Article by Maddie Vincent – July 2020
The Aspen Times’ Maddie Vincent discusses racism in America and its impacts on the local Aspen community. Ms. Vincent interviewed Aspen Business Leader, Entrepreneur and Chef, Mawa McQueen.
It’s no secret that Aspen is known as a predominately white, wealthy Colorado ski town. And while leaders like Mawa McQueen — renowned local chef and founder of Mawa’s Kitchen in Aspen and The Crepe Shack in Snowmass Village — knows racism must exist in Aspen, she said she can’t recall having experienced any notable discrimination or prejudice against herself.
However, McQueen said she understands her perspective is probably much different than other locals of color because she came to America from France, where she grew up, to actively leave racism behind her and pursue her dreams of success beyond the French ghetto.
“Since I’ve been in this country for 18 years, I’ve never really experienced or never noticed any racism against me and that is the truth,” McQueen said.
“I left that in my past, that was my France story. … I came here because I decided to choose what racism I can put up with. I didn’t want to put up with the French one, I wanted to put up with the American one because I knew that people beat the system here, they beat it. In France, I didn’t see that. I didn’t see anybody who was a self-made millionaire and not a singer or an athlete.”
McQueen, who is originally from Ivory Coast, Africa, started cooking at a young age for her siblings, growing to love it and seeing it as fun versus work when she was a teenager. However, she said she never considered becoming a chef until later in life because she didn’t see any other Black chefs in France.
After attending vocational school and then one of France’s top culinary schools — earning a diploma in front of house, hotel and restaurant management after being steered away from cooking — she experienced the reality of what she suspected was “wrong” with France’s socioeconomic system all along in her early 20s: McQueen couldn’t get a job at any restaurant other than those that served fast food.
“They’d look at my resume, say great, and then I’d show up for an interview and they’d be like ‘oh, no.’ I’d feel so horrible,” McQueen said. “I was like this is not the France I know because nobody separates you, nobody calls you the ‘N-word’ or whatever. The prejudice is subtle.”
Soon after experiencing this reality, McQueen moved to England with the ultimate goal of getting to America, where she felt she had the best chance of being successful. She worked hard, learned English and in the early 2000s, McQueen was able to move to the U.S., first working in Maine and then in Aspen at The Little Nell and a variety of catering companies.
In 2006, McQueen opened Mawa’s Kitchen and has worked to bring healthy, locally sourced food to Aspen area locals and visitors ever since. She feels proud to have her own restaurant in Aspen and to have had the opportunity to make a name for herself on her cooking alone.
“I’ve worked hard for every single thing that I’ve had but I’ve never thought anybody in Aspen has treated me better or worse because I am Black,” McQueen said. “People don’t come to Mawa’s Kitchen because I’m Black, they come to Mawa’s Kitchen because I force them to because of my food.”
For McQueen, who strives to always be the exception and not the stereotype, she feels the current Black Lives Matter movement is an opportunity for Aspen to reflect on what it can do better to be more inclusive and to condemn racism in the community — never allowing a tenth of what happened to Floyd to happen in Aspen — but also to make Black and African American people feel more welcome to live and visit here.
For example, she said there must be a more deliberate marketing effort to bring more rich Black and African American people to Aspen — the same effort they put into advertising and marketing to rich white people — and that there needs to be more people of color in both Aspen Chamber Resort Association and Aspen Skiing Co. advertising.
“Don’t stereotype Black people. As much as there’s different white people, there’s a lot of different Black people,” McQueen said, emphasizing that the “Black people don’t ski” stereotype is dead wrong.
“When I came here, I hoped I would find someone who looked like me doing something extraordinary and I didn’t find anyone. I was saddened by that, …in my life, I never wanted to be average; I wanted to be extraordinary so I want to see more African Americans do better; to be extraordinary in Aspen.”