Food News

Want to Understand Food Media's Lack of Diversity? Here Are the Numbers

January 13, 2017

Earlier this week, Lorraine Chuen, a Toronto-based writer who's one of the co-founders of data journalism project Intersectional Analyst, released "Food, Race, and Power: Who gets to be an authority on 'ethnic' cuisines?" For the report, Chuen crunched numbers on the bylines of recipes in the New York Times' Cooking section. The study interrogates who, exactly, gets to be called a figure of authority on non-Western cuisines in food media.

The conversation surrounding the distressing insularity of food media has certainly flared in recent months. In her write-up, Chuen cites the Bon Appetit pho incident from last September as being instrumental to the genesis of this project. That particular episode involved a white chef explaining his way through the "right" way to eat pho, provoking ire and resulting in an apology from the publication. What resulted from this incident was an acknowledgment of food media’s demographic homogeneity, and a sense that something needs to change.

To test her suspicions about food media, Chuen collected the New York Times Cooking recipes and looked at the bylines for each one, stratified by "ethnic" group as dictated by the Times' website. When quantifying the data for Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese, "African" (Africa is treated with a hideous lack of nuance by the Times, as if it's a country rather than a continent), and Caribbean (the Caribbean is a region that suffers a similar fate to Africa) recipes, she found that recipes were authored overwhelmingly by white writers—never lower than 82%. She also found that it's rare for writers of color to be writing about a recipe that corresponds to the region of their ancestry (a Chinese writer on a Chinese dish, for example), consistently lower than 10%.

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The study has generated a steady drumbeat of conversation online. Chuen insisted that the project is collaborative in nature, and it's very much a work in progress. Since publishing, she's received offers from numerous people to build on her data, and she's tweaked accordingly. She hopes that the next iteration of the project will dig deeper than bylines of recipes, as a few of the recipes that land in the pages of the Times may have originated elsewhere, like on personal blogs. (Still, I'd argue that there's worth in examining the data of bylines—that sends a message about what certain editorial teams look like.) I spoke to Chuen earlier this week about her project and where she thinks food media is headed. Here’s a lightly edited transcript of our correspondence.

MAYUKH SEN: Take me back to the moment when you first conceived of this project. Was the idea stewing in your head for a long time? Was it mostly sparked by the Bon Appetit incident?

LORRAINE CHUEN: The idea started brewing a few months before the Bon Appetit incident, believe it or not, out of an argument in a comments section on a friend’s Facebook status about food being political for people of color. No matter how many anecdotes we provided, there was a group of white people who refused to acknowledge that racial issues could be linked with food. So much of why Intersectional Analyst exists in the first place is because there’s this automatic tendency for people to dismiss structural oppression unless there’s data backing it up. It’s as if personal narratives around painful experiences are not enough ‘evidence’. It saddens me that stories are not enough, but one of the goals of the blog is to demonstrate that oppression happens on a systemic scale with numbers and data. So, after that fiasco, I knew I wanted to do a piece about food and race on the blog.

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Top Comment:
“As you say, it's been so easy for white people in all parts the food world -- chefs, journalists, "foodies" -- not to think about the extent to which different cuisines get mediated through the dominant white culture. And it's so interesting when people who are completely comfortable with the idea that food is political when it comes to, say, taking a stand against GMOs or the role of big corporations in determining what gets to our dinner tables then turn around and say that food *isn't* political when it comes to ethnic appropriation and their own privilege. I'm also really enjoying your voice, Mayukh, as an addition to the Food52 team. I love the site and reading the features, but it does feel at times like an over-representation of 20- and 30-something white women from Brooklyn.”
— Millicent
Comment

I knew that representation was a systemic issue in the food industry (it’s been highlighted in this piece published in Bitch Media about the James Beard Award Nominees), but I wanted to know if it was possible to demonstrate that appropriation also operated on a systemic level in the food world. I started noticing stuff that might work for a blog post: ethnic cookbooks authored by white chefs that I saw at bookstores, or restaurants in Toronto that specialize in non-Western cuisine but were owned by white restaurateurs. I originally intended to do a post around restaurant data asking who owns ethnic restaurants, but that information ended up being really difficult to gather in any sort of systematic fashion. Then, at some point, a friend pointed out that when she was looking to cook ethnic dishes on the Times recipes site, they were often authored by white people. The Times recipe collection was appealing to work with because data that’s already organized in some fashion online is a lot easier to collect.

MS: I’d love some more insight into your own background. Where'd you grow up? Where are your parents from?

LC: My dad’s family is from Shanghai, and my mom’s family is from Macau, but they both lived in Hong Kong before immigrating to Canada. I was born in a suburb of Toronto but grew up in a very small, very white town in Southern Ontario.  We were one out of a handful of non-white families, and to be honest I didn’t really question it. I spoke Cantonese at home, and visited my Chinese relatives in Toronto, but otherwise I didn’t really question the whiteness of my life.  Almost everyone I interacted with outside of my home was white, and so I learned how to code-switch really early on in life. For a long time, I just accepted hiding the racialized parts of me as the natural order of things, which I now find really sad. I was a little Chinese kid who learned it was easiest to just pretend I wasn’t Chinese, even though my language, my family, and the way we did things were (and continue to be) such big parts of who I am. That’s why I really wanted to use the post to talk not only about representation, but also about how the erasure of the experiences of people of color is part of the issue as well.

MS: What's the feedback you've gotten to the project so far? Has it been mostly positive, negative?

LC: I’ve mostly gotten positive feedback in my inbox—some thank you’s for writing the piece; some e-mails that are mostly collaborative in nature (suggestions on how to clarify the methods or small fixes to the data set). I am really grateful that people care enough to want to contribute to the project in this way.

I’ve also done some browsing to see who’s shared the piece and the impression that I’ve gotten is that it’s resonated with a lot of people of color. I think there’s some validation to seeing something you’ve experienced in numbers, or just having those experiences written by another person in essay-form. It’s like, Oh, I wasn’t alone. I wrote about erasure, and it was my hope that a piece like this could tell people of color: I see you, your experiences are real and they are valid. This stuff is real. People have gone through very real experiences where food and racism have gone hand in hand. They can remember being teased about their lunches as kids at school. They’ve had white people tell them how to properly cook food from their own culture. They’ve struggled to see themselves represented in the food media world.

MS: There's a dominant belief that food media is apolitical by nature, and that it should remain that way. One comment I often hear from our readers is that food is an escapist venue—a safe haven. Why do you think people view food as apolitical? Do you see this changing at all? And what would you say to those who insist that food should remain apolitical?

LC: I think it’s easier to call something apolitical when you have the privilege to not ever have had to think about it through that lens, because you’ve never experienced it through that lens. As I mentioned, the most feedback I’ve seen with this piece is that it really resonates—but this tends to come from people who have lived through similar experiences firsthand.

I’m optimistic and would like to think that the conversation around this is growing, though. There is some really awesome work being done right now on where food and politics intersect. I’m not sure if you’ve heard of it, but there’s a podcast called Racist Sandwich that deals with exactly this: food as it relates to race, gender, and class.

To those who insist food remains apolitical, I think I would say: Listen to people of color when they share experiences around food and racism, and try to empathize with their (often, painful) experiences. Try not to dismiss it outright, and try not to find an excuse for racism. For instance, when I wrote about white kids teasing kids of color about lunches once, someone offered “it’s just kids being kids!” as an excuse. I think it’s easier to dismiss the experiences of people of color because it allows you to maintain your worldview, which is obviously more comfortable. But I encourage white people to acknowledge their privilege, acknowledge that because they’ve likely never experienced racism around food before, they are privileged enough to experience food as apolitical. Pieces like the one I wrote aren’t meant to be a personal attack on the reader or on any one individual. They’re meant to highlight broader, structural problems that exist in the industry and in people’s everyday lives.  

Read 'Food, Race, and Power' in full here. Any ways you think you could help? Let us know in the comments.

19 Comments

Jessica D. May 9, 2017
Great article. Thank you for sharing this. I feel the same way but in the travel space. I grew up in Puerto Rico and I don't know how many times I've pitched stories about Puerto Rico to mainland publications to be ignored or turned down. Then I see the same article from people who have nothing to do with the island. Somehow their opinion is more valued because they are blond. I hope that more articles like this continued to be published. Bravo to the author and the editors of Food52 for making this happen.
 
ellen M. March 13, 2017
What does Lorraine Chuen mean by 'racialized folks' ?
 
Steve W. January 16, 2017
On a semi-related note, the former "maitre d' to the stars" (who happens to be an Asian woman), has been harassed by a NY Times staffer, after she tried to shed light on her work being misappropriated by a NY Times food columnist...<br />Seriously, Google: NY Times Staffer Death-Threatens Author for Unveiling Media Misdeeds<br /><br />There's also a book all about how the media (food and otherwise) literally engaged in multiple improprieties; It's called "PX Me" by Abbe Diaz.
 
Christine L. January 15, 2017
I appreciate this article and Chuen's work. While I don't think there is anything inherently wrong with learning a Japanese dish from a British chef, the numbers are eye-opening and trigger a greater awareness as to my sources of information, how they inform what I'm trying to learn, and their limitations (and the sources of those limitations--both who is being represented and the representation I seek). Thank you.
 
Yang L. January 15, 2017
Finally! I'm so glad someone did the research and wrote about this issue...
 
sydney January 15, 2017
Yuk! I prefer to get my bitterness from rapini, and my whine without the H.<br /><br />Food criticism, food sociology, and food culture critique can be done well, but this is just on-trend, SJW identity-politics groupthink infecting the food world with its resentments. After reading this I feel like I ate the watery gruel from the Soviet Gulag and Mao's re-education camps.<br /><br />Sorry, Food52, I 'get' that this is the 'soup [politics] du jour' with all the po-mo jargon in it ('hegemony', 'structural problems,' 'privilege'...) but take mine back to the kitchen! I hope this didactic compost doesn't continue on Food52.<br /><br />If this is where Food52 is going, I'll be looking for my global food fun, recipes, and information elsewhere. Last time I looked, Serious Eats wasn't cooking up Overturn The Patriarchy Pie. You'll see me over there.
 
melissa January 15, 2017
sydney <3s patriarchy
 
Duff January 17, 2017
Thank you! Voice of reason. SJW now comes to food - sad sad day! <br /><br />I think SJW should send people out to China and Thailand to make sur that publication there don't have too many Chinese people writing about American food. Social Justice needs to be expanded. Like we bring democracy to the world w must also make sure othe cultures are no guilty of perpetrating these atrocities upon our foods and food culture. BTW I am American-Asian
 
Millicent January 15, 2017
Thank you so much, Lorraine Chuen and Mayukh Sen, for making this issue visible. As you say, it's been so easy for white people in all parts the food world -- chefs, journalists, "foodies" -- not to think about the extent to which different cuisines get mediated through the dominant white culture. <br /><br />And it's so interesting when people who are completely comfortable with the idea that food is political when it comes to, say, taking a stand against GMOs or the role of big corporations in determining what gets to our dinner tables then turn around and say that food *isn't* political when it comes to ethnic appropriation and their own privilege.<br /><br />I'm also really enjoying your voice, Mayukh, as an addition to the Food52 team. I love the site and reading the features, but it does feel at times like an over-representation of 20- and 30-something white women from Brooklyn.
 
FamilyStyle F. January 15, 2017
I wonder- how do know a person's race or their individual cultural history based simply on their byline?
 
Stephanie January 14, 2017
Insightful article of things I had experienced, but never thought of. I grew up in a primarily Asian-American school and don't remember being teased for my lunches, but I specifically remembered when I moved away from home and started dating a white guy and I shared one of my favorite Chinese snacks with him with the response "What iiiss this?" And I thought for the first time that my culture and cuisine was "weird."
 
stingraystirs January 14, 2017
Thanks for sharing!<br />
 
Kris C. January 14, 2017
Really thoughtful piece, including the original report by Ms Chuen at the Intersectional Analyst website. It has given me a lot to think about as a white person who thoroughly enjoys eating and cooking ethnic cuisine. Thank you! And please keep it up with these sorts of articles. So valuable to the growing conversation about food justice.
 
Michelle J. January 13, 2017
Amazing read. Just pure love!
 
E January 13, 2017
LOVE LOVE LOVE this. She so eloquently spoke about things I have a hard time verbalizing but am always feeling, so it was definitely a great read. Excited to check out this data project in detail soon! <br /><br />Agree with Melissa re : you bearing a lot of the outrage from the commenters. Thank you for sharing, and don't let any comments get you down. You raised the article game at Food52 for sure! :)
 
Barney S. January 13, 2017
I think that historically, mainstream media, has approached non-traditional foods in a way to make their readers comfortable and familiar with them. Readers learn to trust and relate to ‘Bob’ and take his friendly advice on what and how to eat other’s food. While this might have been appropriate in the past, that does not mean it is now or should not change. Readership changes and writers should too.<br />I think another matrix to add to the data might be ‘privilege’ of the writers. I think of articles in food mags about “Our Editor’s Must-have Tools” and a $300 whisk is listed, or a $1,000 coffee maker. Or reviewers belittling of topics because they ‘could not imagine’ who would really use/need it. They need a better imagination and a less isolated perspective.<br /> I think the ethnic/owner comparison would also be an interesting report; I cannot think of a non-chain ethnic restaurant I personally know that is not ‘ethnically appropriately’ owned except Rick Bayless’ restaurants. How would the NYC chain of Fresco Tortillas skew this – I think they are all owned/operated by people of Chinese decent. <br />As a white male of a certain age, whose ancestors came to these shores 100 years before it was the United States, I admit I have never faced my food as political – whatever ‘my food’ is. But I have always enjoyed a diverse palate, and try to as best I can to get as authentic as I can when exploring.<br />
 
Kevin January 13, 2017
This is interesting, the Bon Appetit pho video certainly helped to bring this to the forefront. Personally, I think the responsibility falls more to the reader to be subjective as opposed to the publication itself. Sure, I could go find how to make nuoc mam on NYT or Food Network if I wanted some watered down, Americanized version of how to do it, but is that going to be the most authentic method? Not likely. Obviously I'd rather learn to make nuoc mam from a Vietnamese grandmother, but not everyone has this privilege. It's my responsibility to be a subjective cook and do the research and comparisons among the recipes that are made available to the masses. <br />I'd much rather prefer that diverse, non-American cuisines & recipes are posted, regardless of the skin color of the author, as opposed to not posted by anyone at all. At least if we are aware that these recipes and cuisines exist, we have more motivation to do some further research about the culture itself. I think food is one of, if not the best way to bring cultures together; we don't need another excuse to drive people apart.
 
Ileana M. January 13, 2017
Thank you for sharing this!
 
melissa January 13, 2017
hadn't heard about this initiative! thanks for sharing and thank you for bearing the brunt of "diversity" on food52, mayukh. hope this post doesn't garner too many white tears...