moment of common pleasure with the other patrons. It is about showing off your culture and sophistication.

We should also consider that at least two of these incidents have occurred in “Mexican” restaurants. What does it mean that people like Miller and Nielsen, architects of the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant (and specifically anti-Mexican and anti-Central American) policies, should choose this cuisine? The DC area is full of immigrants and has food from all over the world, which makes it a great place to eat. Explicitly exclusionary policies aside, Trump’s comments on loving Hispanics whilst eating a Trump Tower taco bowl or the fear of a taco truck on every corner invoked by one of his supporters during the election surely made it clear that this administration is not about celebrating culinary diversity. While one has to assume that Latinos run the kitchens in the restaurants chosen by Miller and Nielsen (as they do in the majority of restaurants of all sorts in America), neither of these were “immigrant” restaurants. The food may be inspired by Mexico, but the owners are of European descent, including the famous restaurateur Todd English. This is Mexican food after it has been thoroughly conquered and assimilated. I doubt Miller and Nielsen really thought through the symbolism (then again, who knows?), but at some level it is possible to interpret these choices as a kind of middle finger directed at immigrants. We can exclude you and take your food too.

That leaves the protest. When these folks dine out, it is clearly not about commensality, but it is about being in public. Eating in restaurants, as a public act of social distinction, has always been subject to public scrutiny. By dining in public, the high and mighty also run the risk of encountering the disdain and wrath of the common folk. That is also in the nature of restaurants. Restaurants are not and never have been neutral zones, where everyone puts down their ideology and their differences and admires the roast chicken in harmony. Social media has been circulating images of Rick’s Café Américain, from the film Casablanca, in which German officers, singing “Die Wacht am Rhein” are interrupted by vigorous singing of “La Marseillaise.” Curiously, nobody has invoked Spike Lee’s film “Do the Right Thing,” which centers on a Brooklyn pizzeria and ends in protest and flames. Nobody gets to dine in peace in these films. But we need not resort to fiction. Real restaurants were long used to exclude women and African Americans and both used protest—the refusal to allow everyone else to dine in peace—to gain access. This was especially notable in the case of students sitting in at lunch counters throughout the South in the 1960s, holding their ground while being beaten or spat upon. Until everyone’s right to dine in public—everyone’s right to equality and equal access to public accommodations— was recognized, nobody was going to dine in peace. Restaurants never have been safe spaces.

There is a fundamental difference in the Civil Rights protests for equal access and the harassment or exclusion of Miller, Nielsen, and Sanders. In the former case, the protests were designed to stop discrimination against whole classes of people. It was never about the specific protesters. In these cases, the objects of protest are specific individuals. It is not a class of people, but very clearly individuals who are responsible for inventing, implementing, and speaking for a set of public policies. Not all Republicans, not even everyone who works in the Federal government under President Trump. This, in the end, is a key distinction. These are public figures, associated with particular ideas and policies. And this is a society in which the right to peacefully protest is fundamental, at least so far. Even in restaurants.

One last point to consider. Even as Miller, Nielsen, and Sanders were suffering their public shaming, the atmosphere fostered by the Trump administration is overwhelmingly encouraging efforts to exclude immigrants, African-Americans, and others from equal access to public accommodations. From the arrest of black men for sitting in a Starbucks, to the detention of a pizza delivery man at a New York military base, to a transgender woman being thrown out of a DC restaurant for using the women’s restroom, restaurants remain privileged sites for the social exclusion and persecution of whole classes of people. It would be encouraging if their experiences of being shunned provoked the Trump trio to reconsider the atmosphere their policies have helped create. When that happens, we will all perhaps start thinking about sharing some meals in restaurants together.

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Filed under anthropology, food politics, Food Studies, restaurants

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