Photo: photka / Getty Images / iStockphoto
Australian cookbook author and recipe developer Hetty Lui McKinnon remembers a New York Times Magazine headline she got to know in 2018: "The dish you'll fall in love with Chinese food." Sam Sifton's article was about to learn how to cook velvet fish. "I asked myself:" Why don't people already love Chinese food? McKinnon says. "I felt dirty and ashamed of my own food. And to be honest, the other thought that came to my mind was," Why do I need a white man to tell me why should I love chinese food? "
Such a heading seems inconceivable today. Food media are open to prejudice, and Bon Appétit has published a "long overdue excuse" for systemic racism under his leadership and brand, which exploded in public last week. "Mostly," says McKinnon, "whites can tell the stories of other cultures, while this privilege often doesn't extend to BIPOC." Instead, these contributors say that they are often faced with a reducing, hideous system that requires their race to define their entire professional identity.
"BIPOC was forced to write about their food in a way that felt comfortable to a white audience," said Priya Krishna, who 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 it wasn't always assumed that the reader is white?" Krishna says. “Food media need to better support BIPOC by placing them in positions of power. Check out the imprint of the mainstream food media and it's still mostly whites. "
A 2019 diversity baseline study found that 76 percent of all publishing professionals, from interns to executives, are white. (From my own experience as a biracial Indian writer, I never had more than one colleague on my team, and often I was.) In the food publishing industry, where budgets continue to shrink, these mostly white workers tend to turn to creatives, that they’ve dealt with in the past, most of which are also white. "There are publications that I would like to work with, but I am often told:" We don't want to try new photographers, "says food photographer and stylist Jenny Huang." My field is dominated by white male photographers, and if higher Often, when a publication employee is responsible for a budget, they want to stick to the people they know, how do I fight it? ”
In food media, there are exclusionary practices at every step of the editorial process, from conceptualizing the stories themselves to deciding who can “produce” what types of content. "With a media ecosystem dominated by white recipe developers and food authors, most of the recipes we find in major food publications, regardless of whether those recipes are of European or" ethnic "origin, are written by whites," said McKinnon.
Too often when BIPOC authors are asked to explore their heritage through food, this is done through a simplistic lens. During her two years as an editorial culinary producer at BuzzFeed & # 39; s Tasty, Kiano Moju, the founder of Jikoni Creative, remembers that she was impressed with the symbolized approach to the kitchen. "For a brainstorming session in Black History Month, it was a room full of white people and I and the IT guy," the only black participants. "It was the strangest thing to sit in this room and watch people put what they thought was blackness on a whiteboard," she recalls.
Moju, whose family is Maasai from Kenya, complains about the lack of specificity that is given to “unknown” countries or continents. "We can understand the regionality of American food – we recognize classic New York foods compared to Atlanta, but the culture I want to represent isn't even taken into account on the map." Instead, there doesn't seem to be any vocabulary or interest in the types of nuances that these conversations require: As a Parsi (Indian Zoroastrian), I often explain that the term “Indian food” has been ridiculously broad since then would suit a country with almost 1.4 billion inhabitants.
Too often, color writers say they are pigeonholed and asked to explain "their" kitchen to what may be a white audience, while white writers are given the freedom to explore a range of subjects. Huang refers to Fuchsia Dunlop, the Caucasian British author who is an authority in China's cuisine. The problem is not that she has made a career researching the food of another culture – due to her passion and popularity, regional recipes reach a wider audience – but that she is being advertised continuously as a unique voice. "She can represent what she wants while a black writer is told he can only talk about soul food," Huang says. "For me this means:" We only have space for colored people in a certain cultural niche. "Contributors who want to deviate from these niches run the risk of being left out of the narrative.
In a 2017 essay, Stephen Satterfield, founder of Whetstone Media, described the limitations of his own career: “And what does it mean to be a black food writer? You will never be just a food writer, you will be a black food writer. It will show up many times, maybe not every time, but in many ways, like the race does in almost every other facet of our lives. "
The active deletion of the contributions of black writers is even more alarming. Last week, when publishers and media pledged to boost BIPOC voices and support Black Lives Matter, writer and publisher Kristina Gill went to Instagram with a series of posts detailing how she systematically owned the property the cookbook she refused to carry was written and photographed, Tasting Rome. Although Gill, who is black, conceived the title, wrote half of the recipes, and photographed all of them, the publishers insisted that she submit to her white co-author for content and public relations. "I had nothing to say about the book, not even my photos or the changes to my own recipes," wrote Gill. "When they actually had a chance to treat a black woman the same way as a white woman, no more and no less than equal, they actively chose not to act on every opportunity." A draft of the preface completely excluded Gill & # 39; s name, and her agent, Gill recalled, said it was not her "workload" to fix it. (Gill's co-writer Katie Parla released a statement that has since been deleted, which was formulated as Mea Culpa. The followers responded with dismay, challenged the "apology", and reminded Parla that she had even blocked Gill on Instagram.) Parla remarked Gill received a second book contract from the publisher Clarkson Potter without ever submitting a proposal. Gill hadn't heard from them since the book was published.
It is clear that any structure that allows this type of injustice is broken. A fairer system – one in which all contributors really get the same opportunities, in which race does not define the type of work that can be “published” – would instead ensure a greater variety of voices and a much deeper storytelling. In the end, it is not enough just to reinforce the BIPOC voices; It's about creating spaces where they can thrive.