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Why Can’t We Talk About Race in Food?

Five writers on what it’s like to be silenced

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This story was originally published on Civil Eats.

When journalist and author Bonnie Tsui wrote a New York Times op-ed recently asking, “Why is Asian salad still on the menu?” it struck a chord with many readers. In the piece, Tsui wrote:

In many American restaurants, the Asian salad is right up there next to the Greek salad and the Caesar salad. You might think this is progress—cultural inclusion on a menu. And yet the Asian salad is often the one that comes with a winky, jokey name: Oriental Chop Chop. Mr. Mao’s. Secret Asian Man. Asian Emperor. China Island. Chicken Asian Chop Chop. Chinese-y Chicken…

The casual racism of the Asian salad stems from the idea of the exotic—who is and isn’t American is caught up wholesale in its creation. This use of “Oriental” and “Asian” is rooted in the wide-ranging, “all look same” stereotypes of Asian culture that most people don’t really perceive as being racist. It creates a kind of blind spot.

Although many readers shared the piece and thanked Tsui for her insight, she was also barraged with anger and criticism. And she isn’t alone. In recent years, writers who dare to look critically at the way food and race intersect have often been trolled, degraded, and threatened on and off of social media. Recently, Civil Eats’ editors invited Tsui and several others writers to weigh in about the increasing and seemingly coordinated efforts to silence their voices.

Bonnie Tsui, writer and author of American Chinatown

Aurora King

I was astounded by the level of rage that boiled up. It seemed that many people felt my questioning of the nomenclature was equivalent to a direct attack on America and a rejection of the existence of hamburgers and French fries. I received a lot of notes that relied on flawed logic, a set-up of false equivalencies — that just because someone writes a piece about X, she doesn’t care about Y, she is making too big a deal out of Z, she should be worrying about A, instead, save your outrage for B.

The message this dismissive trolling sends: We’re not allowed to talk. We’re not allowed to make critical observations about the language we use for food, or see it as telling of our wider perceptions of the world and the people in it. It’s hard not to see a larger resonance to this. There are many perceptive, thoughtfully written stories about race and food, but from the trolling in the comments sections and on Twitter — all blunt instrument and ham-fisted vitriol, often not responding at all to what the original writings say — you’d think that subtlety and balance did not exist. They do.

Shakirah Simley, co-founder, Nourish|Resist, 2017 Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture exchange fellow

Molly DeCoudreaux

People of color in food maintain a triple burden: They must be equally eloquent on the roots and recipes of their specific food culture, while remaining skeptical of grossly appropriative and derivative versions of said food and culture (hello weirdly racist Asian chicken salad, fried chicken joints in blackface, and straight-up stolen Mexican recipes). All the while, dealing with the interpersonal and structural racism that limits their full potential within kitchens, dining rooms, fields, or editing rooms.

In the face of all this, we persist. We honor unsung food heroes. We open our dream restaurants, which pay homage to our ancestors. We have to show why we matter — bringing forth the stories, the flavors, the issues, the ingredients. We tell our own stories, because we must. And then we get told why we shouldn’t. Because blander, muted, and inappropriately seasoned versions of our food and ourselves is what sells covers — on magazines and in dining rooms.

Spicy, but not too much. Speak up, but not too much.

There are seven specific ways that people of color in the food world are censored and silenced in order to protect white feelings. Responses to our attempts against erasure, generally fit into one of these categories: hate speech and trolling; defensive denial; whitesplaining; the Devil’s Advocate; #NotAllWhiteFoodPeople; the culture vulture/Columbus-er; and finally, polite acceptance, which is often presented as allyship — even if it’s far from it.

America and its institutions have a long history of stifling POC voices with indifference and violence; instead of pens and pulpits, people now have mastheads, keyboards, and Twitter accounts. Like clockwork, the Seven Horses of the Fragility Snowpocalypse always appear, for fear a queer brown chef speaks to her legitimate and industrywide experience. Reporting on well-founded research of restaurants shows striking inequity within restaurants in progressive cities, generates hate-fueled mail. God forbid someone ask for a specific country when a food blogger tosses out a recipe for “Asian noodle salad.”

We cannot even talk about the truth behind our own discrimination or racial abuse without being further abused and discriminated against, particularly on social platforms that have broad reach but don’t protect users — celebrity or not. Advising people #dontreadthecomments isn’t enough. It’s not enough for people like me to control, manage, navigate their own behavior for fear of white reaction. It’s time for white people to listen and hold other white people accountable — chefs and writers alike.

Stephen Satterfield, sommelier, urban farmer, WhetstoneMagazine founder, and Food52 writer in residence

Audre Larrow

We’ve arrived at an interesting moment in food media. For so long, the lens through which food was viewed and documented was a fundamentally European one. But as we’ve grown more serious about our dining, the way we consume food has evolved from something that defines our interest to something that defines us. Some now see “food as identity,” and many are beginning to acknowledge the limits of seeing delicious food as the exclusive terrain of white men.

Readers and food enthusiasts are no longer willing to accept Eurocentrism as exceptionalism. And some food editors are increasingly making very public efforts to elevate the more diverse voices within the chorus. I know this to be true as I’ve been a beneficiary of this new enlightenment.

The awkward thing, though, is that this is all happening at precisely the moment in which regressive racial ideology has been given a new pass by the current administration. Racist rhetoric has been unleashed, and nowhere is this more evident than online. This convergence of events — a more diverse set of food writers, plus emboldened, overt bigotry — has meant these writers and their ideas are being met with vitriolic, defensive, and just plain racist comments.

Abolishing racial inequity endures as the work of the privileged, and so intrinsically needs to loudly shouted down not by the writers who are the target of the racism, but by “everyone else.” For the rest of “us,” the work continues. Keep writing.

Dakota Kim, writer and food editor, Paste Magazine

Claire Nelson

I own my own privilege in the food space. I’ve diversified my writing income streams so that I’m not as afraid to speak my mind. Not everyone has that privilege to speak out without fear that the ever-present backlash against people of color speaking their minds will lead a trauma-inducing Twitter feud — or worse.

Every time I write something asserting the right of people of color to speak out about culinary appropriation, I get hate mail. Every. Single. Time. I get vicious attempts at delegitimization and self-esteem destruction. Trolls add me to lists called “#NotReallyAJournalist” and “#CantWrite.”

I have the privilege of multiple higher-ed degrees and a healthy writing career, which allows me to dash off an article in an hour, publish it, and not worry too much about how a wordy sentence might characterize me. Think about folks who don’t have those privileges and are trying to write about cultural appropriation or defend themselves in social spaces.

The thing that frustrates me most about the current culinary-appropriation conversation is how narrow it is. It fails to see the larger context of capitalist neo-colonialism and it fails to talk about social justice and true equal opportunity. Food is not your separate, happy, safe sphere, away from politics. Food is politics. Food is culture.

We focus too much on the poor Americans who were “forced” to shutter their pop-up food cart (they weren’t really forced, by the way — they chose to shut down in the face of criticism); we don’t focus enough on the million small cuts a day to underrepresented people of color.

Every time a black or Latinx restaurateur is passed over for a business loan, that news goes silently into the void. When an unofficial community garden supporting people of color in a gentrifying neighborhood is razed to build condos, it doesn’t make mainstream food-media headlines, even though it’s the bedrock of feeding a community healthfully and fighting for survival.

We’re too busy talking about the latest Momofuku cookies. I’m not saying I’m innocent of writing about viral trends, but how do we steer this ship toward deeper waters — such as the not-radical ideas that creators in developing nations (like the tortilla makers that the Kooks Burritos ladies learned from) should get paid for their expertise, or that slavery deserves reparations for building this country?

Tunde Wey, writer and host of the Blackness in America dinner series

Claire Nelson

We can’t talk about race and food, because nobody wants to acknowledge the truth: privilege (racial or gender) is a deeply satisfying possession. And we are selfish, exploitative, and manipulative in our attempt to hold on to it.

And because racism does not have a benign history, and its consequences are tragic, this announcement becomes an indictment of the individual or organization as entirely awful. And nobody thinks they are evil or wants to be thought of as such, so they fight the characterization, doubling down on the position that is being assailed because if they can win the fight, then they can prove they are good.

This pessimistic reaction to the charge of racism conflates the disagreeable parts of who we are with the entirety of who we are. We are not exclusively, and permanently, the motivations that drive us to protect our privilege. But those are the potentials we have invested in.

We can’t talk about race because we don’t want to be vulnerable, it’s uncomfortable — it’s antithetical to our psychological survival to be in an emotional space where the foundation of our identity is challenged.

To talk about race and food, we have to change the terms of engagement. We should reward not just the finished product of transformation but also the process. My personal experiences hosting public dinners on race and immigration over the last year and a half in communities across the country have taught me that the tensions inherent in these sorts of conversations are reconcilable only through a substantive transformation of the individual and the system. Both have to inform each other, happening in tandem, and also independently. Then, talking constructively about racism becomes about exiting our current state of unwitting materialism and moving toward a less material and more emotionally vulnerable place where we can admit to being corrupted without seeing ourselves as irredeemable.

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