Day 6

Bon Appétit brownface photo, toxic culture accusations reflect broader racism in food media, says Black Foodie

A brownface scandal and accusations of rampant racism at Bon Appétit magazine are a sign that the food media suffer from a lack of racialized staff members and storytellers, says creator of a food and culture website.

'We've been missing from stories about food and everyday stories,' says Eden Hagos

Eden Hagos, pictured at CBC's Sound of the Season event in Toronto in December 2019, launched her Black Foodie website in 2015 as an alternative to mainstream food media in North America, which she says largely features foods with European cultural roots. (Andrew Nguyen/CBC)

A brownface scandal and accusations of rampant racism at Bon Appétit magazine are a sign that the food media suffer from a lack of racialized staff members and storytellers, says Eden Hagos.

"I think a lot of people of colour, especially Black people, have noticed that we've been missing from stories about food and everyday stories, in general, in media. So, it wasn't very surprising at all," Hagos, founder of the website Black Foodie, told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

Black Foodie is a food and culture site and event company that puts a Black-centred lens on Canadian food, giving visibility to food with African, Caribbean and Southern American roots, from jerk chicken to Ethiopian lentils.

Hagos launched her site in 2015 as an alternative to mainstream food media in North America, which she said largely features foods with European cultural roots — whereas ingredients from other cultures, such as turmeric or harissa, are often treated as exotic or unusual.

"What often ends up happening is that because food media is so white, you get white personalities introducing 'ethnic' foods as if they're somehow exotic or strange," culture writer Navneet Alang said on CBC's Front Burner.

"And they often don't get people from various cultures explaining not just the food or the cuisine itself but how it fits into a broader culture or broader history."

Bon Appétit's top editor, Adam Rapoport, resigned from the company on Monday, shortly after an image of him in brownface surfaced. (Robin Marchant/Getty Images)

Diversity in the food media world came under a microscope on Monday after a photo of Bon Appétit head Adam Rapoport and his wife in brownface and stereotypical Puerto Rican costumes at Halloween surfaced on social media.

Staffers widely criticized the photo, which Rapoport said was taken in 2003, but it was also followed by allegations of racism and a toxic workplace environment. Assistant food editor Sohla El-Waylly alleged that she and other racialized editors were not paid for their appearances on the magazine's wildly popular YouTube channel while her white co-workers were.

Rapoport announced his resignation late Monday. Several of El-Waylly's fellow editors vowed to stop shooting new videos until their colleagues of colour received equal pay.

I just assumed fancy means European.... I didn't value the places and the spaces that come from my community. And that's really sad.- Eden Hagos

Bon Appétit released a statement Wednesday saying its editorial leadership has been "far too white for far too long," resulting in content that often "co-opted, and Columbused" racialized stories and cuisine.

Alang expressed surprise at the speed of the response and commended current Bon Appétit staffers, including contributing writer Priya Krishna and contributing food editor Rick Martinez, for publicly critiquing the outlet's treatment of racialized staffers.

"But obviously, the thing to see going forward is whether or not that actually turns into real change that we can tell is actually occurring," he said.

Alang examined the dynamics of race and ethnicity in an article for Eater that cited American cook Alison Roman's mega-popular dish known as  "the stew," which critics said simply relabelled a common curry dish, and a now-deleted Bon Appétit ​​​​​​video from 2016 that declared "pho is the new ramen."

But he stressed that he doesn't mean white chefs should be forbidden from talking about international cuisine or that Thai food, for example, should only be presented by a Thai chef.

"I don't like the idea of gatekeeping, of saying, 'Well, you're absolutely forbidden to use this thing or do this thing,'" he said. 

"I think it's about acknowledging what's happening in this contemporary moment — that people are talking about power and prejudice and representation and what those things mean."

'Maybe in February' 

The othering of non-European food and culture in Canadian and American food media shaped Hagos's relationship with food throughout her life. When she was younger, Hagos said, she wouldn't take friends to Ethiopian restaurants.

"I just assumed fancy means European.... I didn't value the places and the spaces that come from my community. And that's really sad," she said.

With the success of Black Foodie, she's been able to prove that a wide variety of cuisine doesn't have to be framed as an "ethnic" curiosity for a mostly Caucasian audience.

"I've been able to create a community and bring thousands of people on this journey with me and with other food writers," Hagos said. "I think what we see in Canada is how amazing and unique different Black chefs and food entrepreneurs are."

While Black readers and foodies were on board with the site from the beginning, she said it took a while to convince some others.

Early negative comments included people asking why such a site needed to exist. Brands would respond to advertising and investing inquiries with, "Maybe in February," meaning they would only consider it during Black History Month, Hagos said.

"I hope right now, there's a shift in thinking to see that Black people eat every day. We make great food every day. We have dinner parties. We live outside of their companies' response to trauma."

Flipping the script

By putting a spotlight on Black-centric foods, Hagos also hopes to dispel negative stereotypes that some of those foods carry — such as fried chicken.

In Iron Chef fashion, a regular feature dubbed Black Foodie Battle asks chefs to submit recipes with a main ingredient such as okra or plantain. Last week's theme was fried chicken, a dish laden with "negative connotations and stereotypes in the Black community," Hagos said.

"I've met people who told me they don't eat it in public, you know, and that's sad."

Fried chicken's history can be traced back to the American South, where former Black slaves built businesses and financial independence by making and selling the dish, says Black Foodie founder Eden Hagos. It was the bedrock of soul food cuisine. (Submitted by Eden Hagos)

Hagos traced the history of fried chicken to the American South, where former Black slaves built businesses and financial independence by making and selling fried chicken. It was the bedrock of soul food cuisine, whose restaurants became important social hubs.

"We had people from all over North America create really interesting dishes involving their culture and their own special spices and ingredients. We thought that was pretty powerful, to kind of flip the script on something that had been looked down on," she said.

Written by Jonathan Ore with files from The Associated Press. Produced by Annie Bender.

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