The BBC recently reported on Celeste Noche, a Filipino-American food and travel photographer, who laments the many microaggressions food writers commit. On the podcast Racist Sandwich (who knew a sandwich could be racist?), Noche expressed her displeasure at the way white people write about ethnic food. She was most recently annoyed by food blogger Andrew Zimmern, who featured a picture of Filipino short ribs with some chopsticks. Filipinos, as we all know, use knives and forks.
ZImmern’s faux pas follows on the heels of Bon Appetit’s, which was raked over the coals last year for running a story about Pho. Where had the food magazine gone wrong? Typos? A bad or inauthentic recipe for the Vietnamese soup? No, its mistake was not food-related at all. Bon Appetit’s crime was posting a video of a white person describing the best way of enjoying a dish of Asian origin. Race activists accused it of “cultural appropriation,” and the magazine issued a groveling apology. This baffles me—and I grew up in South Africa, where the racial politics are about as complicated as it gets. Or so I thought.
The Bon Appetit fracas arose during a curious time in U.S. race relations. For instance, last year California State University Fresno held a three-day student retreat for black students only, and the University of Wisconsin Madison held a barbeque intended for “self-identified students of color.”
Ya’ll Need to Learn about Real Racism
Becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen a couple of years ago was an incredibly proud moment for me. I had always seen the United States as a country of opportunity where one is free to pursue one’s own definition of happiness, and I became a part of it.
Growing up during apartheid in South Africa lends one a certain perspective on race, even if one is white, as I am. I obviously did not suffer the many indignities, inequities, and state-sponsored brutality that most black South Africans endured under apartheid. In that respect I was fortunate. But I was also very fortunate to have been sent to private, multi-racial schools.
During apartheid, private schools could admit non-white students. In them, we students could also study literature that dealt with race, such as Alan Paton’s “Cry The Beloved Country” and “To Kill A Mockingbird.” We could also engage in anti-apartheid political debates that would have been out of the question in the racially segregated state-run schools.
At our school every boy was judged on merit, not race, whether in the classroom, sports field, or at choir practice. I can’t remember a single incident of a child being given some advantage or handicap because of his race, and I can’t remember anyone expecting any such treatment. But as soon as non-white students stepped off school property, they were back to being second-class citizens, with their lives determined purely on race. The contrast was stark and an early lesson to me of the wickedness and utter stupidity of dividing people by race, rather than treating them as individuals with their own unique talents and aspirations.
I grew up believing that the United States was all about treating people as individuals. Yet in 2016 in the United States, decades after the end of Jim Crow and during the second term of the country’s first black president, people seem to be clamoring for some sort of self-imposed apartheid.
Your Hypocrisy and Small-Mindedness Is Showing
I’m not entirely sure what “cultural appropriation” is and why it is in any way different from celebrating or complementing a different culture. It’s curious to me that the social justice warriors railing against Bon Appetit are not demanding that bookshops stop selling Julia Child cookbooks for appropriating French culture. Do they object to celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson, who is Ethiopian and grew up in Sweden, cooking American fare? If they took cultural appropriation seriously, surely they would demand that the Japanese stop making such fine whiskeys and just stick to Sake. TaKorean is a Washington DC-based Korean Taco restaurant. Who is appropriating whom in this culinary cultural crime scene?
We could play this game endlessly, but can we please just stop?
The General Social Survey has been asking questions on race and demographics since 1972. According to this survey, attitudes towards race are vastly better now than ever before. For instance, in 1972 48 percent of white southerners said they would not vote for a black president. In 2010, that figure had dropped to 6 percent. All other measures of attitudes on race have improved enormously too.
Although it now seems like an age away, during the first presidential debate Hillary Clinton said that she thinks “implicit bias is a problem for everyone,” and that we all need to ask “Why am I feeling this way?” Alright. Here is a question to those outraged by white food bloggers and the Bon Appetit video: Why are you feeling this way? Why be victimized by chopsticks, or a simple video about soup?