Freshness and organic is Whole Foods Market selling point, but their response to Kwok Ming Cheng’s email about being called a “ching chong” by at least one employee at the retail market on 95 East Houston Street in New York has been anything but.
For almost two months, Cheng hasn’t been able to confirm a meeting by telephone or email with Damon Young, the store’s team leader. Emails went unanswered and he was unreachable by telephone. All Cheng would like to do is address the racial slur incident that left him feeling stunned and shocked in July.
Young never replied to Cheng’s email to confirm a meeting on Saturday, August 9. So I told my friend, “Enough is enough. No more emails going unanswered. This is taking too long to resolve. I am going to find Young.”
That Saturday, I walked to the retail market in support of my friend to find Young. The last email response from Young to my friend was two weeks ago. The Whole Foods Market team leader said he only wanted to meet with Cheng and didn’t want to meet with Margaret Fung, the executive director of the Asian American Legal and Defense Education Fund (AALDEF) nor myself all together.
AALDEF’s support is vital because they can help mediate the dialogue on this incident and to encourage Whole Foods Market to train their employees to be cognizant of the use of racial slurs. Fung said AALDEF would also be able to help devise a diversity program for their employees if there isn’t one already in place.
Cheng and I want to know, “Why hasn’t there been an apology to the Asian Americans in the community yet? Why and how did this happen? Was the employee reprimanded? If so, how? If not, why? Is there a diversity program in place at Whole Foods Market?
At the customer service desk, I can clearly see Young’s name on a plaque as the store team leader of the day. A telephone call I made earlier confirmed he was in, but away at the moment and would return at 5pm. I arrived at the retail market’s customer service desk at 5:15pm. I requested to see him, then waited for Young to appear before me. My request was thwarted by Alex the shift manager instead. He told me Young was already gone for the day. “Oh, really?” I thought to myself.
Unanswered emails, unconfirmed meeting dates, not wanting to meet with a community leader and now evading me at the market. What is Whole Foods Market message here? Do they want us to go away? Are they trying to test our patience in hopes that we’ll just drop this? No, we are sticking to it.
I told Alex, my unfortunate messenger to tell Young, “He has been unprofessional for not replying to emails and failing to meet with us today at 5pm. We now want to reschedule our meeting on August 23. If we do not hear from Young by Tuesday (August 12), I will take this to corporate.” No joke, I am serious, I say to myself.
A very good friend of mine has already took it upon herself to write a letter to their corporate office that she is personally boycotting Whole Foods Market entirely until this is resolved.
The Asian American Bar Association of New York has also been monitoring this situation.
“Whole Foods has stonewalled and been terribly unresponsive to the Asian American community concerns about the use of a racial slur by their staff,” says Chris Kwok of the Asian American Bar Association of New York. “This unwillingness to meet with community representatives and address the problem in a productive and meaningful way is both disappointing and troubling to the Asian American community. We hope that Whole Foods will reconsider and engage in a dialogue with Asian American leaders about how to move forward from this incident in a way that respects all of its potential customers. “
I was beginning to feel that my friend Kwok was feeling overwhelmed with some of the local attention and the energy required to keep at Whole Foods Market for a response. I told him it’s through incidents like this that empowers us Asian Americans and other people of color to help end the existence of racial slurs, discrimination and the obstacles that it creates. Therefore, we must not get weary nor be silent. We want people to be aware that racial slurs demean people of color and their contributions to our country. There is much more needed work. The racial slur, “ching-chong,” must be eliminated.
By August 12, Cheng and I didn’t hear from Young, so I took my dissatisfaction to Twitter, to let Whole Foods Market corporate know how unhappy we are with our frustrated attempts to reach Young. They tweeted me back asking for more information and if I reached out to the local Whole Foods Market yet. I tweeted back what has transpired in our attempts, which is nothing. That’s the last I’ve heard from anyone at Whole Foods.
I will be drafting a letter to Whole Foods Market corporate office in Texas. Local community leaders will be copied so that they may be aware of what happened. We hope Whole Foods Market will have a dialogue with us soon to resolve this matter so that their relationship with the Asian American community may be restored.