I’m sure many people have encountered a scene in which a person becomes metaphorically reduced to a food object, either through a poorly crafted pickup line on Tinder or through cheesy prose in literature. The obsession with equating food to people or things (“easy as pie,” “eye candy”) and figuratively cannibalistic tendencies of white America is truly fascinating to me and I imagine it’s because food is a cultural form that most people can relate to.
The extension of race and love (or sex) into the picture brings these food analogies to a completely different level, with white people reaching for descriptors that aren’t commonly accepted as culturally white American. This explicit divide in food term usage reveals the underlying colonialist relationship between white people and people of color. In her blog, The YA Kitten, Ashleigh Paige mentions the history of slaves harvesting foods like coffee and chocolate. For white people to turn around and place these food labels back onto black and brown people, they are equating people of color to commodities for economic and social consumption.
By positioning themselves and foods like vanilla or cream as neutral, white people Other-ize both foods and people that don’t look like them. In an article called “Problematic Pick-up Lines Directed at People of Color,” an Indian woman said that while she was at a bar, a guy came up to her and said, “You’re like rice and curry…I could eat you all day.” Despite not explicitly placing himself as neutral, this man made the effort to reduce the woman to a stereotype of her assumed culture, which has been rejected from the quintessential American image since basically forever. bell hooks sums up this sort of interaction best: “Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture” (21).
Heben Nigatu published a great article a few years ago called “If White People Were Described Like People of Color in Literature” to turn this commonly racist practice on its inflictors. She does a great job at making the reader uncomfortable and recognizing the ridiculousness of food descriptions. It does make me wonder, however. Is the solution to this problematic behavior counter infliction of food? By equating white people’s skin to mashed potato, can this perpetuation of labeling white people as normal and boring and people of color as exotic and tasty truly be liberating? How does this play out in a relationship between and white person and a person of color, if power dynamics are still there regardless of the usage of food analogies?
P.S. Here’s a great list of non-food related colors and metaphors to describe people of color. Maybe this is where we should be heading instead. (http://writingwithcolor.tumblr.com/post/96830966357/writing-with-color-description-guide-words-for)
Anita Li and Shanté Cosme. “Problematic Pick-Up Lines Directed at People of Color.” Complex. Last modified March 28, 2016. http://www.complex.com/life/2016/03/race-pick-up-lines/anita-c.
Ashleigh Paige. “Characters Are People, Not Food.” The YA Kitten. Last modified September 20, 2014. http://www.theyakitten.net/2014/09/20/characters-are-people-not-food.
Heben Nigatu. “If White People Were Described Like People of Color in Literature.” BuzzFeed. Last modified August 22, 2014. https://www.buzzfeed.com/hnigatu/if-white-characters-were-described-like-people-of-color-in-l?utm_term=.kp7jz2P72#.od4WgKqDK.
hooks, bell. “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance.” In Black Looks: Race and Representation, edited by bell hooks, 21-39. South End Press, 1992.
Owens, Erica and Bronwyn Beistle. “Eating the Black Body: Interracial Desire, Food Metaphor and White Fear.” In Body/Embodiment: Symbolic Interaction and the Sociology of the Body, edited by Dennis D. Waskul and Phillip Vannini, 201-212. Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2012.