On Radical Self-Care While Black and Female
For industry advocate and prolific bartender Ashtin Berry, mental health starts with open communication.
July 3, 2018
By Lauren Friel | Photograph by Anjali Pinto/Art by ChefsFeed
Ashtin Berry has made a name for herself both as a bartender and as a vocal advocate for inclusivity, accountability, and transparency in the industry.
The former Tokyo Record Bar beverage director was recently named one of Food & Wine’s 10 To Watch for her tireless quest to promote conversations about disrupting power dynamics and implicit bias in hospitality. The social justice warrior recently returned to an early love: the city of New Orleans, where she spent years bartending and managing at The Ace Hotel (and where she’s working on an as-yet-undisclosed new project we’re sure will be killer).
We caught up with Berry on her last day in NYC to talk about the psychological burdens of advocacy, businesses as communities, and what mental health means for communities of color. Berry is among dozens of brave chefs, bartenders, servers, and general managers who volunteered to discuss their mental health journeys with ChefsFeed in an effort to normalize discussion and foster self-care in our industry.
Lauren Friel: Why did you volunteer to speak with me about your mental health?
Ashtin Berry: I think the more people who talk about mental health, the better. The more people who talk—even if they’re talking about their ignorance in knowledge of mental health—we take away the stigma each time we have a discussion. I think it’s important.
Do you think the stigma in the restaurant industry is different than it is in a broader cultural sense?
Not really. I think, whatever’s going on in the world—or whatever’s going on in the country—it’s ten times more palpable in the hospitality industry. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that everything we do is based on human interaction.
A lot of it also has to do with the respectability politics of our job, also—we’re supposed to always be happy. Everything’s about having a good time. It’s the same as when you try to talk about racism and other -isms in the industry. People don’t want to talk about it, because we’re supposed to be having a good time. It’s not the happy-go-lucky stuff we’re supposed to talk about. It doesn’t make you feel good. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case when we talk about mental health—it includes self-care and preventative measures.
Have you struggled with mental health issues in your life?
Yes, definitely. I was suicidal for a part of my teenage years. But mental health in the black community is a whole other issue. There’s a lot of stigma in the black community for having issues. I think most people of color—whether they recognize it or not—have gone through mental health issues. It’s pretty difficult to go through this world and not struggle with how you perceive yourself.
I’ve been very lucky that I’ve been very clear about who I am from a very young age. I’ve acquired a barometer for when I need to call in assistance. When you’re trying to learn yourself—it’s a lot harder to know when you need help when you don’t have a barometer for self. I think a lot of people in the community are trying to find what that barometer is for themselves. As an adult, I’ve been really blessed—while I’ve had some lows—to be mentally and emotionally pretty healthy. For me, it’s about putting into place preventative care steps so I never get to that low. I need those check-ins before it ever gets to the point where I can’t see the value in myself.
Most of my emotional and mental health at this point comes from setting boundaries for how much I give to other people. I don’t think people in the industry realize it, but I get a lot of hate.
Really? In response to what?
In response to my posts on social media. When the Ann Tuennerman thing happened with Tales [of the Cocktail], my roommate and I literally got death threats. [Ed note: Berry was vocal online in her disdain with how Tuennerman handled the fallout of her Mardi Gras blackface scandal.] People showed up to both of our places of employment. I had a man who, for a few years, was threatening to rape me, making fake Facebook accounts and sending me graphic descriptions of the ways he was going to rape me. I had people send me messages telling me I was a racist piece of shit, but I had never had anybody routinely threaten to cause me physical harm. That was my first interaction with that. So, I’ve really stepped back from the way I engage with Facebook. It’s one of the reasons why I don’t put where I live on Facebook. Those are the new things that I now have to be aware of. It’s a strange thing. It makes you a target.
How does that all contribute to your mental health?
It wears on you. It wears on your patience. I can’t even describe it. It wears on your physical body. Mentally, it deteriorates your ability to see past anything. Luckily, I have a great tribe, but people had to pull me aside and tell me to stop. They had to tell me to take a deep breath. While it makes you more impassioned to want to fight harder for things, you can’t be a great advocate, because emotionally you’re working from this space of defensiveness and fear.
That’s been my lesson the past three years. Learning how to mitigate and accept that it’s hurtful. Maybe I won’t ever get physically hurt, but it doesn’t lessen the fact that it’s hurtful. Acknowledging that, and that I’m allowed to be upset about that, is important.
You’re an advocate for transparency, and inclusivity, and honesty, and examination, and mental health and—ostensibly—those are all positive things. Why do you think you’ve gotten some of the responses you’ve gotten?
I think some of the responses I’ve gotten are because I’ve directly called out people’s behavior. In our industry specifically, people work on extremes. It places people who are “bad” in a position where they can never do great things, and it places people who are “good” in a position where they can never fail. And those extremes weigh on our consciousness. They box people in.
The truth is that failure is a part of growth. But “good and bad” narratives are also built in ego. And the ego is, specifically in the industry, what gets considered first, before what you’re examining. I think everything that I try to say is positive, but I think some people can’t see it as positive because they see criticism—any critique of a person—as a negative.
One of the things I can admit that I’ve had to work on is couching how I critique things. I thrive on constructive criticism. I’m someone who’s action-oriented; giving me a critique gives me a place to start on my next part of growth. I’m highly critical of myself. Sometimes I don’t even sit in the moment, because I’ve already dissected the way that I need to change and make it better.
I think a lot of people have this idea that I grew up in this nice middle-class family. The fact of the matter is that I grew up with a mother who—while I love my mother dearly—was a single parent, and had me in her last year of high school. She did not come from a family that was college-educated. While I also love my family, I come from a family where domestic violence is real, and intergenerational. And I have scraped and clawed my entire life to live in a way where I do not become a statistic, and I do not continue that trauma.
Most of my mental health issues deal with, honestly, coping with the intergenerational trauma that my parents passed on to me. And navigating having two parents who, while phenomenal, struggle to communicate with me. It’s a hard thing. My mom and I are just now forming a relationship that is truly healthy and respectful on both ends, and I’m thirty years old.
When I think about mental health, I wonder how—if the stigma of needing help in the black community wasn’t so thick—I wonder how my cousins and other family members could have gotten support to let them know they’re valuable, to prohibit the places they ended up being in, and some of them still are currently in.
Can you talk a little about that? The stigma of needing help in the black community?
In the black community, you pray about it. We don’t talk about things. “What happens in this house stays in this house,” is something I can guarantee almost every black person has heard in their household. That could be domestic violence, sexual violence, emotional or physical abuse. What happens in this house stays in this house. There's the idea of the strong black woman and the strong black man—yeah, it’s strength, but inside you’re being ripped apart. You’re maintaining this face of strength, always. That’s what all of us have been taught. But really, what we’re doing is, we’re carrying this baggage of trauma with us everywhere we go. It’s a lot.
In our industry, people talk about where they are mental-health-wise, and people are talking about addiction, but one of things people are not talking about is the number of people who are struggling who don’t even know how to stop to say that they’re struggling, because all they’ve ever known is that they have to push through. It’s something my close black friends in the industry and I talk about. We try to look out for each other, because there’s a real fear of being vulnerable.
When you talk about it, are you able to come to some kind of idea about what needs to change?
Oh my gosh, all the time. Especially with my close friends, like [Grey Goose ambassador] Earlecia [Gibb], and [food writer] Shanika [Hillocks], and [Brown & Balanced founder] Josh Davis, and [The Drinking Coach founder] Tiffanie Barriere, we have these conversations about how we shift. What we have to change. A lot of it is, how do we make sure we take care of each other so we’re able to keep doing this work that we love?
I know it’s a huge question, but what do you think would need to change?
The reality is that we as an industry need to start grooming ourselves to be healthier and work as teams, and to be really aware of our own implicit biases. I don’t think people understand the literal emotional wear-and-tear of being a person of color that works in either predominantly or exclusively white spaces. You know that you are going to receive microaggressions on a regular basis from your guests—it’s another thing to also constantly receive them from people you work with.
The same can be said for women. Having to constantly educate people around you or be silent is exhausting, and brings its own emotional wear-and-tear outside of doing what you do for guests. Couple that with the world...it piles on.
I’m in the middle of making training manuals for the next project I’m working on, and one of the things we have in the manual is that we want to have personal days. There are days when people just cannot do it. Emotionally cannot do it. If we don’t make space for people to say that, we’re setting ourselves up—and we’re setting our guests up—to be in spaces with people who are…
On the edge.
In a very real way. We’re setting people up to have emotional breakdowns in their places of work. So, I’ve been trying to think about the language, about the way we can check in with our staff. Can it be a regular occurance? No. But we can ask, “Where are you at this week?”
When I was managing at the Ace, I didn’t let any of my staff members work more than four days per week. I want you to have a full life. Go travel, go read a book. I don’t want you working at my business five or six days per week. I don’t care. Even when people are like, “Oh, but I want to work a lot.” It’s not healthy. And I think more businesses need to start doing that. No, I’m not ok with you working a double, because that’s not healthy for you. No, I don’t want you to work that late shift, because I’ve noticed that you’re always really cranky after you work it, even if it is really good money. That is the kind of management we have to start pursuing. I think that when we manage in a way that cares about people’s mental health, we’ll find that our teams are happier.
It really starts from the top down. I’m thinking about how many emotionally abusive bosses I’ve had, who operated like bullies. I’m even thinking about how hard of a manager I was, and how you learn a style of management that’s totalitarian and not emotionally supportive.
It’s making me think back to your earlier comments—it’s not unlike a family where abuse and trauma are part of an intergenerational pattern.
Hurt people hurt people. They don’t know that there is another way. In terms of mental health in our community, we aren’t setting up spaces where people can heal. People need to heal in order to talk about preventative measures. To prevent them from ending up back where they were. What I keep seeing happen in this industry is just the same wounds being opened up, over and over and over.
A friend and I were talking recently about how numb you become. I hate saying this, but I feel like so many people—specifically black people—are losing so many people on such a regular basis that it is so difficult to mourn. It’s literally so difficult. I lost an uncle last year who was shot and killed. I lost two good friends who were shot and killed, just wrong place, wrong time. I’ve had a friend overdose. This year alone, I can count people on two hands. You become numb. That’s people I know, you know? That doesn’t include the countless videos you see online of people being shot by police, and that kind of trauma.
That’s really intense.
Yeah. It’s a real thing. There are people in this industry who feel that. It’s why it’s important to understand that people come from different places, with different communication patterns, and different backgrounds and lifestyles—there has to be space for people to feel like they won’t be shamed or looked down upon for having a lived experience that doesn’t look like others’. I think when we’re talking about mental health, one of the things we’re talking about is, is there enough space for everybody?
Do you think that there is?
No. I don’t. And I think that’s why so many people feel lonely. I think, for a lot of people, it’s what’s eating them up.
You know, it’s not enough for us to have cocktail weeks where everyone’s like, “Yay!” And then we don’t check on those people afterward. I always tell people, it’s always important to have that friend group that you work on radical transparency with and who know when you’re not ok. People who, even when you’re saying you’re ok, they know that you’re not ok. Those are the people who get you through. Those people are soul-nourishing, like the extra battery pack when you can’t refuel yourself. When you just don’t, and you just can’t. Right now, I think there are a lot of people who don’t have that. We need to start asking why, or how we can be that for people. People who can’t ask for that themselves.
This is all super foundational, but I think a lot of people would consider some of this almost radical.
I mean, I’m radical as fuck. That’s who I am as a person.
So where do you think that radical perspective comes from? Anytime anyone has a point of view that’s progressive or radical, I’m curious about how they ended up there.
I think I’ve always been a little radical, because my mother’s a little radical. Not because she’s always attempted to be radical, but because she had to. She had to break the mold of what being a teenage mother looked like. There was no other choice but to be radical if she didn’t want to be a statistic. I think a lot of my beliefs I just assumed to be true of the world, because that’s the way my mother operated. She wasn’t going to be satisfied being on welfare. She wanted more, so she worked for more.
I think reading probably saved my life. A bookstore is probably where I feel the most at home in the world. I think books are why I’m radical. I think that reading and books have shown me worlds that maybe don’t exist in real life, but that I believe could. Reading about history has made me radical. Because if you truly know the history of where we come from as a people, you know that what we now see as the norm was once not that. And it has taken someone to break the mold each time for us to keep pushing it forward.
And, I don’t think this is a secret, but there was a point in my life when I was sexually assaulted. In a public space. It literally changed my view of the world.
In what way?
It changed the way I looked at myself. I was somewhere that should be considered safe. I was in Paris. I was in a public space. There’s no way, right? That someone should have been able to sexually assault me. But they were. It wasn’t like there were no people around. They just chose not to intervene. Because they didn’t want to get involved. I think that experience helped me to understand that people are sympathetic but not empathetic a lot of the time. And it challenged me to think about why an experience has to be someone’s own for them to care about it. Why does someone have to be violated?
I remember being at home and talking to my grandmother about the #MeToo movement. She was saying, “I don’t know why these women let men do this to them. If you’re strong, that’s not what you do.” And it took me everything, because this is my grandmother, but I was like, “No one let them. There’s a power dynamic at play. I’ve been raped. Does that mean I’m not strong?” And it made me realize that we’ve been grooming people to be sympathetic and not empathetic. We’ve been grooming people to give performances of empathy instead of real empathy. That liking a Facebook post is enough. That a text message is enough.
I hope that I’m not radical for that long. I’m looking forward to the day when someone introduces something to me that I need to be pulled toward.
A lot of what you’re saying about what’s broken right now feels overwhelming. Why do you believe that talking about all of this will help? How do you keep going?
Narratives are important. Histories are important. Talking about things is important. It’s how we learn. Talking about things is also cathartic. Holding onto these things is not going to make anything better.
Yesterday, I had a day when I was like, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” I have those days often. I would love, right now, to be studying for the next level of my somm education. I would love to have the space to be focused on that. It’s not a privilege that I have, though. Because we’re dying. I’m not being dramatic. We are dying. I’m doing this because, it is possible, in our lifetime, to go backwards. To undo the work that has already been done.
I keep going because of women like my great-grandmother. Women like her, who had nine kids, worked multiple jobs, helped raise other people’s children, and still found time to go to church on Sunday. If she could do it and not have words like intersectional feminism, I should do it.
Even though our relationship has been a struggle, I think about my mother—as a woman—[and] her defiance, her refusal to accept that her daughter would live a life like she had. That very real sacrifice is not just courageous. It is a blessing. The way that she would defend me in school because I wanted to write about excessive abuse in prisons in the eighth grade. Knowing that she was being stereotyped as a black mother, and still walking in the school to say, “No, I won’t make her change that paper.”
Even when we weren’t on good terms, and even when I was upset with her for not adhering to traditional ways and being a patriarchal mother, she could still love me. That she could still so effortlessly defend me… I think I’ve never thought about it before, not until this moment. I do it for her.
That’s pretty powerful stuff.
As I get older, as a woman, I think I truly understand. The sacrifices, the way she attempted to love me through it all. She has allowed me to be me my entire life. And that’s a gift not everybody gets.
It’s interesting how that changes in adulthood. I think it’s a unique part of womanhood, learning how to balance and hold your identity as a woman alongside your relationship with your mother, of your understanding of her sacrifices. Trying to figure out how they integrate.
It’s part of how you understand where you are as a person. The day that I realized that I didn’t have to keep punishing my mother for what I perceived as her missteps in raising me was the moment I realized I could have a relationship with her. And although it didn’t look like other people’s relationships with their mothers, it didn’t make it less valuable.
That’s what keeps me going. Love keeps me going. The people I love keep me going.
It sounds like really focusing on people in your life who you love is a really important part of your self-care.
This article came out in the Harvard Business Review last week that talks about why having a smaller circle of people you could connect with was better than having a huge network. It’s better to have really strong relationships with a few people that you can maintain than it is to have a million. I believe that to be really true. Whether it’s a work relationship or a personal relationship, if you’re engaging on an intimate level, you’re emotionally accountable for that person. You can’t be emotionally accountable to thousands of people.
For a long time, we’ve talked about taking emotion out of businesses, but people are a part of businesses. So, the fact of the matter is that we can’t take emotions out of it, and we shouldn’t want to. Because we’re not robots. Especially in the hospitality community. One of the sayings that’s going around right now that I really hate is, “Just be nice.” What do you mean, just be nice? People aren’t suicidal or in a deep depression because someone didn’t say hi to them. It’s more layered than that. It’s a cop-out. It isn’t being accountable toward the people in our spaces.
So, what are some of the takeaways? How can we be better?
You need to be more than nice. You need to check in on people. You need to ask, “How are you?” And when you feel that tingle when they say, “I’m ok,” and you think they’re not, you need to ask them again the next day. You do need to actually make sure. You do need to keep checking in with them.
I’m always gonna say this, and I know people think I sound like a broken record: You need to educate yourself. So many people say, “I care about sexual assault. What can I do?” I’m like, “Do you have bystander training?” Doing the work doesn’t always look like being the star. If doing the work is about your ego, you need to unpack that and think about that. I’m glad the work makes you feel good, but that’s a centering on you.
I talk about uncentering the self a lot. A lot of people think that when I say that, I’m saying not to consider yourself—that’s not what I’m saying. We walk through life as a nucleus, putting everything in relation to who we are. Uncentering yourself means taking yourself away as the nucleus. I do this all the time when I realize I need to check myself. I ask, “Is this actually hurting you, or is it hurting your ego? Is this causing emotional or physical damage to you, or is it hurting your ego?” Because those are two different things. Uncentering yourself is acknowledging that you not only have an ego, but that it shouldn’t be present or centered on in that moment. When someone comes to you and tells you they’re in pain, talking about when you were in pain is centering you. Talking about how you got through your pain is centering you. It’s not providing a space that supports them.
Ask people, flat-out, “How can I help you?” Stop assuming what people need from you. You don’t know what they need from you. That’s 101 for being a great human being. You see someone in need? You want to help them? Go ask them how you can help them.
Also, I would say, charity is not a substitute for empathy. I think a lot of people think giving ten dollars is the same thing as giving space, and it’s not. And that’s not to be doubting charity. We need charity. But those are two different spaces, and people need to be cognizant of that. Simply giving ten dollars doesn’t automatically make space. And sometimes what people need is space. To breathe.
Start your day with intention. This is something I’ve been doing more recently. Wake up, and don’t look at your phone. How do you want to lead your day? The days that I don’t do that, I feel it throughout my entire day. I watch as the world just shifts and moves me as it wants to. So start your day with intention. It doesn’t need to be goal-oriented. It could just be a feeling.
The other day, I woke up, and thought, “I want to walk through the day with abundance. I have time for everything. I don’t want to walk with scarcity.” Lo and behold, later that day, someone called me a stupid n*gger. Had she caught me on the day before, I might have been on the news. But instead, although I was angry, it wasn’t this torrid anger. Waking up with intention was one of the things that got me through. It’s also one of the things that probably kept a lot of people from being cussed out [laughing].
Lastly: who is your tribe? Who are the people in your life? Name them. Do they know that they are part of your support system? Because your support system can’t be supportive if you haven’t let them know that they’re your support system. Be transparent. Say to them, “Hey, I want you to know that your friendship means a lot to me. I really love you. I also want to let you know that I think of you as a support system for me. If I reach out to you, I need you to be there.” And that person has a right to be like, “I would love to be your support system. Here are the ways that I can assist you.”
Here are my own boundaries.
Boundaries are healthy, people. They set up the expectations. I’m looking forward to seeing more and more people be open about where they are. I think it’ll help us heal.