New Orleans is proud of the traditions that exist and flourish only here. But when one of them was paired with a controversial caption on a social media post during Mardi Gras, it flared into a controversy that led to a shake-up for Tales of the Cocktail, a prominent national conference for bartenders and the liquor industry that is held in New Orleans each summer.
In its wake, Paul Tuennerman, chief business officer for the event and husband of founder Ann Tuennerman, resigned Friday evening amid a flurry of public apologies posted on the organization's Web site and social media channels.
It started with Ann Tuennerman's ride in the Zulu parade on Mardi Gras morning. Tuennerman is executive director of Tales of the Cocktail, which draws bartenders and liquor company representatives from around the world to New Orleans for a week in July and is sponsored by national and global spirits companies.
She posted a Facebook Live video on Tuesday while wearing Zulu's traditional costume, which includes blackface makeup. The caption on the post, which has since been removed, read: "Paul G Tuennerman interviewing me on Mardi Gras Morning from the Zulu Den. As he said ‘Throw a little Black Face on and you lose all your media skills.’ He did his best as the interviewer.”
The post drew criticism on social media from people who were offended either by the depiction of blackface, what they saw as the connotation of the caption or both.
Ann Tuennerman issued an apology Friday, which was followed a few hours later by a message announcing Paul Tuennerman’s resignation. His statement read, in part:
“My comment to Ann about blackface prior to the Zulu parade was meant to be a husband's innocent teasing of his camera-shy wife, not a belittlement of others. In retrospect, the words were insensitive, hurtful and just plain dumb and I feel horrible for the pain they have caused. I take full responsibility and it is with a very heavy heart that, effective immediately, I am resigning from Tales of the Cocktail.”
As part of her own separate apology message, Ann Tuennerman wrote that it “was a naive and inconsiderate action, the consequences of which have made it clear that I have much to learn.”
Blackface is an integral part of Zulu, the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club parade that is among the most prominent events on the annual New Orleans Carnival calendar. It is the oldest and most important krewe from the city's African-American community, although it is common for people of other races to ride in the parade. Both Paul and Ann Tuennerman are white.
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While blackface is normally an incendiary theme in American race relations, in the context of Zulu it is generally understood within New Orleans as the historic black krewe's send-up of old-line white Mardi Gras krewes, which for most of their history excluded blacks. The king of Zulu wears blackface, and the parade includes a float with a giant blackface caricature.
Satire is a ruling principle of Zulu’s parade, as it is with many other New Orleans krewes. Among Zulu’s “characters” are “the Big Shot,” “Mr. Big Stuff” and “the Witch Doctor.” In addition to blackface, people who ride on Zulu floats wear costumes that include grass skirts and bushy wigs, and they hand out decorated coconuts that are among the most coveted "throws" of Carnival.
However, much of the criticism generated by Tuennerman’s social media post centered around what some saw as the derogatory nature of its caption, implying some black ineptitude at public speaking. That it came from people who direct a conference that promotes themes of community and leadership in their own industry spurred an impassioned response.
Ashtin Berry, a New Orleans bartender, sharply called out Ann Tuennerman in her own Facebook posts.
“I'm not interested in your apology,” she wrote in a post Wednesday. “I'm interested in your introspection. How are you as an industry leader going to begin to engage from this day forward in a way that holds you and others accountable for their caucasity?"
"Caucasity" is a sardonic term for whiteness.
In her statement released Friday, Ann Tuennerman wrote that “as a result of my actions, the question of fair and equal representation for bartenders of color at Tales of the Cocktail has been raised, and is one that deserves and will receive our full attention.”
Since the controversy began percolating on social media, Berry and Ann Tuennerman have scheduled an interview on the topic on Facebook Live through their respective Facebook pages (Berry's is here; Tales of the Cocktail, here), to be conducted Monday beginning at 2 p.m.
Ann Tuennerman started Tales of the Cocktail as a walking tour of storied New Orleans cocktail dens in 2001. It has grown into a major industry conference that has hosted spin-off events in other cities. It has estimated its annual attendance at 15,000 people.