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

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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.

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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%.

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.

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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Tags: diversity, food media