How Food Media Fails BIPOC – Grub Street

Photo: photka/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Australian cookbook author and recipe developer Hetty Lui McKinnon recalls being struck by a New York Times Magazine headline she encountered in 2018: “The Dish That Will Make You Fall in Love With Chinese Food.” The article, by Sam Sifton, was about learning to cook velvet fish. “I asked myself, ‘Why don’t people love Chinese food already?’” says McKinnon. “It made me feel dirty and ashamed of my own food. And to be frank, the other thought running through my head was, ‘Why do I need a white man to tell me why I should love Chinese food?’”

Today, such a headline seems inconceivable. Food-media outlets are openly grappling with entrenched biases, and Bon Appétit has published “a long-overdue apology” for systemic racism among its leadership and brand, which exploded into public view last week. “Overwhelmingly,” McKinnon says, “white people are allowed to tell the stories of other cultures whereas this privilege often does not extend to BIPOC.” Instead, these contributors say they often confront a reductive, odious system that demands their race defines their entire professional identities.

“BIPOC have been forced to write about their food in a way that feels palatable to a white audience,” explains Priya Krishna, who has contributed to the New York Times and Bon Appétit (as well as Grub Street and numerous other prominent publications). “What would food media look like if there wasn’t always the assumption that the reader was white?” Krishna says. “Food media needs to better support BIPOC by hiring them in positions of power. Look at the mastheads for mainstream food media and it’s still mostly white people.”

A 2019 Diversity Baseline study found that 76 percent of all publishing industry professionals, from interns to the executive level, are white. (In my own experience, as a biracial Indian writer, I’ve never had more than one coworker of color on my team, and frequently it’s just been me.) Within food publishing, where budgets continue to plummet, those mostly white workers tend to turn to creatives they’ve employed in the past, most of whom are also white. “There are publications I’d love to work with, but am frequently told, ‘We’re not looking to try new photographers,’” says food photographer and stylist Jenny Huang. “My field is dominated by white male photographers, and when higher-ups at a publication are in charge of a budget, they often want to stick to the people they know. How do I even fight against this?”

In food media, exclusionary practices can be found at every step of the editorial process, from conceptualization of the stories themselves to decision-making around who is “allowed” to produce what kinds of content. “With a media ecosystem dominated by white recipe developers and food writers, the majority of recipes we find in major food publications, whether these recipes are from European or ‘ethnic’ origins, are written by white people,” McKinnon says.

When BIPOC authors are called upon to explore their heritage through food, it is too often through an oversimplified lens. During her two years as an editorial culinary producer at BuzzFeed’s Tasty, Kiano Moju, the founder of Jikoni Creative, remembers being struck by the tokenized approach to cuisine. “For a Black History Month brainstorm, it was a room full of white people, and me and the IT guy,” the only Black attendees. “It was the weirdest thing, sitting in this room, watching people put on a whiteboard what they believed Blackness to be,” she recalls.

Moju, whose family is Maasai from Kenya, chafes at the lack of specificity awarded to “unfamiliar” countries or continents. “We can understand the regionality of American food — we acknowledge classic foods from New York versus Atlanta, but the culture that I want represented is not even considered on the map.” Instead, there doesn’t seem to be a vocabulary, or interest, in the kind of nuance these conversations demand: As a Parsi (Indian Zoroastrian), I often find myself explaining that the phrase “Indian food” is laughably broad, since there are countless, varied sub-cuisines that would befit a country of close to 1.4 billion people.

All too often, writers of color say they are pigeonholed, asked to explain “their” cuisines to a presumably white audience, while white writers are given the freedom to explore a range of topics. Huang points to Fuchsia Dunlop, the caucasian British author who is an authority on the cuisines of China. The issue is not that she has made a career out of exploring another culture’s food — in fact, her passion and notoriety mean that regional recipes reach a wider audience — but that she is continually promoted as the singular voice. “She can represent whatever she wants, whereas a Black writer is told they can only talk about soul food,” Huang says. “That reads to me as ‘We only have room for people of color in a specific cultural niche.’” Contributors who want to stray from those niches risk being left out of the narrative entirely.

In a 2017 essay, Stephen Satterfield, the founder of Whetstone Media, described the strictures imposed on his own career: “And what does it mean to be a black food writer? You’ll never just be a food writer, you’ll be a black food writer. It will come up lots of times, maybe not every time, but in lots of ways, the way race does in just about every other facet of our lives.”

Even more alarming is the active erasure of Black writers’ contributions. Last week, as publishers and media outlets pledged to amplify BIPOC voices and support Black Lives Matter, writer and editor Kristina Gill took to Instagram with a series of posts in which she detailed the ways she was systematically denied ownership of the cookbook she had co-authored and photographed, Tasting Rome. Though Gill, who is Black, had conceived of the title, written half the recipes, and photographed all of them, the publishers insisted she defer to her white co-author in matters of both content and publicity. “I had no say on anything in the book, not even on my photos or the changes to my own recipes,” Gill wrote. “When they actually had the chance to treat a Black woman the same as a White woman, nothing more, nothing less than equally, they actively chose not to at every opportunity.” A draft of the foreword excluded Gill’s name entirely, and her agent, Gill recalled, said it wasn’t under her “scope of work” to fix it. (Gill’s co-author, Katie Parla, posted a since-deleted explanation couched as a mea culpa; followers responded with dismay, challenging the “apology” and reminding Parla that she had even blocked Gill on Instagram.) Parla, Gill noted, received a second book deal from the publisher, Clarkson Potter, without ever submitting a proposal. Gill, meanwhile, had not heard from them since the book was published.

Clearly, any structure that allows for that kind of injustice is broken. A more equitable system — one where all contributors are truly awarded the same opportunities, where race does not define the kind of work that is “allowed” to be published— would instead ensure a wider variety of voices, and far deeper storytelling. In the end, it is not enough to merely amplify the voices of BIPOC; it’s about creating spaces where they can flourish.

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