New Orleans restaurant pop-up named for South Africa’s Saartjie Baartman highlights wage disparity with optional extra fee for white people

A New Orleans pop-up has been highlighting the difference in average household income in the USA along race lines, with an optional surcharge on meals for white customers, according to Civil Eats. Called SAARTJ, the pop-up ran for the month of February in the Roux Carré outdoor food court in New Orleans and was the brainchild of Nigerian chef Tunde Wey.

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The experiment was named for Saartjie Baartman, a South African woman who was enslaved and exhibited in freakshow attractions in 19th century Europe. After her death, her remains were put on display at a Paris museum, before finally being returned to South Africa in 2002. “Baartman’s story represents… the objectification and exploitation of Black, African, and female personhood,” says Wey on his website. “Our dinners are about confronting exploitative systems operating heartily, if sometimes covertly.”

After learning that household incomes for African Americans in New Orleans was 54% lower than for white households, the chef introduced a suggested $18 surcharge for white customers. “The standard price was available to all customers, while the suggested price was offered to white customers,” says chef Tunde Wey. On the menu: Nigerian vegetarian dishes like fermented cassava dumplings and fried plantains.

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Wey used the opportunity to start a dialogue with customers about the racial wealth gap. “I start by asking them what they think the racial wealth gap is and then share stats about [how it manifests in] New Orleans and nationally,” he told Civil Eats. In the USA, higher education increases a black family’s median income by just $60 000 in comparison to the $113 000 by which it increases a white family’s median income. At the end of the discussion, customers could choose whether to pay $12 or $30 as a step towards redistributing wealth. The net profit from the initiative was redistributed to customers of colour.

According to Civil Eats, Wey also used the opportunity to ask questions and collect data. 45% of his diners were white and 46% black, and 78% of white customers chose to pay the higher price. Wey believes his status as a person of colour influenced the number. “Refusing to pay more comes off as anti-social and people don’t want to be judged for that… If they couldn’t pay a higher amount, they gave a me a list of caveats why they couldn’t.” While Wey did say that some guests were visibly uncomfortable, he believed there were more important issues. “The value of this outweighs the discomfort,” he said.

In South Africa, according to data from Statistics South Africa published last year, white people still earn almost five times as much as black South Africans.

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