Chef Tunde Wey

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Updated April 27

The last time nationally-known Nigerian chef Tunde Wey hosted a dinner in Philly, it was part of a traveling series of pop-ups to discuss the role of race and “Blackness in America.” Wey wasn’t exactly “happy” with how the Philly event turned out — “I haven’t found the word to describe the feeling, because it’s not ‘pleasant,’” he said of the sometimes tense discussions he leads — but he was satisfied enough that he’s coming back to town.

When he returns to South Philly Barbacoa on Friday, April 28, the post-meal talk will center around a different topic, one that’s at the forefront of current political discussion: Immigration.

“I’m doing this to allay my anxiety,” Wey said, noting that he decided to embark on this new dinner series right after November 8. He sees Trump’s election not as the root of the problem, but as a symptom of a larger disconnect within American society.

“President Donald Trump was successful in his candidacy in part because he skillfully stoked fears about immigrants,” he continued. Specifically, undocumented immigrants — the ones whom Trump says could be kept out by a “wall with Mexico.” However, undocumented immigrants are thought to make up just 3.5 percent of the total US population and 5.6 percent of the workforce.

“How does such a small and vulnerable group undermine America?” Wey asked. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

He used the Euro crisis as an analogy. Greece has the economy of Rhode Island, he noted, so imagine if money problems in that tiny state could threaten America’s entire economic viability, like Greece did with Europe. “The problem wouldn’t be with Rhode Island,” Wey said. “The problem is obviously with the larger structure. So similarly, if 5 percent of the labor pool threatens America’s job health? The problem wouldn’t be with those people, it’s with the larger system.”

However, undocumented workers do not in fact threaten America’s job health, he said: “The problem is made-up. It’s a classic thing politicians and demagogues do to secure power.”

There has recently been a groundswell of support in Philadelphia for the immigrant community, but many who’ve participated in actions like the “Day Without Immigrants” stop short at expressing support for people here without official documentation. But there’s a secondary movement afoot that says, really, there shouldn’t be a difference. At 11 a.m. on Thursday, April 27, City Council will hold a hearing on a resolution sponsored by Ben Miller and Cristina Martinz’s PAUWR group to recognize all Philly workers, regardless of immigration status. (Update: The resolution passed.)

Wey, himself an immigrant without up-to-date documentation (he’s got a visa renewal hearing lined up), wants to use the Friday dinner discussion to hammer home that point.

“People who think undocumented folks don’t have a right to be here because they didn’t come here the ‘right’ way” are confusing righteousness with privilege, he said. “They refuse to admit that being born here wasn’t something given, or luck. [They think] it was through a certain skill they were able to acquire this power.

“There is no chef in Philly or New Orleans or anywhere that can tell me they deserve to work here and own a restaurant here more than anyone else in the world.”

At the dinner, Wey wants to “create complicity in the room.” He wants people who attend, whether they think of themselves as restrictive or liberal, to realize that the climate allowing for current immigration policy is “not just from Trump. It’s the manifestation of an obscured ideology that privileges Americans and whiteness.”

Wey does not hate America. Far from it. He has lived in this country for 17 years, longer than the 16 he spent in his native Nigeria, and enjoys the access to opportunity and conveniences it offers. And despite its underlying problems — “founded by wealthy white men who were trying to protect their interests” — he sees it as the world’s current best hope for actually becoming a society that does give people a fair chance.

“From a very American lens, America seems like the place where greater equity and understanding can come true,” he said.

If you’re interested in discussing further, pick up a $55 ticket here for the April 28 event, which starts with a variety of Nigerian dishes that are all vegan, and continues with frank talk over coffee and dessert.

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Danya Henninger

Danya Henninger is director of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the...