An Invitation: An Open Letter to Saffron Colonial

Dear Sally,

I’m not here to slander you. I’m not even interested in shaming you. I came here to start a conversation. Contrary to what your chef thinks, I (and presumably many of the people who share my feelings) are not interested in outrage for outrage’s sake. So I’m coming to you in hopes of having a meaningful dialogue.

We all have our flaws, and one of my own is that I find it hard to assume positive intent. I’m trying to get better about that, so I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt. After all, it’s been 25 years since you’ve lived here and a lot has changed. And Hong Kong is a very different place from Portland.

I get that Hong Kong’s understanding of British Colonial rule differs from that of places like India or Jamaica (where my parents are from). In one Facebook group someone mentioned that the people of HK view British Colonialism as benign compared to mainland Chinese rule, which makes sense considering Hong Konger’s beliefs about the Chinese.

But here in the US, where many of us are direct descendants of people harmed by British imperialism, we have a very different perspective. While molasses cookies and sausage rolls may come to mind for you when you think of British colonialism, many of us associate it with forced religious conversion/cultural erasure, famine:

and slavery:

For just one moment, I ask you to not only maintain an open mind, but an open heart. Try to understand what it might be like to walk in our shoes and I’ll try to understand where you’re coming from. Your chef proudly proclaimed on our event page that “All Lives Matter!” If that’s truly the case, then why doesn’t our pain matter to you?

You may argue that those days are long gone, but India has been independent for less than 70 years, which means there are still people alive today who have experienced the harms of British colonial rule.

Even if that wasn’t the case, if history is no longer relevant to today, why do we bother learning it, or even acknowledging it? Why do we say phrases like “never forget” and “never again” if history has no connection to the present?

The fact is that the English language is not the only aspect of British colonialism that lingers today. Mentalities established during British colonialism (like white supremacy ) have led to the painful legacy of residential segregation and housing disinvestment which continues to affect community members in Boise today. Which is why the decision to launch your business on North Williams is especially egregious. It’s a slap in the face to people who have experience the harms of racist economic development policies (a legacy of colonialism), wherein land and resources were taken from black and brown people in order to make some white folks rich.

You told the Williamette Week that you’re fascinated by history, so why not use this opportunity as a teaching moment and learn the history of the neighborhood in which your restaurant resides? Karen J. Gibson’s article “Bleeding Albina” is a great resource so I recommend you start there.

You also mentioned in the Williamette Week:

The people who own the Rheinlander aren’t promoting Nazism, and the people who own the Screen Door aren’t promoting slavery.

Besides the fact that Rheinlander literally means “person from Rhineland” (the land around the Rhine river) and has no inherent connection to Nazis any more than a restaurant named Berliner would, let’s make the Nazi connection. What if there was a restaurant called “Third Reich”? Would you be ok with the owner responding to descendants of the Holocaust the way that you’ve responded to us?

You argue that we wouldn’t have cell phones or bananas if it weren’t for colonialism. That may be true, but slavery also led to technological advancements and the spread of different foods. Would you argue that we should celebrate slavery as well? Medical advancements have come out of horrific experimentation on Jews in the Holocaust. Shall we celebrate that too? Or can we have enough nuance to understand that sometimes good things can come out of horrible situations, yet not celebrate those situations at the same time. Are you willing to say that widespread death and suffering of black and brown people is worthwhile as long as you and others benefit? Because if so, you can no longer make the claim that you are “not racist”.

You argue that we are confused, but we think it is you who does not understand. No, we are not thinking of slavery in the US. How is it that you are “not racist” yet you choose to honor a man who referred to Gandhi as “a bad man and an enemy of the Empire” and Indians as a “a beastly people with a beastly religion”. In a move that troubled even his peers, he imported wheat out of India to feed British armies while millions starved to death. He referred to the British as “a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race” than American Indians and Australian Aboriginal peoples. A true non-racist would reject this legacy, not celebrate it. So if you really are “not-racist” you must not be aware of all this. But now that you are aware, you have the obligation to act correctly. You can no longer plead ignorance. You must do what’s right or face the consequences.

Here are some actions I recommend that might help work towards reconciliation:

1.) Change the name of the restaurant immediately, and remove references to plantations throughout the restaurant like the one below:

2.) Apologize for the pain you’ve caused black/brown communities and take the necessary steps to repair that relationship. It was suggested on the event page that you host or attend a listening session on gentrification and I think that’s a great idea.

3.) Require your chef to apologize for his ignorant remarks and require him to take sensitivity or unconscious bias training. (And make his continued employment dependent on these actions.)

What you do now can make or break you. You can be reasonable, listen to members of the community, try to be empathetic, and work to correct your mistake. Or you can show us your ass.

However, if you choose to ignore us or provide an unsatisfactory response, we will have no choice but to exercise our right to free speech. And we will continue to mobilize our community until we are satisfied with the outcome.

I’ll leave you with a comment left on the event page:

My grandfather was alive in India during the British occupation and suffered fighting for their independence … his stories and sadness was passed down to my father and to me. India is still crippled by the partition with arbitrary borders created with good intentions but ignored the people who actually had to live in those borders.
I grew up in Australia. I love food that, yes, was a product of colonialism and I would do anything for a crumpet and tea! Anything except support a business that not only ignorantly named their cafe, but are vehemently defending it and oppressing the voices of those who speak up. In pure colonialist style.
All they needed to do was change the name. Or listen to the concerns of the people who raised them. People who would be their neighbors, their customers… Not drown them out with even more ignorance. I am so sad about this for so many reasons, personal and political. I will march for my family tomorrow.

Jyoti Roy

The decision is up to you. I hope you make the right one.

Please email me at AntiColonialPDX@gmail.com or meet me tomorrow (3/19) after 2:30pm at the restaurant. I look forward to continuing this dialogue with you.

— Stephanie