The Table Stays White

A national discussion has erupted, again, over racism in food media. But that discussion is one part of the problem.

Shutterstock / Paul Spella / The Atlantic

Updated on June 17, 2020 at 6:17 p.m.

The oldest cliché of the food world is a simple one: Food brings people together. It’s a warm maxim that could serve as the slogan for a farming cooperative or a brand of prepackaged frozen meals. At the dinner table, the saying implies, a kind of rare democracy exists. After all, everybody needs to eat.

Somewhere between the principle and its application, though, comes the uncomfortable realization that the terms of the gathering may not be equal. This past week, that quandary has been illustrated most clearly in the news about Bon Appétit, the food magazine Condé Nast has been publishing for nearly three decades. Last Monday, the publication’s white editor in chief, Adam Rapoport, resigned after a photo of him impersonating a Puerto Rican man was shared online. Though it wasn’t a workplace getup, the former editor’s Halloween costume gave visual coherence to Bon Appétit’s alleged record of discriminatory behavior toward its employees and contributors of color.

In a “long-overdue apology” published last week, the Bon Appétit and Epicurious staffs admitted that they “have continued to tokenize many BIPOC staffers and contributors in our videos and on our pages,” and that “black staffers have been saddled with contributing racial education to our staffs and appearing in … photo shoots to make our brands seem more diverse.“ Such inequities persist across the food industry, whether at media organizations or in restaurants or at various points in the food-supply chain. Rapoport and other Bon Appétit figureheads’ actions are not themselves revelatory or particularly interesting. Racism is as banal as it is dangerous.

The media response to these debacles points to a wearying cycle of haphazard attempts to address disparities in the food industry over the years. Some might believe that outlets covering food have evolved significantly since Paula Deen confirmed on video that she uses the N-word. But even now, in the rare moments when institutions such as Bon Appétit publicly wrestle with the imbalances they perpetuate in print or in the kitchen, media still focus on individual wrongdoing. Thus ensues a familiar routine: News of misconduct surfaces. Public ire culminates in an apology, sometimes paired with a resignation. Publications and popular industry figures herald the work of overlooked voices. Sometimes a person of color is installed in the vacated role. The news churns, the scandal recedes, and the table is cleared.

All the while, the food made by chefs of color, and the stories that journalists of color want to tell, remains on the sidelines. When articles defending so-called ethnic foods proliferate in response to racism, the focus is diverted from the food itself. What room is there to write about how to make soft idli or balance the spice profile of rista when “Indian food” is mostly being discussed as an abstraction? Who benefits from these theoretical volleys? In tending, first and foremost, to concerns of representation, media coverage about inequity in food risks reproducing the industry’s disparities. Whether through litigating the behavior of individual white people at length or recommending nonwhite chefs and writers, publications frame interrogations of power around whiteness. Chefs of color answer countless questions about racism and discrimination before they can talk about … food.

While it’s true that the industry gatekeepers defining the public’s taste have been almost uniformly white, such imbalances present themselves in ways far more subtle than Rapoport’s “Boricua” costume. Modern food media prioritizes a certain kind of creator: American (read: white), with just enough quirk to be accessible to an imagined white Millennial audience. The New York Times columnist and former Bon Appétit contributor Alison Roman fits this profile, and gained a cult following for her minimalist approach to cooking. After an interview with Roman triggered renewed discussion of the industry’s racial dynamics, the critic Navneet Alang wrote an essay for Eater that addressed food media’s pernicious patterns: “The mainstream is white, so what is presented in the mainstream becomes defined as white, and—ta-da—what you see in viral YouTube videos somehow ends up reinforcing a white norm, even though the historical roots of a dish or an ingredient might be the Levant or East Asia.”

Even viral moments of public attention to racism in the food industry haven’t resulted in much lasting change for people of color, who continue to critique similar problems. Back in 2013, the chef and historian Michael W. Twitty received an onslaught of national interest for the open letter he wrote to Deen after reports about her usage of slurs toward staff. His letter connected her racist behavior to the less discussed yet pervasive issue of black people being excluded from American culinary history and institutions. “That tragedy rooted in the unwillingness to give African American barbecue masters and other cooks an equal chance at the platform is far more galling than you saying ‘nigger,’ in childhood ignorance or emotional rage or social whimsy,” Twitty wrote. “Culinary injustice is what you get where you go to plantation museums and enslaved Blacks are not even talked about, but called servants.”

Food media has the power to reorient such paradigms, and not just to symbolic effect. It has shown that it can do so: Devoting more coverage to the social and economic realities that drive the industry—rather than only discussing dishes in a vacuum—has allowed for more meaningful explorations of how food brings people together. Investigations that reveal abuses of power in restaurants, for example, have not just led to the removal of individual bad actors, but also started to change the lives of food workers.

Regarding the industry’s whiteness, it might be tempting to dwell on questions of representation, or to wonder who ought to occupy the top positions at legacy publications. But as years of examples have shown, the work of challenging biases in food must dig deeper. After all, hiring a handful of people of color at these outlets doesn’t fundamentally alter the media landscape at large. Too often, such staffing shifts represent decisions made with optics in mind, which tends to mean that new voices are elevated but then not empowered, or that sufficient resources aren’t put toward substantive changes in coverage.

Challenges to the dominant framework often come from outside legacy institutions altogether. Frustration with the narrow vision of mainstream publications is part of what inspired the chef and author Klancy Miller, who is black, to conceive of For the Culture, a biannual print magazine dedicated to celebrating black women in food and wine. Miller “was asked to guest-edit a ‘black issue’ for another food magazine,” the Cooking Solo author told me. “At the time I got intrigued and I was like, I could contemplate that, but then they decided not to do it. And so I was just like, Well screw you, I’m gonna do it! And it’s not gonna be an issue; it’s gonna be a whole damn magazine! There are enough black people and specifically black women to create an entire magazine. We do all the things!

For readers willing to learn about cuisines that magazines often fail to cover with depth, there are also robust scholarly offerings. Books such as Twitty’s own, The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South, reinscribe the country’s food legacies, honoring the innovations that black people have contributed for centuries. At their best, alternatives to dominant food media don’t just explore the same issues in a slightly different voice or conceive of industry inequity as something felt chiefly by media employees. They also provide opportunities to tap into rich historical legacies and the social conditions that have shaped food cultures around the country and beyond.

The work to broaden food media’s horizons has taken many forms over the years: A database called Equity at the Table, created by the chef and cookbook author Julia Turshen, highlights food-industry professionals with underrepresented backgrounds. And since 2016, the Racist Sandwich podcast has been exploring the ways in which food is inherently political. Soleil Ho, a co-founder of the podcast and the restaurant critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, often threads together analysis of labor and immigration with notes on taste and presentation in her reviews. Ho first wrote about cultural appropriation in food for Bitch magazine in 2014, inspired in part by the black feminist author Mikki Kendall’s writing on food gentrification. Ho notes that any changes happening in the food industry and food media now didn’t occur overnight. “These conversations have been seeded for the past several years and are the result of all this work,” she told me. “Not only by people on the outside critiquing it but also people on the inside who have worked so hard to reform these institutions.”

However innovative and nuanced, the work that people of color do outside traditional food media can’t supplant an entire industry (yet). To avoid becoming entirely obsolete, glossy magazines and well-resourced websites need to seriously address their internal dysfunctions. Oftentimes, the people whose work has been most undervalued within these spaces have been the ones who alert others to these issues. Last week, Sohla El-Waylly, the assistant food editor at Bon Appétit, detailed her experiences at the publication, where she said she’s “been pushed in front of video as a display of diversity” despite not being compensated for on-camera appearances like many of her white colleagues are. Within a few days, a Twitter user had compiled a montage of all the times El-Waylly had been pulled into videos to help her white counterparts in the Test Kitchen series.

Though improving representation may be the most obvious solution to the inequities in legacy food media, that incrementalism often plays out in harmful ways: Despite having her own job to do, El-Waylly said she was often enlisted to boost the videos’ cultural authenticity, answering questions about the correct pronunciation of turmeric, for example. But Rapoport wasn’t the first editor to preside over a toxic workplace culture, and replacing him won’t guarantee that what happened to El-Waylly won’t happen to other employees of color. As long as mainstream food media continue decontextualizing nonwhite food practices from the communities that have birthed them, and then scrambling to fix PR disasters, the industry will be undone by its own lack of imagination.