Our silence speaks volumes.
Over the weekend, a local PR firm named Strange Fruit found itself in the middle of a social media tsunami of criticism for its name, which any cursory Google search will tell you is the name of a Billie Holiday song based on a poem about the abhorrent and gruesome lynchings that were still taking place.
Like many of you, I didn’t know about “Strange Fruit” until it was brought to my attention after the PR firm formed in 2012. I was unsettled and baffled by the choice of name, especially after it launched and gained notable clients without any public outcry.
The troublesome name came up time and time again in private conversations, but not once did I pick up the phone or pull the owners aside at an event to share my concerns.
But in light of the recent deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner, the public conversation about race in America has grown loud enough that when word started to spread about Strange Fruit, the owners’ insistence that they might be able to reclaim a phrase that was not theirs in the first place went up in the tinderbox.
All of us wrestle with how to address these kind of hot button issues in a measured way that contributes to conversation instead of inflaming it, but it’s often easier to wait for the public outcry and join the chorus.
However, this silence, this waiting for someone else to take up the cause, is crippling our ability to really examine what is going on in our “post-racial” society and be honest about what we do and don’t bring to the table.
As a public relations firm, Strange Fruit isn’t as public facing as, say, a restaurant or bar, which would not have stayed open for long with a name that evoked such horrors.
But the nature of their business meant that their clients and every member of the Austin food media, as well as many national writers and editors, choose to continue engaging in a business relationship with them, and each of us could have had much tougher conversations with the owners in private about why the name would still be considered offensive.
The owners of the company announced on Sunday that they would be changing the firm’s name and I’ve done my own soul searching about what I might have done differently in this situation, but all of us who interact in the food world here should use this as an opportunity to talk about what, for me, is now a clear example of white privilege and the implied consent (or at least complicity) that comes when we choose a path of silence.