We love you food media, and we know you're capable of doing better. It seems like ever since we really started paying attention to the way you handle race and ethnicity, you've been kicking off some flaming garbage pile of nonsense at least once a week or more. Our inboxes are full of links to articles and tweets that our listeners and readers send to us; what you see us write about is just a fraction of what we look at daily.
To us, the problem with food publications, both online and in print, is clear: while the audience has grown and become more diverse, many outlets remain committed to serving a demographic that skews upper middle class and white. However, as their coverage of non-European cuisines widen, so should their competence in writing about them accurately and fairly, without relying on racist and imperialist stereotypes. As writers and dedicated consumers of food media and writing, we're invested in making the genre better, both for our fellow writers and readers.
So we asked a few of our peers and friends to weigh in on the questions, "Where does food media fall short in its coverage of people and communities of color? And what can publications and their staff do to make us feel more welcome?"
Food media, at your basic training camp for journalists, please have them open their dictionaries to 'E,' take out a permanent marker, and double-strike the word 'exotic.' Every time you publish the word 'exotic,' Edward Said drops a tear in heaven. Also, I get mad. I've started tweeting a weekly example of the usage of 'exotic' with the hashtag #imnotexoticimexhausted. Please, for the love of god, get some education outside of how to bake cupcakes before you start tweeting about how exotic the insects you ate in Mexico are. Read extensively about "othering" online. Who are you centering? This is just basic day one protocol. I can't believe we're still dealing with this but I see it every week in another big publication where the grammatical style is impeccable but the cultural style is deplorable.
I believe food writing can make the world a better place. To get there, we need to look at food the way non-foodcentric publications are writing about it and follow like it's Friday. Food is a movable economic unit to economists; it's an intangible artifact to anthropologists; and it's so much more than cupcakes (sorry, cupcakes, you're cute but you've gotten far too much attention in the recent history of food). I don't think non-food pubs have illusions that food is not capitalist, or that it's a safe space for happy warm-and-fuzzy memories only. Shatter that illusion forever; food has always been a site of warfare, colonialism and cultural erasure.
My advice to those seeking to make food writing more accessible to people of color is to stop centering these mainstream publications. I don't even read most of them anymore. What can they teach me about Korean food that my mother and grandmother can't? Start and subscribe to publications of color. It doesn't mean you can't enjoy mainstream pubs, but it's going to take them a long time to diversify and learn to write without Columbusing. In the meantime, the Internet is the perfect medium for founding low-cost publications by and for people of color.
Lately, I've begun to see stories about PoC in food pigeonholed as Important Stories™, 2017's equivalent of the Very Special Episode. (This certainly happened a lot following the Nick Solares debacle, but Trump's election pretty much led to an explosion of this genre of writing.)
Take this recent SAVEUR article on Jue-Let, the Chinese chef who effectively raised James Beard. Never mind that this piece spoke its subtext about erasure aloud gracelessly ("Behind every great white chef is a small army of overlooked minorities that make his or her food a reality," the first sentence reads—yeah, no shit); there was a vague savior complex at play there, as if food media companies expect medals for giving real estate to stories about PoC.
These stories somehow manage to be more about how progressive the writers/commissioning editors imagine themselves to be and less about the actual PoC subjects; it's disingenuous virtue-signaling from food media's reigning class of white, pantsuit-brigade liberals. Newsflash: Some of us have been writing about PoC in food for a long time without patting ourselves on the back for it.
Honestly, I would say it's the erasure of PoC and our communities that makes me the most crazy. That hot chicken, that pho, that taco that's being written about came from a very specific history and community. You can't talk about food and not talk about people. Period.
But I'm very optimistic and I believe that food media can definitely make the world a better place and also help create a more equitable food system. I think it's going to require gatekeepers to evaluate who they let tell stories and how they tell them, and editors to say no to click bait.
Food writing too often styles itself as a luxury product, focusing only on the kinds of stories that appeal to the wealthy, those who already have purchasing power and an investment in the existing narrative. But, this is a disservice to the audience who represent, increasingly, a discriminating palate at a more accessible price point. So, when you sit down to pitch a piece or when you're commissioning a review, think about who this story is for. Is it for the current establishment or for a new, burgeoning audience? If you want to reach new readers, new eaters, then how can you center your writing on their stories, their perspectives, and their experiences? Whose story are you trying to tell? Theirs or yours?
Avoid the temptation to peg food by people of color who do not speak English as exotic. If possible, tell the story through their perspective and hire a translator. Lastly, do not assume PoC's food is inherently cheap.
The world is an unfair place. Not because of the random misfortunes which befall us—injury, death, failure—regardless of our preparedness, or ill-preparedness. It is unfair because our most crucial serendipitous moments, those inflection points which haul us from ordinary to blissful, from where we are to where we want to be, always involve people who don't look anything like us, or understand with visceral awareness who we are.
If you're, say, a Black or brown food writer or chef, eager to share your perspective and be recognized by a world bigger than your cultural orientation, most likely, a white food editor or writer stands at the gate. They may open it and let you in. But just you for now, no one else who looks like you—for now, just you.
So victory is sweet but unfair, because are you really winning when you're the only one there?
For further reading:
- Why We Can't Talk About Race in Food via Civil Eats
- 4 Not-So-Easy Ways to Dismantle Racism in the Food System via Yes! Magazine
- An Annotated Bibliography on Structural Racism Present in the U.S. Food System via Michigan State University
- The Struggles of Writing About Chinese Food as a Chinese Person via Vice Munchies
- Craving the Other via BITCH Media
- We're Having the Wrong Conversation About Food & Cultural Appropriation via Paste