How much should you be willing to be demeaned by a powerful person trying to help you? That is the question the Black restaurant community is struggling with after Terri Henry, a well-known name in the Long Beach food world, repeated the N-word on more than one occasion.

Henry has a long-standing career in food marketing, advertising and public relations. She’s worked in the industry since 1993, holding positions with companies like Norms Restaurants and Chipotle before launching her own company in 2011. In 2019, she founded the nonprofit Long Beach Food & Beverage out of a desire “to put butts in seats of restaurants in Long Beach”—a desire that made her a prominent force in the local food scene.

She launched well-known promotional events like the wildly successful Long Beach Burger Week in 2020 and, in 2022, Long Beach Black Restaurant Week.

In my work at the Long Beach Post, I’ve seen the new clientele and other benefits overlooked restaurants can get by working with Henry. Her work with Black Restaurant Week is truly impressive as she has facilitated major media attention that has elevated several small Black-owned businesses in the city.

So, how did someone who calls herself an ally land herself in the middle of a firestorm where some of the same people she helped are cutting ties with her? It started earlier this month at the final pop-up tasting event for Black Restaurant Week.

After the event, Henry told me about how a Black woman harassed several vendors, saying they shouldn’t be part of a Black event run by a white woman. Luckily, one of the vendors—LaTanya Ward,  the owner of  Filthy Rich Banana Pudding—was there to defend Henry and the work she’s done for Black businesses.

Henry said Ward and the confrontational woman began to argue and it got heated. She described the confrontation by saying, “They were yelling back and forth and saying N-word this and N-word that.” But, Henry didn’t say “N-word” when she was talking to me. She said the actual word, but would later expect a pass because she said it with an “a.”

When Henry said the word, I wanted to react harshly. This wasn’t a teaching moment; this was a “you should know better” moment. But I resisted that urge.

I was also confused. I know Terri Henry the woman. We’ve shared personal stories, and we’ve laughed together. She is the last person I would expect to say such a word.

My last reaction was that of a journalist. I listened, allowing the conversation to continue without interjection. There was clearly more to learn. Did Henry make the inaccurate assumption that all the work she’d done in the community had earned her an invitation to the cookout? Was she using the word with me because I somehow made her feel comfortable to do so? Or was there a deeper story to uncover?

I called Ward to learn  more, and after barely a hello, she asked me, “Did Terri tell you she used the N-word with the hard ‘-er’?”

Ward explained that she defended Henry during the confrontation that night, but afterward, she pulled Henry aside. She wanted Henry to understand that the woman harassing vendors had a good point: Black Restaurant Week should be in the hands of a Black person.

Nevertheless, Ward told Henry she appreciated what she’d done with the event. It was admirable, Ward told her, that Henry was using her “privilege” to “help [N-words].”

For Ward, like many Black people, using the N-word wasn’t out of the ordinary. It’s part of her vernacular. But Ward was shocked to hear Henry repeat it right back to her.

By Ward’s account, the word “privilege” upset Henry, who said she didn’t agree: “I don’t use my privilege to help [N-words],” she said, using the hard “er.”

In response, Ward told Henry in no uncertain terms that Henry should never say that word—no matter the context or how it’s pronounced.

That one utterance unleashed a torrent of emotions through the Black community. I got calls not just from Ward but from several other people who overheard or learned about what had happened. So, several days later, I asked to sit down with Henry for an on-the-record interview. To my surprise, as we talked, and Henry went over what happened one more time, she again repeated the N-word—thinking it was OK because she was quoting someone.

After re-explaining to Henry why that word should never come out of her mouth, I asked what she wanted to say to people who’d been hurt. Her response: “Consider me educated.”

Henry was honest about being frazzled by the end of our interview. Honestly, I felt the same way. Reporting on a stranger’s use of the N-word is one thing. When it is someone you know, it’s daunting.

The next day, Henry texted me, saying she was worried about the implications if I reported what happened. The story I planned to write, she said, would have a devastating impact on her nonprofit, Black Restaurant Week and the other events she runs, such as Cambodian Restaurant Week, Burger Week and CANstruction.

Before I could respond, Henry sent an email to a list of the Black Restaurant Week vendors. She described what happened and warned that I was about to publish a story that could ruin her.

She said that “in a one nano-second slip of the tongue I used the N-word with an ‘er’ instead of ‘A’. Completely accidental and unintentional, I swear to you, and to be honest I should not have been using it in any form, even ending with an ‘A’.”

The email continued, “I just wanted to extend a profound apology to all of you and I hope my actions and support of the Black community will somehow make up for a one-time stupid mistake.”

There is no denying the N-word is deeply rooted in hate. But Black Restaurant Week vendors who’ve worked with Henry are split over her plea for forgiveness.

Chef Ronnie Woods says there is no defense for Henry’s use of the word, but the focus should be on what she has done for Black people.

“You have all these different communities being represented within the city, but nobody representing Black people. Not even Black people,” he told me.

Woods said not only did Henry waive his $100 fee to participate in the first Black Restaurant Week, but she also gave him the opportunity to be one of the featured chefs providing a multi-course gourmet lunch for unhoused people at the Long Beach Rescue Mission. The resulting media attention helped grow Woods’ Northtown Bistro, which has gone from being strictly a pop-up to having a consistent location at Eddie’s Market on Fourth Street four days a week.

Woods says Henry used her connections to open doors that otherwise would’ve been closed for people like him.

Michelle Roberts, who owns a cracker business called The CrackerLady that was featured in Black Restaurant Week, echoed Woods’ sentiment.

“Terri worked with me, helping me understand the value of my business in the city of Long Beach.” She said, “I can’t take that away because she let the N-word slip out of her mouth. No matter what the circumstances are.”

Is that the trade-off Black people must be willing to make to succeed? Does a white person’s willingness to help outweigh the legacy of a word that has always been used to degrade and humiliate?

“We shouldn’t have to shake it off,” said Qiana Mafnas, co-owner of Axiom Kitchen, which was featured on “Good Day LA” during Black Restaurant Week.

Mafnas said she appreciates what Henry has done and she’ll keep working with her, but “we should have somebody of color who has the same connections and is able to get the same things done.”

If there were someone like that, maybe this story would be easier for everyone involved. Black restaurant owners wouldn’t have to choose between forgiving the use of a racial slur and continuing to grow their businesses.

For some, it’s too much to ignore. Kevyn Lee-Wellington, co-owner of Fluffy’s Sno-Balls, said Henry’s proclaimed ignorance is not an excuse.

When you run a program called Black Restaurant Week, “the assumption is that you have some connection to the Black community,” he said. “The assumption is that you have educated yourself on the systemic, historical racism that Black people have endured.”

Lee-Wellington said he will no longer work with Henry or any organization associated with her.

Ward agrees with Lee-Wellington, but she also acknowledges how much Henry helped her business. Ward, an ex-gang member who uses Filthy Rich Banana Pudding to help other former Black gang members find healing, was able to further her cause after receiving media attention from the Long Beach Post and Spectrum News 1 because of Henry’s promotion.

Ward said this situation is an example of the longstanding disadvantages Black people face. Because they “don’t have opportunities as often as others,” Ward said, “we will bargain and trade dignity, self-respect and everything else.”

Ward refuses to do so in this case, calling Henry’s email more of an explanation than a real apology.

For her part, Henry says she’s stepping away from at least some of her events. She’s given up control of Cambodian Restaurant Week and handed the reins of Black Restaurant Week to the organization 100 Black Men of Long Beach and DeAndre Parks, owner of StrongBeach Lemonade, which was featured in this year’s event.

Henry says she will continue to consult behind the scenes, but her nonprofit, Long Beach Food & Beverage, will shut down in the coming weeks.

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