Last week, Ann Tuennerman, founder of the New Orleans-based cocktail festival and conference Tales of the Cocktail, rode on a float in a Mardi Gras parade. The rest of Tuennerman’s week was spent apologizing. Her husband, Paul Tuennerman, the chief business officer of the company, has resigned in disgrace.

Here’s what happened: Tuennerman, who is white, was invited to ride with the historically African American Zulu Krewe — Krewes being the social clubs that host parades and parties for Mardi Gras. A Zulu Krewe tradition is to wear blackface and grass skirts, like how an early Hollywood film might have represented an African tribesman in a less racially enlightened era. She wore the blackface makeup, and participated in a since-deleted Facebook Live video that she posted with the following caption: “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.”

Many Tales of the Cocktail followers said they were offended by the blackface, and also by the remarks, which they said implied that African Americans were not media-savvy or articulate.

“Are you saying black faces are dumb, that we can’t form sentences?” said Josh Davis, who tends bar at Chicago’s Bureau Bar and Velvet Lounge. Davis wrote an open letter about the incident that has circulated among bartenders across the country. He said that he thought the Tuennermans’ apologies weren’t sincere, and he wasn’t sure if he would attend the conference this July.

In her public apology, Ann wrote, “It was an honor to ride with the Zulu organization, but in my ignorance, I did not consider how videos and photos of my participation in this parade would cause pain and incite anger for so many.”

In his resignation note, Paul wrote, “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.”

To outsiders, it might seem like a cut-and-dried case. But some New Orleanians, both white and black, have come to the Tuennermans’ defense because of the tradition of blackface in the Zulu parade. Many others have criticized their judgment, with some saying that it’s never OK for a white person to wear blackface, even at the invitation of the Zulu Krewe — and that regardless of the tradition, the remarks were out of line.

“It is a requirement to paint your face black while riding with the Zulu Krewe. Although I appreciate Ann’s apology and her eagerness to educate herself, she does NOT owe anyone an apology,” wrote one commenter, who self-identified as black, on TOTC’s Facebook page. Wrote another commenter: “Please stop pretending that the issue was wearing blackface. New Orleans residents know and accept that tradition in Zulu parades. It was the COMMENT, not the picture that upset people.”

The Zulu tradition of blackface has been interpreted several ways. Mardi Gras, according to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival blog, is marked by a “reversal of traditional societal roles. During the ‘enchanted time’ of Carnival, social rules became flexible, even inverted; commoners could ritually lampoon and impersonate those in power.” So the Zulus’ wearing of blackface, some say, is a way of subverting the power dynamic of Mardi Gras. Others dressed up as kings, but the Zulus’ attire was “sending up the white carnival,” wrote the New York Times in 2009. “Their outfits were designed to mock preconceptions whites had of blacks through a sort of sly stereotype jujitsu.” But the same article also indicates that the origin of the costumes wasn’t entirely about subversion:

“It was none of that stuff,” [Clarence Becknell, a former school principal and current Zulu historian,] said. “It was strictly creative. These guys were laborers and couldn’t afford to buy masks. But blackface was cheap.”
Charles Chamberlain, the Louisiana State Museum historian, concurred. “It was part of vaudeville and the carnival tradition,” he said. “They were making fun of themselves more than anything.”

African Americans have also protested the Zulu costumes as demeaning. In the 1960s, membership dwindled to 16 men, the Zulu website notes. Tuennerman is not the only white Zulu to wear blackface. And white Zulus in blackface regularly make parade-watchers uncomfortable.

“The Tales of the Cocktails matter is a domestic matter involving Mr. and Mrs. Tuennerman.  Zulu has no response to that domestic matter,” wrote Danatus King, the lawyer representing the Zulus, in an email.

The image of Tuennerman in blackface came as black cocktail professionals continue to have to fight for representation in an industry where bartenders tend to look the same: tattooed, bearded, male, white. And it’s especially ironic, considering that Tuennerman has been lauded by some of those same bartenders: She’s the recipient of the Museum of the American Cocktail’s 2013 Tom Bullock Award for Distinguished Service, named after an early 20th-century African American bartender and author in St. Louis.

Tales of the Cocktail also released a white paper noting the under-representation of minorities in the spirits industry last year. According to the Economic Policy Institute, 77 percent of bartenders are white and 3 percent are black. “Bartending as a profession is significantly less racially diverse than the overall working population,” the paper stated.

Other food conferences and festivals have struggled with diversity issues as well. Last year, Cochon555, the whole-hog cooking festival and competition, posted an Instagram photo of a chef wearing a kimono, woven bamboo hat and glasses that made his eyes appear stereotypically Asian. Founder Brady Lowe, who posed for a photo with the chef, apologized, and several prominent Asian chefs called for a boycott.

Tuennerman is trying to make amends with Tales of the Cocktail followers by issuing a series of full-throated apologies, including one on Facebook Live with New Orleans bartender Ashtin Berry on Monday afternoon. Berry told Tuennerman that the language of her apology, which began with a statement about how she didn’t intend to cause offense, and which did not acknowledge her husband’s remarks, was “a microaggression.”

Tuennerman said, “From our conversation I’ve learned that intent doesn’t matter, it’s the result that matters.” She added that she could have “used different language. Apologizing and wanting people to forgive you is selfish.”

She said she has been working to educate herself about white privilege, and to change the culture at Tales of the Cocktail to be radically inclusive.

“This is going to be one of the most defining growth opportunities of my life,” she said.

Davis and other bartenders say they are going to make sure of it. He hopes that the dialogue about race will continue at Tales of the Cocktail events.

“We’re not going to just let this go away,” he said. “We’re not going to sweep it under the rug.”