Dispatches: On Ethnic Food and People of Color

One of the most shortsighted commonsense expressions in use today must be ‘ethnic food,’ as in ‘What are you in the mood for tonight?’  ‘Something ethnic?’  As a shorthand for classifying cuisines, it’s pretty incoherent, lumping together the foods of whichever nations or cultures are considered to be non-standard.  This consensus is, of course, temporary: as so many histories of American culture point out, today’s natives are yesterday’s immigrants (you could see Walter Benn Michaels’ Our America for an informative account).  As the most significant recent immigration to this country has been from Asia, ethnic food today might include Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Indian.

But this is poor thinking and dangerous ideology.  The Italian and Irish arrivants of a century ago have not only had their cuisines domesticated (and, in the process, modified).  Ironically, they also reintroduced to U.S. diets foods that originated here: potatoes, tomatoes, chili peppers, and corn are all native to the Americas and did not reach Europe until their conquest.  The us-and-them belief structure underlying ‘ethnic food,’ known as nativism, conceals the truly global nature of food culture underneath a phantom authenticity, as though lasagna should be regarded as more American than pho in any but the most momentary sense.

The British have been particularly good at transforming the foreign into the (as they say) homely, as in the case of tea (even the opium trade with China was begun to offset the massive trade deficit incurred by tea imports).  A more complex example is Worcestershire sauce, which two hundred years ago incorporated the unfamiliar fruits of colonial expansion, among them tamarind, cloves, and chili peppers.  These far-fetched tastes were sweetened using a colonial by-product, molasses, and then combined and fermented, thereby domesticating them for the timid palate: it’s a kind of Orientalism in a bottle.  Even the availability of that most common staple, white sugar, was ensured by a global system of slave labor and plantation colonies, as Sidney Mintz points out in the excellent Sweetness and Power

I mention this culinary false consciousness as a benign but persistent example of a frightening tendency: the projection of the false and pernicious image of a pure, unsullied ‘homeland’ threatened by foreign infiltrators, which infects fundamentalisms worldwide.  Clearly, the contemporary right traffics in this kind of thinking constantly.  Even on the academic left, however, the appellation ‘people of color’ conflates groups whose experience is radically different (the racism experienced by African-Americans in the U.S., for instance, is of a completely different kind and degree than that of other minority groups).  I don’t question the honorable intention of the term–to generate solidarity among people who suffer oppression–but in practice it prolongs the ideological falsehood that the ur-citizen is a white male Protestant, even while attempting to critique just that.

‘People of color’ also depends on and reinforces the illusion that there is one group of white men really in control of what is American.  If the mistake of ‘ethnic food’ is the unstated assumption that the ‘normal’ food has no ethnicity, then the mistake of ‘people of color’ is the sense that white is not a color.  This has no doubt been assumed all too often in American culture, but to define resistance purely in oppostion to it presumes that the U.S. notion of who is white and who isn’t is universal, when in fact it is occasional and subject to change.  That’s way too much power to ascribe to the opposition.  We should never be afraid to emphasize the basis of liberty: that our differences have nothing to do with our belonging.

Last Dispatch: Aesthetics of Impermanence