Love, Race, and Food Metaphors

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).

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Just as rice and curry can be tasty and exotic, a South Asian woman can bring the same palatable excitement to a white man!

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)

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Look at all these color descriptors you can use that don’t incorporate kitchen ingredients!

REFERENCES

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.

 

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6 thoughts on “Love, Race, and Food Metaphors

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  1. Last night, I was watching Master Of None. This is Aziz Ansari’s show, and his love interest in the show referred to him as a “Curry Person.” Aziz responded, “That’s Racist!” and she had no idea what he was talking about. He quipped you cannot reduce me to the food my people eat, and later this joke was brought up again. The show handled it with a mix of seriousness and jokeyness. I am sure Aziz address this issue on purpose similar to Wanchen’s post stating, 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). Whereas, Aziz did not allow himself to be reduced to this creepy sort of exoticism within food. The food metaphors brings to light the othering of people of color in a way that is reduced to the food people eat. These statements, like mentioned in the post, play on stereotypes and social hierarchies and colonization (as much of this has been discussed in the class.) I do not think I thought much of the interaction of Aziz and his love interest on the show until reading this post and now, it completely fits into the dialogue that we had been discussing in class and within this post.

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  2. This reminds me of what Liz Raleigh mentioned when she came into class. She said that during a presentation about adopting from Ethiopia, the person giving the presentation showed an image of a little Ethiopian girl and said something like “she’s so cute. You could just eat her with a spoon.” People of color are not only metaphorically compared to food, but are also perceived to be consumable themselves. It would be interesting to explore how standards of cuteness reflect and diverge from standards of beauty. One thing that we know to be true is that like women of color, babies of color are both exotic and ugly.

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  3. I remember seeing that Buzzfeed listicle a few years ago and thinking about the trend of describing POC as “chocolate”- or “coffee”-colored, especially in literature. Now reading this I’m reminded of what happened when The Hunger Games movie came out and there was this uproar about some characters–Rue, specifically–being played by Amandla Stenberg, who’s black. Apparently those who had read the novel have whiteness-as-default so deeply ingrained in them that they completely missed the description of Rue as not “chocolate” or “coffee” but straight-up having “dark brown skin and eyes.” What can an author do to assure their characters are read as nonwhite beyond literally describing their skin tone? Meanwhile, Katniss’ character is described as having “straight black hair” and “olive skin,” which could easily be read as nonwhite traits, yet the fact that Jennifer Lawrence (blonde and blue-eyed) dyed her hair and got the role received much less attention. I realize this leads away from your post a bit, but I think this also ties back to some conversations we had during the doll/body labor units, wherein white audiences/people in particular find it easier to care and have empathy for someone who looks like them, including a fictional character. Suddenly when the character they had imagined (in the face of all evidence to the contrary) was white, they are no longer able to connect to them. I’m kind of speculating that for this kind of white audience to take interest in a character of color they would have to be explicitly raced in an exotified/Other-ing way–that is, raced on white people’s terms/in a way white people are comfortable with.

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  4. This post immediately reminded me of whoevenknowsanymore’s post (https://beautyandrace2017.wordpress.com/2017/05/19/a-literal-consumption-of-beauty/#more-2522) about Katy Perry’s Bon Appetit song, in which Katy Perry is literally reduced to a food object. It was interesting to see similar, yet contrasting forms of analysis. While your post focuses on the impact of colonialism on the association of people of color as food objects, the Bon Appetit video portrays Katy Perry as the white, feminine object of consumption in the first half of the video. In the second half of the video, she is the one that consumes the consumer. While whoevenknowsanymore associates this action as “undoing” her femininity, it might also connect to your analysis of Whites “eating the other.” Instead of eating her body, which can be seen as “normal and boring”, she can instead be the consumer with the power to eat something exotic. Based on the video, it is hard to decipher the people she ends up consuming in the end, but it is interesting to see that her video could be presenting the destruction of “white, innocent femininity” or be another portrayal of the power dynamics of White people have over people of color.

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  5. Thank you for this! I particularly appreciate that you brought up the Buzzfeed article that compared white people to mashed potatoes, because while I remember thinking it was genius (and I just looked it up again, it’s hysterical), you also make the excellent point that it’s not just the food comparisons for love interest of color that are the problem. More specifically, it’s the comparisons to exoticized foods – a woman was not rice and curry because she looked like it, but because it was associated with her “exotic” culture. And when white people are compared to foods, even in an attempt to point out racism, they are described as bland foods (mayonnaise, vanilla, the inside of a mushy apple, mashed potatoes, to use a couple of the examples from the Buzzfeed article). This is partially because many of the white-ish or beige-ish foods in our society are associated with traditionally Western dishes, and specifically blander Western dishes (flavorful dishes generally involve colors, after all), but I think that makes the whole issue even more fascinating. The entire joke of the Buzzfeed article is how stupid it sounds when you describe white characters like this, but that joke is dependent on the fact that it sounds stupid to describe anyone like bland food – not that it sounds stupid to describe anyone like food in general.

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  6. Thank you for your post wanchensicle, as a woman of color navigating coded language can be difficult. You discuss the use of curry to describe an Indian woman, which reminds of an article by an Indian feminist, Uma Narayan. In her article, “Eating Cultures: Incorporation, Identity, and Indian Food,” she discusses the appropriation of “curry powder” at the hand of British imperialism. Furthermore she notes, “they were incorporating not Indian food, but their own ‘invention’ of curry powder, a pattern not too different from the way in which India itself was ingested into the Empire- for India as a modern political entity was ‘fabricted’ through the intervention of British rule, which replaced mass of the Moghul empire and various kingdoms and princely states with the unitary signifier “India,” much as British curry powder replaced local masalas.” As a force, compliments which denote imagery can help us unpack the ways people of color, especially women of color, are representatives of the race. Moreso, this can help us in creating a variety of narratives about women of color.

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