8 Totally Achievable Ways to Show Up for Racial Justice… When You’re White and Own an Asian Restaurant!

Irene Li
7 min readMar 22, 2021

Are you a white chef? Did you vacation in Asia and “fall in love with the people and the cuisine?”

Do you sell Asian food? Are you definitely “not a racist” but aren’t sure how to show it?

Are you tired of being bullied online by social justice warriors, especially because this is a Very Hard Time for restaurants?

Congratulations, you’ve qualified for a completely FREE edition of “8 Totally Achievable Ways to Show Up for Racial Justice… When You’re White and Own an Asian Restaurant!”

This quick guide will show you how to use your platform (yes, the one you ALREADY have!) to raise awareness and work towards racial equity — just be prepared to do more than state publicly that it’s bad to hate Asians. Will taking these steps automatically appease everyone and protect you from all future accountability? No. But it’ll at least show that you’re thinking about this stuff. You can’t fall off the floor.

8 Totally Achievable Ways to Show Up for Racial Justice… When You’re White and Own an Asian Restaurant!

This guide is based on the assumption that you know structural racism exists and that you know it is bad. Do you meet those qualifications? Of course you do! Just double checking ;)

#1: State the obvious: you’re white. Why acknowledge it? Because talking about it shows that you’re paying attention and you’ve noticed that race is a factor in how people are treated. No points for colorblindness here, because you can’t fix structural inequality if you “can’t see color.” Try this: stand in front of the mirror and practice saying “as a white person…” ten times. For best results, eat a mayo sandwich while you do it. Then, make sure you say it in conversation and on social media, especially when you’re talking about race.

#2: Talk about white supremacy and white privilege, even if you have had a Very Hard Life And Have Worked Very Hard To Get Where You Are. Be sure to acknowledge how it relates to you, that you’ve benefited from white supremacy and privilege (remember: you’re white!) in your life and career. This is still true even if being white has been held against you in certain circumstances, like when you try to order extra spicy papaya salad at your favorite Thai place and the lady behind the counter won’t let you ’cause she thinks you can’t handle it. Experiencing prejudice doesn’t erase the benefit you get from being white. But it does not mean you are a white supremacist or a bad person. Racism pervades our society; it is the very broth we are poached in! No escaping it, so be sure to call it out.

#3: Raise awareness and money, especially with regards to any group whose culture you sell. And don’t let it be a one-time thing.

This isn’t Monopoly where you’ve landed on Community Chest and have to cough up $50 before you go on your merry way.Tracy Chang

Plan ahead, bake it in, be proactive. For example, designate $1 from a dish on your menu to support a local community group. Share information about the cuisine and culture, and/or what challenges the group has faced, historically or in the present — use social media, or hang cute “Did You Know?” signs in the bathroom ’cause people will read anything while they’re peeing! Mark important cultural dates in the calendar, like Lunar New Year, the Japanese Internment Day of Remembrance, or Asian American Heritage Month and plan fundraisers, celebrations, or educational campaigns. You can even set your Google Calendar to remind you every year!

#4: Support your AAPI employees. Listen to them if they bring up a racist encounter with a guest or a concern about whether the name of that dish or the theme of that party might be offensive. It took a lot for them to speak up. They’re not trying to give you a hard time; they want to be proud of where they work, even if your rendition of bánh xèo is unintelligible. Acknowledge that their experiences and needs are different than your own. You’re already an expert at #1 and #2 — use them! And involve the team in #3 so you don’t have to do all the dang work yourself!

#5: Support immigrant-owned restaurants and AAPI chefs. If you thought this industry was tough, imagine doing it with even less privilege and resources! You probably can’t. But there’s a lot you can do! Order family meal from a neighborhood Asian-owned restaurant every week to spare your team from another night of pantry station pasta primavera. You could even dedicate a little corner of your website to listing other local restos that cook the same food as you — the ones that are AAPI-owned — and sharing the stories of the owners, your favorite dishes, etc. Share the wealth. If you want to be a gateway to the culture you respect so much, help your diners get over the threshold by making these restaurants feel accessible and humanizing the people who run them — if you need recs in Boston, there’s a ‘gram for that @unsungrestaurants!

#6: Say something publicly when Asian people get mass-murdered. You should probably stand up against much less, but definitely in the case of a senseless shooting rampage. You have 24 hours before the woke trolls come for you, and if you’re really willing to “stand up and fight…”

“Don’t sit around polishing your proverbial gun.”Jamie Bissonette

You don’t have to publish a full dissertation, but make sure to use #1 and #2 in your statement. I know you want to be thoughtful and not rush into the fray, so it is great that you have had all the years you’ve been in business to think about this. The social justice police have had complicated feelings about you for years and are waiting to see if you fall flat. Don’t let them win!

#7: Stop worrying about being performative; just be honest. If what you put out in the world doesn’t match reality, then yeah, you’re being performative. Like for example, mimes are performative: they pretend they can’t speak, but in real life, they can! Oy, so performative. So don’t pretend. Now remember, if you only say things that are honest, you might say something that makes people mad, because you are human and you are still learning. But you’re an adult, right? Then you’ll have no problem responding gracefully when that inevitably happens by apologizing and correcting yourself. A little vulnerability goes a long way.

So don’t let your fear of being wrong cause you to miss an opportunity to do what’s right. — Dylan Gully, paraphrased

“Why am I getting called out?” The more you’ve benefitted, the greater your responsibility to show up and acknowledge where on this chart you sit. This chart also reflects how much power you have to make a real impact when you do speak out. And how disappointed AAPI are when you don’t.

#8: Remember that as a Successful White Person, you have a lot of power (see chart!), so try to see this as an opportunity to be a good leader, community member, and neighbor. Using that power to address white supremacy does not invalidate your success as a white person — it leverages it. I’m sure you’re proud of your accomplishments, and you should be. So please hear this: it is not about what you are and aren’t allowed to do, or what you must or must not do, or what kind of person you are. It’s actually not about YOU as a person at all. I’m sure you are kind, respectful, and well-intentioned, but that’s not going to end structural inequality. This is about acknowledging the shitty, unequal society we live in, and committing to the work it takes to be anti-racist — not just “not racist” — in such a racist world. You can use your power to disrupt the inequality you have benefited from and make things better for everyone. Some might even say that’s your responsibility. Try to make it about that, and not about you. I know you can do it!

And there you have it: 8 Totally Achievable Ways to Show Up for Racial Justice When You’re White and Own an Asian Restaurant!

In all seriousness, though, I want this to be part of a productive conversation that makes things better by empowering white people to get involved in anti-racism and by restoring dignity, attention, and resources to non-white people, in this case, AAPIs especially. I’m using humor because I know that I’m pushing in a way that is uncomfortable. But I want Boston to be known for our equitable and diverse restaurant community; I want to be proud of the city I’m from. And a little discomfort on everyone’s part seems like a good first step. I’ve never spoken or written publicly on this topic, and I’m excited to hear what resonates and what doesn’t, what’s scary and what’s inspiring. I’m sure I’ll be criticized by people smarter and more thoughtful than I am, and I look forward to learning, being accountable, and continuing to push.

Irene Li is the cofounder of Mei Mei Restaurant in Boston, Massachusetts, and manages the Restaurant Resiliency Initiative at CommonWealth Kitchen. She is reviled by a number of Boston’s white male chefs, and ruffles the feathers of a great many more. Despite being an alleged Instagram bully, she actually loves a lot of white-owned Asian restaurants. She thinks you should order from an Asian immigrant-owned restaurant tonight and tip like a millionaire!

Special thanks to Jessica Coughlin, Caden Salvata and Max Hull for their patient editing and acerbic wits, and to Max Hull and Claudia Mak for beautifully designed graphics here and on Instagram.