This has been a year of debate about social justice. From Black Lives Matter marches to Donald Trump rallies, hundreds of thousands have gathered to express their views. It’s been a national story.
But when it gets personal, it gets ugly.
You’ve probably heard about the controversy at the highly regarded Sonoma restaurant The Girl & the Fig.
On Jan. 1, Kimi Stout, a former server, posted an Instagram video. It showed her peeling off her Girl & the Fig T-shirt, throwing it in a trash can and finishing with a double-barreled middle finger salute.
Below the video she wrote that she had been “forced out” of her job for refusing to stop wearing her Black Lives Matter face mask while working.
The post was picked up by SFGate. Their story said that a server lost her job because she refused to stop wearing a BLM mask. To the surprise of no one, many people heard that she was “fired” for wearing the mask.
And we had ourselves a viral controversy. As The Press Democrat has pointed out, media outlets from Newsweek to the London Daily Mail picked it up. Sondra Bernstein, the restaurant owner, and John Toulze, the president, were besieged.
Exasperated, they posted a statement on the restaurant’s Facebook page. “We did not fire her,” they wrote. “She made her own decision to quit because she did not want to follow the rules.”
If they were hoping this would tamp down the controversy, it was a swing and a miss. That post has over 1,600 comments and growing. Bernstein and Toulze (and Stout by the way) have been targeted with hateful attacks. A demonstration is planned Sunday in Sonoma.
So now I would like to ask. Has this made anyone happy? Has any progress been made here for the good of anyone or any cause?
Because I am not seeing it.
Let’s unpack this a little.
First, it doesn’t take much time on Stout’s Instagram account to see that she is passionate about BLM. Among her fashion shots — she’s a former Miss Sonoma County — and pictures of her dog are photos of her wearing a BLM mask and T-shirt with the caption “Making racists uncomfortable since 1986 (the year she was born.)”
Nothing wrong with that. Those are her views. I can even give you a scenario where this all happens and it is no big deal.
This began in September, when Toulze and Bernstein decided to change the restaurant’s dress code, requiring servers to wear either a restaurant-themed mask or a plain blue one.
Stout pushed back. She was told she could not work at Girl & the Fig if she insisted on the BLM mask. She quit and posted an Instagram video to show how angry she was.
Still no big deal. It happens in the workplace.
The game-changer was when she said she was “forced out of my position” for refusing to remove the BLM mask.
Now we bring in the whole “cancel culture” argument. The people who think she was fired are furious at Toulze and Bernstein, claiming they are demanding she disavow her beliefs.
But how would she feel if the server next to her was wearing a “Stop the Steal” mask? Just because you believe passionately in your cause doesn’t mean you can push your views at the workplace.
Also, it turns out that none of this is recent. As she says in her post, Stout made the trash can video on Sept. 3. She didn’t post it until four months later, on Jan. 1. Why now?
All of this has left Toulze and Bernstein shellshocked. One minute they were running a restaurant that has been a rousing success on the Sonoma Plaza for 23 years. The next they were embroiled in a debate on social justice.
They’ve made a couple attempts to explain themselves. The first, on Facebook, began defensively, “We have been silent for too long,” which isn’t exactly the right tone. But they go on to voice their support for Black Lives Matter. In a follow-up post they commit to several efforts to foster diversity and combat racism. Bernstein even says Stout “was a very good server and we were sorry to lose her.”
In a commentary in the Sonoma Index-Tribune, Bernstein pointed out that they’ve had a dress policy since 1997 — bluejeans, a long-sleeve white shirt and a green apron. In September, they changed the policy to include generic masks.
They cited the Amazon/Whole Foods policy that workers cannot wear “visible slogans, messages, logos or advertising.”
None of this seems to have helped. In her commentary, Bernstein said “our restaurant and personal reputations have come under assault.” She accuses “social media influencers” of “attacking our character and integrity without facts.”
Meanwhile, Stout has reappeared on Instagram. On Thursday, she posted another video. She looks into the camera and says, “If they allowed her to wear the mask they would be alienating some of their customers … (adding sarcastically) yeah, racists.”
It has been viewed nearly 6,500 times. This isn’t going away.
So here’s where things stand now. Stout is presumably out of a job. Bernstein and Toulz are getting death threats. BLM got some lip service, but the core issue — violence against unarmed people of color — wasn’t mentioned. And a protest is scheduled for Sunday at the restaurant … which is already closed “for the foreseeable future” because of fears of violence.
Help me out. Which of those is a win?
(Courtesy, The Santa Rosa Press Democrat)