Xenophobia Within the Food Industry

Rebecca Ghim
4 min readJan 10, 2021

a. Exacerbated Cultural Bias

After the pandemic started, Asian hate crime rose by 21% in the UK and Asian immigrants and workers all over the world have taken on the biggest hit, as xenophobia has led to avoidance and alienation of their businesses. The long-term consequences of the economic recession affect not just Asian immigrants but all vulnerable minorities. With the combination of the United States’ current anti-racist revolution on the rise, the conversation around the already existing politics of the food industry is starting to be highlighted.

René Redzepi, a Danish chef said, “from family and fealty, feudalism to federalism, food is communication, communion; it defines status and relationships; it is politics”. It is recognized by the culinary world that food has complex racial, classist, and political dynamics. However, the specific instance of scapegoating and baseless stigmatization of Asian restaurants is not new. Many non-Asian cooks and entrepreneurs have tokenized and colonized the industry because of the fluid nature of food. It can be easily taken and altered because the exploitative capitalist intentions unfortunately have changed the sovereignty of food. This project’s purpose is to bring in the conversation of ownership of one’s own narrative through food.

b. Tokenism is Another Form of Racism

Martin Luther King described institutionalized tokenism to be, “a new and hastily constructed roadblock [that] has appeared in the form of […] unrestrained resistance to a sophisticated form of delaying tactics’’, which indicated the commonality of the exploitation of the wealth of knowledge and skills of POC — people of color. Tokenizing POC’s cultural and intellectual sovereignty has minimized their identities to stereotypes that are often gross generalizations. The hierarchical vision of the Westerner’s privilege allowed these generalizations to penetrate and give meaning to the comparative limitations of such a vision — the “great Asiatic mystery”. This historical phenomenon that differentiates the “local agent” that has given itself the authority to “govern subject races’’ is still a contemporary problem that is a material reality for immigrants and “foreign” entities. The formality of imperialism has transformed into informal microaggressions, such as the dismissal of the “other” or fetishization of the “oriental” for financial gain or otherwise. Edward Said puts this binary as “the contrasts of the native and an Anglo-Saxon individuality” with imperial interests that shows that “European culture gained strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even underground self”. This separatist ideology that has prevailed since colonialism due to the division between the subordinate and the dominant is required for control to be asserted. The conditions of the current free-enterprise system have allowed Euro-America to instill its imperialist/colonialist oppression to perpetuate influence over the individual’s biases in all aspects of life, including eateries.

This can be exemplified through the restaurants we see on the streets and through the “oriental” section in the supermarket. The cosmic culture of Asian food has been reduced to a non-Asian owned Asian restaurant that serves three different kinds of cuisines or an aisle of imported selections of products from off-brand companies. As Jenny Dorsey elucidates, the nomenclature is the most visible aspect of food representation and consumers’ perceptions are formed through the names on the menus of fast-casual restaurants or grocery stores. The naming process at a management level strips away the undoubtedly political history in order to offer a sanitized version, digestible by the majority that allows minorities to be separate and distinct from what they offer. “To have the ability to name something is power, and to proliferate that name widely is influence,” which can be exemplified by Noodles & Company naming one of their dishes “Spicy Korean Beef Noodles” due to gochujang being a likely inspiration, suggesting that this arbitrary ingredient choice has been harnessed and the centuries of “geographic, historical, and cultural nuance” that follows it can be blurred and homogenized.

However, there are signs of change in the food media as Black Lives Matter has brought up questions on equality in all sectors. Priya Krishna from Bon Appetit acknowledged the racial barriers that food media has by saying, “BIPOC have been forced to write about their food in a way that feels palatable to a white audience […] When BIPOC authors are called upon to explore their heritage through food, it is too often through an oversimplified lens”. After the exposure of a racist working environment at Bon Appetit during the summer of 2020, the food world was jolted by accountability. As Abad-Santos, a food editor at Vox, reflects, the hiring of food media is predominantly white because critics and the audience, whether explicitly or implicitly, are predominantly white. To present an unapproachable cuisine, “a cool white girl” or “cool cutting-edge chef” trope is often used to market the foreign as accessible. The residue of the colonial European aristocratic diet has prevailed to these occurrences in 2020, because something patently foreign and distant acquires, for one reason or another, a status more rather than less familiar.