In Solid Ground’s Community Food Education (CFE) program, we truly love food – and we know that our volunteers do too!
Some magical aspects of food include the way it brings people together to share in another’s culture, experience a taste of familiarity and comfort, and simply try something new. Unfortunately, not even something as nourishing and celebratory as food is free from racism and cultural appropriation.
What is cultural appropriation, anyway?
Cultural appropriation is when a dominant culture adopts the cultural customs of a nondominant culture without understanding or respecting the original culture and context. Does it mean that you can’t eat panang curry unless you’re Thai? No, of course not.
Cultural appropriation of food can look like:
- Restaurants with a white front of house (host, waiter, etc.) and a brown back of house (cooks, dishwashers, etc.).
- White chefs selling burritos, benefiting through financial and social capital, without any benefit to communities that contributed to the food culture in the first place.
- Having your childhood lunch ridiculed, then it instantly becomes trendy the moment a white chef decides it’s exotic and exciting.
- “Asian-inspired” menus at restaurants, or white bloggers posting “healthy soul food recipes.”
It goes beyond enjoying another culture’s food into the dominant (white) culture monetizing food that is not traditionally theirs and profiting off another’s culture. This is especially important because chefs and business owners of nondominant cultures don’t have the access to do the same.
What does this look like at Solid Ground?
We believe that food work which ignores intersections of racism and culture can do more harm than good. We are by no means experts in this, and surely do our fair share of messing up on this journey of anti-racism in our work. In CFE, we as staff and AmeriCorps Service Members work to acknowledge and be transparent about where white supremacy shows up in our cooking and nutrition classes.
One way this might show up is when we alter a cultural food to add more vegetables or whole grains, and the dish winds up drastically different from the traditional dish in a way that can be offensive – especially when we call it a “healthy version” of whatever it is. This implies a racialized definition of health, which assumes that food from “white cultures” is automatically healthy, when traditional foods from cultures of color is automatically not.
Think of the ingredients used in Mexican food vs. French food; both have vegetables, meats, and saturated fat, and both can be made more or less healthy. But which culture’s food is seen as elevated, or refined? Which do we expect to shell out money for, and which do we automatically see as “junk” food?
It also might show up when a kid in a cooking class we’re teaching says, “Yuck, that looks WEIRD!” when we’re making Vietnamese spring rolls. Because this kind of language suggests that there is a normal when it comes to food (and that those spring rolls clearly don’t fit into that norm) – this can ‘other’ a whole culture. As staff and volunteers, we could suggest that spring rolls might taste different than what the kid is used to, but many students in the US and Vietnam love this food.
We remind our students of all ages, “Don’t yuck my yum,” because what is labeled ‘gross’ by one person might be delicious to their neighbor. We try to remove moral judgment and shame from food decisions whenever possible. It’s easy in the moment to flounder and not know what do to, so we as staff and volunteers practice ahead of time how to stop and interrupt cultural appropriation in the moment.
This is something that we’re constantly learning, and we must always remember: Food is inherently political. If you resonate with what’s written here and want to take action, we love what our friends at Everyday Feminism have to say about this in their post, The Feminist Guide to Being a Foodie Without Being Culturally Appropriative.
Interested in learning more? Check out the resources below!
- How it feels when white people shame your culture’s food — then make it trendy
- Yelp Reviewers’ Authenticity Fetish Is White Supremacy in Action
- The Cultural Appropriation of My Lunch: What I hear when you tell me my food is “strong smelling”
- When Chefs Become Famous Cooking Other Cultures’ Food
For more info on Solid Ground’s Community Food Education (CFE) work, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.