East Bay Express
Close

Can Businesses Afford to Stay Politically Neutral?

An Oakland artist confronts local jewelry shop and art space Esqueleto for its decision to stay out of politics, raising questions about whether staying neutral is actually taking a stand.

Montse Reyes Aug 29, 2018 1:00 AM
Artwork by Melanie Cervantes, photo by Lance Yamamoto
Since the 2016 election, more and more local businesses have made public political stances.

A few weeks ago, Oakland artist James Servais received an email from Esqueleto, the Temescal jewelry shop that doubles as an art space, asking him if he'd be interested in showing his work in an upcoming exhibit. Servais had shown his drawings at Esqueleto a few times before, and Esqueleto owner Lauren Wolf had even purchased a few of his pieces. But this time, the request gave Servais pause.

In his emailed response, Servais said he was feeling "white guilt" about working with Esqueleto — a white-owned business whose name is Spanish for "skeleton" — "given the Mexican theme, the mostly white artists and clientele, and the current political debate." He asked whether the space was looking to "involve Latino artists or fundraise for anti-ICE organizations," and offered to donate proceeds from the show.

The gallery coordinator responded that after speaking with the owner, they decided that Esqueleto wouldn't be a good fit for Servais' work "in light of your feelings surrounding the brand," and that it was "important to us to keep the space neutral politically." The person added: "We donate to and support many causes, but we do not do so publicly."

Disappointed, Servais shared a screenshot of the email exchange on his Instagram account. While acknowledging the business's support of his work and his respect for most of the people involved, Servais said he felt obligated to share the interaction. "I had assumed based on their aesthetic that they were a progressive business, my bad," he wrote.

In an interview, Servais said he had always felt uneasy about participating in shows at Esqueleto, but he wasn't compelled to take a stand until now. "I was younger and less aware of the politics of being in a community and my own privilege," he said. "But I always had a weird feeling about doing those shows." He noted that one of their Día de los Muertos shows featured mostly white artists.

Since the 2016 presidential election, many East Bay businesses have increasingly taken vocal stances when it comes to issues of social justice. Public displays of solidarity with marginalized groups have appeared on T-shirts, in artwork, and on signs in windows. So when a business tries to stay politically neutral, that's now viewed as its own particular political stance.

Servais said he doesn't actually believe that Esqueleto — or any business for that matter — should be required to take a particular political point of view, but he at least wants them to be honest. "I do think that people and businesses should be transparent about what their politics are," he said. Servais said he wanted to disclose his interaction with Esqueleto so that fellow artists who might consider showing there could make an informed decision.

But he also doesn't think the business is apolitical. He notes that Esqueleto has an "ethos" section on its website, detailing how it ethically sources conflict-free diamonds and is committed to being a sustainable business that uses recycled materials.

Servais said he's had no further communication with Esqueleto. He didn't reply to their email and the shop blocked him on Instagram. The business did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Adam Hatch, co-owner and program manager of the Starline Social Club, believes businesses need to take political stands. "I think it's incumbent upon somebody to exercise their values and morals in their business that way," he said. "It becomes ingrained in the fabric of the community they are serving."

Hatch and a team of partners opened the Starline Social Club in 2016. From the bathroom wallpaper calling on witches to hex Donald Trump and the NRA to words of solidarity pegged on a bulletin board, the bar and music venue could never be mistaken as apolitical. The Starline also opens itself up to the community by throwing parties that act as fundraisers to help families pay rent, hosting the East Bay Care Village in its parking lot to provide services to homeless people, and organizing a number of monthly events centering queer and trans people and people of color. For Hatch, businesses have a responsibility to interact in meaningful political ways with the community around them. "You occupy a certain geography as a business," he said. "Just like it's your job to make sure the product you're providing is the best, it's also your job to understand the community around you, what they need, and if and how you'll be able to support it."

For Erin Wade, owner of popular mac 'n' cheese restaurant Homeroom, politics are inextricable from her business. "I almost feel like it isn't a choice," she said. "To me, business is a political act. Having a company is getting to create the world you want to live in, and the world I want to live in is a more diverse and inclusive and warm and collaborative place."

At Homeroom, which opened in 2011, women and people of color make up more than 70 percent of the leadership team. They share their finances with their employees, have a profit-sharing business model, and partner with agencies to hire refugees and formerly incarcerated people.

Like Servais, Wade doesn't feel all businesses must be political. "It feels natural to talk about that if it's authentic to the company," she said. She understands why some businesses would choose to be less vocal, as speaking up politically requires engaging in conversations about those values.

Hatch said it's important that businesses live up to the politics they espouse. "Hanging the Black Lives Matter poster in your window so it doesn't get smashed isn't really serving the purpose of that movement," said Hatch. "Are you doing it just to prop yourself up? Are you doing it to appropriate these movements? Or are you doing it because you believe in it?" Hatch said he's glad to see signs of solidarity dotting East Bay storefronts. He just wants to see local business follow up on the public pledge with material actions like donating space, time, and resources.

"Until people have access to the same resources, same mobility, don't have to live in fear because of their identity, we should be [politically] active," Hatch said. "It's utterly selfish and shortsighted to not be."

The notion of space takes on a larger meaning in the East Bay, given the rapid displacement of Black and Brown people. But, of course, the Bay Area isn't a monolithic political bubble. As progressive as the region may be, not all clientele are down with the values businesses like Homeroom and Starline espouse.

Wade said that a sign that hangs in Homeroom's window has been a particular point of contention. It states that the restaurant is "pro black, pro diversity, pro immigrant, pro muslim, pro queer, pro trans."

Some customers have indicated on receipts and Yelp reviews that they feel excluded by the sign, Wade said, because it doesn't list white people. "We don't list every single group," she said. "I'm Jewish and I'm white but neither of those groups are on that list, not because I don't think we're a place that's welcoming of people who look like me."

Still, Wade said more often than not, her clientele is excited to see that articulation of the restaurant's values. Wade hopes her transparency inspires other businesses to consider alternative practices, but notes she wasn't always inclined to be this vocal. It's only in the last six months and with the rise of the #MeToo movement that her opinion shifted.

Hatch said the bar gets pushback, too, having received death threats, messages from white supremacist groups, and cryptic emails threatening to burn down the building. Once, after a photo of him wearing a T-shirt that read, "Deport white people" was posted on Instagram, folks called the bar to leave racist, vitriolic messages.

"Who knows," Hatch said. "People get crazy and shoot up places. We have like a queer women of color party once a month. Is that a target? How do we address that?" One thing Hatch has found that helps, in addition to security, is the culture of inclusion the bar has cultivated through its decision not to be politically neutral.

"The most powerful thing we have is our community," he said. If someone inside is being out of line or making someone feel uncomfortable, the patrons are just as likely to check them as the staff.

"I think for us it's not very complicated because the kind of environment we encompass," Hatch said of the intentional decision by his team of co-owners — who, he said, spans all races, genders, and sexualities — to take a political stance and create a comfortable environment for people in marginalized communities. "It's more comfortable for us to know we're trying to push things in a good direction than not, because the anxiety of sitting there watching the world burn to hell is too weird."