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Chef Brandon Gray of Brandoni Pepperoni
Photograph: Stephanie Breijo

Being ‘woke’ won’t save Black lives in L.A. or anywhere else

It’s going to take more than awareness to change racism in America says chef Brandon Gray.

Written by
Brandon Gray

Are you woke? Are you exhausted? Are you both?

This summer’s mass protests combating police brutality have us familiarizing ourselves with the constant names of slain persons of color. Each murder leaves a crippling effect on our hearts. I am tired of seeing Black women and men die by the force of a cop, and your wokeness alone won’t prevent this from happening again.

“Being woke” is a term that’s getting tossed around, but the plight of being Black and brown is centuries old. You wear the badge of wokeness so proudly now because you’re current with the protests and can recite the names of the police who murdered another person of color, so I ask the question: Why do you care so much about being woke now, while for years you were unaffected by our struggle?

As a Black chef who has worked most of his career in fine dining kitchens, being the only Black employee was normal or even expected up until a few years ago; this shift is a positive sign of a change that’s been gradual, but it’s only a glimpse into the marginalization that people who look like me suffer on a daily basis.

I didn’t choose my skin color, but at a young age I embraced everything that comes along with having it. As a Black man the mental discipline we’re taught early is a survival tactic that our parents instill to help guide us through this world. My mother also taught me courage, morals and most importantly, love: Those virtues set the foundation of what drives me today. These are attributes that I hope one can muster in order to be a true ally, because accountability and courage means more than ever before.

The cycle begins again every 10 to 20 years: Revolutionary moments like we’re seeing now gain a little traction, then society gets comfortable and settles. After this new wave of caring about Black lives, will we be left with the char and ash or will we rise like a phoenix together as one and combat this injustice together for years to come and not just temporarily? Will we use this moment to be better and build off the momentum and fury that engulfs our mind, body and soul? The time is now. 

I want a day where we as Black people are no longer numb to the inequality, injustice and covert segregation, and I encourage you: Don’t hide behind the badge of “woke.” If you really want to be an ally and stand in the sand with us, do the research and understand the history. Get uncomfortable with the person in the mirror and challenge yourself to be better with small, daily, incremental change to ultimately understand we don’t share the same privilege. These blinders you once had need to be cleaned to understand the playing fields have not been equal, nor will they ever be without significant change. Malcolm X said it best: “Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.”

We are still only 60 years removed from segregation. We as a people have not dealt with that trauma. Just years ago we were sold, beaten and told to abide by The Green Book to safely navigate the roads through the hatred of the Jim Crow Laws to a “welcomed” establishment in hopes we wouldn’t be met with force or death for drinking from a water fountain that didn’t say “Black Only.” The African-American experience is a long-enduring trauma with adaptive and survival behaviors, making us strong and resilient. But we shouldn’t do it alone, as this has been a difficult and infuriating journey.

As a chef and small-business owner, I can say that buying local and supporting Black-owned businesses is a great start, but not a permanent fix; educating oneself and completing the loop of brainstorm, plan and organize will help you carry out a collective plan to do better. 

We can avoid more turmoil by coming together, organizing and voting locally, and altering the system dramatically with our voices and intellectual resilience. We want to see the system that sets us up for systematic racism abolished. I’d be lying if I didn’t say for the first time in my adult life I feel hopeful that this newer generation will create more freedom fighters, and this moment now will determine the next 20 years and what it can be, in L.A. and beyond.

Brandon Gray is a professional chef based in Los Angeles and the force behind Brandoni Pepperoni, an underground, locally inspired pizza pop-up. Follow it on Instagram at @la_brandoni_pepperoni and follow Gray at @im_a_chef.

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