Tunde Wey

Tunde Wey

Chef, Activist, Author

Brian Lowery

Brian Lowery

Professor of Organizational Behavior, Stanford Graduate School of Business

This conversation took place on March 1, 2021

Summarized Transcript

Brian Lowery: How do you define what you do?

Tunde Wey: It depends on who I’m speaking to. I write, and I cook, and I’m currently working on a docuseries and an art installation. So I use what I do to talk about what I want to talk about, whether it’s food, art, filmmaking, or cooking.

Brian Lowery: My first question is: People just want to enjoy food. Why do you have to make it so complicated?

Tunde Wey: People want to enjoy everything and want excuses not to think more critically. I believe that our proximity to certain things is what inoculates us to their problems. If you’re deeply embedded in something and see it all the time, you become desensitized to it, especially if it doesn’t affect you directly. For example, I’m currently in Lagos, where I hadn’t visited previously for 20 years. Lagos is a very class- and money-conscious space, so I see many things that interrupt my experience in this city — poor people begging for money, people working all kinds of jobs to make money, etc. I can’t be immune to noticing these things, because they affect my daily life. Similarly, the problems that I talk about regarding food interrupt my enjoyment of it, so I want to share that interruption.

Brian Lowery: From what I’ve seen, you seem to talk about food and race on two different levels. One is just the straightforward production/consumption aspect. And on the other level, you discuss it as more of an entry point for discussing more significant issues such as gentrification. Do you always think the personal is political, or is there something uniquely powerful about food as a metaphor?

Tunde Wey: I’m doing a gallery show in Milwaukee later this month where I’m selling salt, and people can bid on it. Each subsequent bid on the box of salt is 107% more money than the previous bid. That is a representation of the racial wage disparity in Milwaukee, using salt. Food is the major component in whatever work I’m doing, from the art to the docuseries. To answer your question: Yes, personal preferences are what eventually become concretized into politics. The construct of race originated from an evangelical mission to spread one group’s preferences across a vast area and then institute systems to maintain those preferences. If my personal preferences take up space and impose into other people’s lives, then my preferences have become political. I think that’s what politics is about: the establishment of personal preferences over the public.

Brian Lowery: Food is changing; recipes are constantly evolving. Yet there’s a sense of ownership of certain foods. How should we think about concepts like ownership and appropriation when we think about something as fluid as food?

Tunde Wey: Every couple of years, there’s someone that has been caught stealing a Black or brown person’s recipe and trying to commercialize it. And every time this happens, people fall on different sides of the argument. People ask, “Can anybody own this?” or, “What’s wrong with me for wanting to try out this new recipe?” But I think everything is contextual, and we have to ask: Who’s benefiting from this? People often conflate the personal with the public, or the informal with the formal. For example, suppose you challenge the public consumption that a particular kind of food is indigenous to Black people in the U.S. In that case, the pushback that you will receive is often from white people who are indignant that you are saying they “can’t cook this food in their private home.” But that’s not what we are saying. The question is not what they do in their private domain; it’s the influence and impact of their private choices on the public. If you’re cooking from a quarter that isn’t yours and that has been stolen from, but you’re actively profiting off of it, that’s a problem. Some people are fighting in this field, but personally, I want to go to the source, which is larger global systems such as capitalism. Instead of talking about a few specific individuals who have appropriated people’s cultures and made an immense profit from it, I’m more interested in what they represent and how the systems in our country allowed them to do what they did.

Brian Lowery: Food has a deeply communal aspect — and a way in which it can divide us. Are you poking at the places where it divides us to make a point?

Tunde Wey: Food doesn’t do anything that people don’t do; it’s not magical. If you’re fighting a war, you can’t just throw some bread and expect everyone to start singing a song together and fall in love, and then maybe throw some more bread and see everyone become angry at each other again. We’re already divided and we’re already united. Food is nothing more than an object. But it is indeed a source of conflict: It’s the primary resource that we’re all scrambling for. I’m here in Lagos, and I have been traveling to Kogi, a rice farming community, to talk about food. Because of climate change, that community had experienced the worst flooding they ever had, which wiped away their crops. This created a ripple effect that changed the landscape. There is so much tension and despair linked to food.

Brian Lowery: What would just reparations look like from your perspective?

Tunde Wey: That’s an economics question. Prominent people like Sandy Darity [William A. Darity Jr.] are doing extensive work on reparations and have proposals like bail bonds and other things. Some proposals aren’t even based on race — there are class-based incentives or laboratory programs. In Lagos, there was a plan called the Lagos Plan of Action, written in the 70s, and it was a moment where the African countries decided that they needed to make a different order. Nigeria is just about 200 million people, and the U.S. has about 300 million people. The U.S.’s gross domestic product (GDP) is 21 times larger than Nigeria’s GDP. The gap isn’t just a gap of incompetence; it’s not possible that Nigeria is so incompetent that their GDP could be that much lower. You can’t tell me that America is 21 times smarter or better than Nigeria. The only way to explain it is a corruption gap, the massive allocation of resources from one place to another. This is why the racial wealth disparity in the U.S. is 10 times between white and Black people. All the administrative responses to these fundamental issues are regarding job programs or instituting bilateral loans. My mother always told me that you can’t afford to put money in a bag you keep staring at. Trying to help people without giving them money is crazy, especially if you took the money they need to get to where they’re going in the first place.

Brian Lowery: When we talk about reparations this way, it sounds like an acceptance of the capitalist system but an intervention in terms of the current distribution of resources. Is that what you have in mind?

Tunde Wey: I have something more in mind, but I don’t know exactly what at the moment. We need to redistribute resources fundamentally. If we raise the level of consumption for everybody, we could experience the consequences of our over-consumptive society. And then hopefully these consequences will spur us to think about doing things differently. So our first step is resource redistribution, and then we need to address consumption for sure.

Brian Lowery: You mentioned the project about the salt, but you also did something with hot chicken where you had differential pricing. Can you quickly tell us about how that project worked?

Tunde Wey: Black neighborhoods in Nashville were getting casually gentrified. People were moving in and then changing the culture of the community, and Black people had to move out because taxes were rising. The system was working as it was supposed to work. The question is: How do you shock people into understanding that a “well-working” system is deeply racist and problematic? And how do you divert resources to give back to those communities that are being damaged? For example, hot chicken is being appropriated by white people in Nashville. I decided to make my own Nigerian hot chicken, and I sold it to people who would buy it at $100,000 for a whole chicken. Of course this was preposterous, but this was just the surface of what I was doing. What I was truly doing was meeting with community leaders and people with resources about instituting community land trusts. This would mean purchasing homes from Black people and then giving them the money back and turning their homes into a community land trust that they would own. That would maintain the racial and cultural character of that neighborhood. Only one person ended up buying the chicken for $100,000, but that shows that the problem’s scale is preposterous.

Brian Lowery: What are you telling those who are currently benefiting from the system in order to convince them of your point of view?

Tunde Wey: Everybody does what they want to do, but I’m more concerned with the global order now. For example, in Nigeria our biggest export is crude oil, and the dollar is our foreign currency. Our global system is dollar-based, but we don’t have control over U.S. monetary policy. But whatever happens in U.S. monetary policy affects us, because when the price of the dollar rises relative to the buyer (us), then we don’t have enough money to buy things like food since we are not food-sufficient. When I start thinking about these things, I’m less interested in what individual people in Connecticut or Detroit are thinking — I’m more interested in how we address these problems on a global scale. What I would say is that people just need to do whatever makes them comfortable, because they would be doing that anyway. And I’m doing the same — I’m trying to do things that make me comfortable through finding ways to address these things. If what I say makes people think a little differently or do some research, that makes me content.

Brian Lowery: It seems like there’s a renewed focus on racial disparities in the U.S. and around the world right now. Are you optimistic about this current moment?

Tunde Wey: You’re 47 and I’m 37, so you’ve lived 10 years longer than me, which means you’ve seen more than me. Are you optimistic?

Brian Lowery: I’ve done a number of these conversations, so the people who have been watching will know that I’m not the most optimistic person. I see cycles, and with a rudimentary knowledge of history it’s hard to be optimistic.

Tunde Wey: I agree. The only way to break the wheel here is to address consumption and change what it takes for us to be satisfied. Our basket of goods and services is just too big, and it’s not possible for everybody to have that basket. If we can start retraining ourselves around what we consider valuable and have a public consensus about the fundamentals of what humans should have (e.g. food, water, shelter, leisure, work), then maybe we can begin to solve these things. But in this game, we keep raising the bar on what we need to be happy, and the gap between those who have and who don’t keeps widening, no matter how hard we try to close it. I think we all need to become more politicized, meaning that we need to raise our consciousness in a lot of different directions.