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‘Bon Appetit’ and the Politics of Food

photograph of halved fruits and vegetables arranged around yellow plate in the center

In the same way that the #MeToo movement encouraged women to speak out about sexism in their workplaces, the return of the Black Lives Matter movement to the forefront of mainstream consciousness has given BIPOC a platform to start a conversation about racism in their fields. Notably, one such conversation is currently unfolding in the food industry. In early June of 2020, Adam Rapoport stepped down from his position as the editor-and-chief of Bon Appétit magazine when a photo of Rapoport wearing brownface at a party surfaced on Twitter. In the last few years, Bon Appétit has been steadily amassing an online following through its YouTube channel, which has helped the magazine present itself as an inclusive and diverse brand to its massive twenty-something audience. In an article for Vox, Alex Abad-Santos describes how

“A dramatic part of Rapoport’s resignation was watching the wall tumble between what he was presenting to the outside world—socially conscious, thoughtful, empathetic—and his real-life actions, which according to staffers included microaggressions, underpaying staff, and taking advantage of his assistant. The ousting of a man who wrote about the killing of George Floyd and standing in solidarity with immigrants and minorities while he was, at the same time, treating his black and brown staffers inequitably, feels a lot like justice.”

However, many former employees have pointed out that Bon Appétit’s problems cannot be solved merely by firing Rapoport. The magazine (and the food industry at large) are still built on a foundation of structural racism, a foundation which is obfuscated by gestures towards multiculturalism. Despite these hollow gestures, BIPOC within the industry have been undermined by their editors in insidious ways. Assistant editor Sohla El-Waylly, for example, claimed in an Instagram post that she would be “pushed in front of video as a display of diversity,” and that only white editors were paid for their video appearances on the magazine’s YouTube channel. Former employees like Alex Lau felt pressured to only make food from their culture, and were told by their editors that “ethnic” food would not be interesting enough to the magazine’s audience. Nikita Richardson, a former black employee, struggled with the emotional toll of working in such a toxic work culture, explaining how “You see your coworkers every day of your life, and to go into work every day and feel isolated is misery-inducing . . . Nowhere have I ever felt more isolated than at Bon Appétit.

It is especially important that this interrogation of white hegemony is happening within the food industry. We tend to think of food as apolitical, one of the few neutral grounds where all people can meet without cultural or ideological baggage. There’s a reason that cooking shows are a safe bet for major networks hoping to attract the largest possible audience. Cooking shows are generally innocuous and uncontroversial, and because food makes up such a large part of our daily lives, it’s impossible for all viewers not to relate on some level. However, food is a deeply moral and political subject. The foundational story of Christian moral philosophy, the story of Adam and Eve from the book of Genesis, is, after all, a story about eating, which indicates that food is a central symbol within philosophical discourse.

Food is political chiefly because it connects us to the world and reveals our place within larger structures of power. As scientist Louise Fresco explains in her book Hamburgers in Paradise,

“Every mouthful we eat connects us with those who long ago started to domesticate plants and animals, with the migrants and traders who spread them across the world . . . with the farmers who are proud of their land and their work, and with the laborers who pick beans and mangoes and pack them and in some cases endure appalling working conditions.”

Food is such a potent way of conceptualizing how social networks function under capitalism that in the 2017 play Young Marx, a fictionalized version of Marx uses the ingredients of his breakfast to explain how capitalism (and the things produced by it) alienate us from other people. He says, “Before capitalism I could see my brother’s hand in the labor content of my breakfast,” pointing out the division between factories that produce food and the tables those items eventually end up on. “A sausage could explain my life,” Marx exclaims, because food (as a young Engels chimes in) “maps your social relations.”

This relationship between food and consumer becomes even more muddled when we consider the online cooking-as-entertainment industry, which Bon Appétit participates in. Even when produced for the sake of entertainment and not consumption, food doesn’t lose its ability to map social relations. Media critic Dan Olson points out in a video released shortly before Rapoport’s resignation that

“Cooking entertainment can’t avoid [food politics] . . . any show is going to inherit those meanings and symbols purely by virtue of the kinds of food the show considers normal, what it considers exotic, and what it assumes the viewer is familiar with or has access to.”

Olson explains that spectacle is generally the main element of online cooking shows. The spectacle can be the chef’s outrageous or charismatic personality (popular celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay has built his entire brand on this) or outlandish ingredients (donuts draped in gold-leaf or five hundred-dollar steak dinners, to name a few examples). Bon Appétit’s most popular series, Gourmet Makes, is about a pastry chef who attempts to recreate processed snack foods like Twinkies using high-quality ingredients, a spectacle which draws in millions of views per video.

But the spectacle can also be an “exotic” dish or regional cuisine unfamiliar to American viewers. Travel food shows, both on television and on the internet, often participate in this not-so-subtle racism. A white foodie will visit a non-Western culture and “discover” dishes unfamiliar to Westerners, emphasizing how new or outlandish such dishes are. So-called “superfoods” often rely on the same racist assumptions. Labeling goji berries or acai a superfood gives those products a veneer of the unfamiliar, even imbuing them with magical properties. Bon Appétit has specifically come under fire for this practice. An apology released by the magazine on June 10 in the wake of Rapoport’s resignation acknowledges that “Our mastheads have been far too white for far too long. As a result, the recipes, stories, and people we’ve highlighted have too often come from a white-centric viewpoint. At times we have treated non-white stories as ‘not newsworthy’ or ‘trendy.’” Non-white labor has historically been invisible in white kitchens and restaurants, which is why the tokenization of non-white food and culture for the sake of a magazine spread is especially wrong.

It’s difficult to say if Bon Appétit will actually follow through on its promise to be better. Matt Hunziker, a white video editor who has vocally challenged the racism his colleagues experienced at Bon Appétit, was suspended from the company on June 25, supposedly because of his willingness to speak out against the company. If Bon Appétit is unable to change its ways, one possible response would be to decenter massive media conglomerates like Condé Nast (the company that owns Bon Appétit, as well as Vogue, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and GQ) by investing more material resources in BIPOC chefs and food writers working outside of mainstream food discourse. Only paying lip-service to non-white food without giving chefs the material advantages will only perpetuate an unequal and immoral system.

White Skins, Black Masks: Voice Acting and Representation

photograph of Mike Henry beside poster of Cleveland character he voices

On June 26, 2020, the creators of The Simpsons announced that from now on, white actors will no longer voice the show’s non-white characters. This came a few days after Kristen Bell, Jenny Slate, and Mike Henry said that they would no longer voice characters of color on their respective shows. “Missy [a character voiced by Slate on the Netflix animated comedy Big Mouth] is Black,” Slate wrote on Instagram. “[A]nd Black characters on an animated show should be played by Black people.” Thus, there appears to be a growing belief in the ethical principle that only people of color are permitted to voice animated characters of color. Call this the Exclusive Principle.

The argument most frequently advanced for the Exclusive Principle concerns the underrepresentation of actors of color in the entertainment industry. Thus, NPR’s Eric Deggans writes that casting white actors as non-white characters “has the practical effect of reinforcing Hollywood’s damaging tendency to elevate…white performers over people of color.” There is no question that this is a serious problem: for example, while people of color make up 40% of the U.S. population, they comprise only 14% of directors, 13.9% of writers, and 32.7% of actors. But the argument for the Exclusive Principle is that following it is either sufficient or necessary to increase the representation of actors of color, and this may be doubted. To see this more clearly, consider an animated television show in which there are twenty characters, nineteen of whom are white while one is a person of color. All nineteen white characters are voiced by actors of color, while the sole person of color is voiced by a white actor. While this television show violates the Exclusive Principle, it appears to do well with respect to employing actors of color. By contrast, another television show that employs a person of color to voice its sole character of color but white actors for every other role satisfies the Exclusive Principle, but does not do well with respect to representation. Thus, following the Exclusive Principle is neither necessary nor sufficient for significantly increasing representation.

A reasonable reply is that following the Exclusive Principle would still typically have the effect of increasing representation. That may well be true. But it is also possible that only allowing people of color to voice animated characters of color is not the most effective way of employing more actors of color in animation. A better way may be to simply cast more actors of color to voice both characters of color and white characters. On the other hand, while this might theoretically be a better way of increasing representation, it might also be the case that following the Exclusive Principle is easier in practice than fulfilling this more demanding policy of casting more actors of color to voice both white and non-white characters. Since there are fewer characters of color in animated series overall, following the Exclusive Principle as a means to increase representation would require fewer ‘affirmative’ casting choices. And if showrunners are more likely to follow a policy entailing fewer such choices, then it may turn out that following the Exclusive Principle will increase representation more effectively than the more demanding policy.

In any case, my hunch is that many of those who subscribe to the Exclusive Principle would still object to the television show in which actors of color are well-represented but the sole character of color is voiced by a white actor. But this means they must have some reason for supporting the Exclusive Principle that is distinct from the representation argument. At first sight, the notion that white actors should not voice animated characters of color is a logical extension of the prohibition on black-, brown-, or yellow-face: if white actors ought not play live action characters of color, then they ought not play animated characters of color. But the validity of this extension depends upon the reasons behind the prohibition on blackface and its ilk. One reason why these practices are wrongful seems to be because of their resemblance to degrading and pejorative representations of people of color in the past, which leads to emotional harm in many who see the resemblance. We ought to avoid causing this kind of harm if there is no good moral reason to cause it; and in this case, there does not seem to be such a reason. If many are similarly harmed by the perceived resemblance between white actors voicing non-white animated characters and degrading and pejorative representations of people of color in the past, then this would be a reason to follow the Exclusive Principle. It would also explain objections to the television show in which actors of color are well-represented but the sole character of color is voiced by a white actor. There may very well be degrading or pejorative representations of people of color that the voicing of a character of color by a white actor resembles. Thus, I leave this argument open for consideration.

However, one might worry that this argument is in danger of proving too much. For instance, if no physical impersonation of a character of color by a white actor is permissible — either via the actor’s whole body or her voice alone — then it might be argued that it is impermissible for white screenwriters or novelists to write non-white characters. But following that principle may very well lead to perverse consequences, in that it might reduce the overall number of characters of color in novels, books, and TV shows. One way to block the slippery slope is to argue that impersonations of characters of color are impermissible only if they are either pejorative and degrading in themselves, or resemble some historical representation that is pejorative and degrading. It might then be argued that some impersonations of persons of color by white writers do not satisfy this condition. But if this is true, then it becomes harder to see why all vocal impersonations of persons of color by white actors satisfy this condition. And if not all of them do, then this line of argument does not strongly support the Exclusive Principle.

In her statement, Bell wrote that “[c]asting a mixed race character with a white actress undermines the specificity of the mixed race and Black American experience.” One way to interpret this claim is that white actors are unable to impersonate people of color well, precisely because they lack the requisite experience. This is an aesthetic argument; it concerns not the morality of voicing a character of color, but its goodness as art. And this might be the right way of thinking about the Exclusive Principle — not as a moral principle, but as an aesthetic one. Of course, there will probably be significant disagreement about this aesthetic claim, and I am not in a particularly good position to judge such matters. However, one wonders why a 21st-century actor could effectively give voice to, say, a 19th-century person, but not a modern-day character of color, particularly if the latter’s lines are written by a person of color. Furthermore, the political implications of the claim that even white people who are trained to use their imaginations to inhabit the mental space of people very different from themselves cannot empathize with people of color enough to impersonate them well also seem unduly pessimistic.

Society seems to be undergoing rapid change in its moral attitudes surrounding race. Many of these changes are unequivocally for the good. Even so, it is worth pausing to reflect on what exactly we wish to accomplish with these changes. As we have seen, with respect to the Exclusive Principle the key questions are whether it is the best policy to further the worthy end of promoting people of color in the entertainment industry, whether there are reasons beyond underrepresentation that are motivating its adoption, and if so, whether those reasons are ultimately valid.

From Blackface to Homophobic Tweets: Prioritizing Deontology over Consequentialism?

Governor Ralph Northam delivers a speech

Though 2019 has only just begun, several politicians and celebrities have already become embroiled in scandals concerning their past conduct, with proof of racism, homophobia, and sexism coming to light online through social media. The most recent debate has centered newly elected Virginia governor Ralph Northam, who appears in a racist photo circulated online from his 1984 medical school yearbook on February 1. The picture, which features Northam, shows two people standing side-by side, one in blackface and one in a Klu Klux Klan outfit. It is unclear which person is Northam, but he has admitted that one of the people in the photo is him. Democrats and Republicans alike over the past weekend have called for Northam to resign over the photo, as well as the NAACP. It seems as though everyone is in agreement that Northam’s actions were unacceptable and call for a resignation. However, in an opinion article in The Guardian, Shanita Hubbard points out the clear disconnect that many have between racist actions and racist policies. Hubbard does not intend to undermine the seriousness of blackface, but rather contends that “Policies that harm black bodies deserve the same outrage as blackface.” Is Hubbard right that actions that lead to racist ends deserve the same moral weight as those that treat people as a means for entertainment? Is one worse than the other? And how can we interpret the societal reaction, or lack thereof, in response to racism through the lens of moral philosophy?

Blackface is undoubtedly racist, both in its origins and in its function as in act in the modern day. Blackface in the United States was used as a way to mock, denigrate, and perpetuate racial stereotypes about black people throughout and following the history of slavery, with white actors and “comedians” impersonating black people during minstrel shows throughout the mid-19th century into the 20th. Though many caught wearing blackface in the modern day claim ignorance to its racist history, the essential function of blackface is to use black bodies as a means to an end — usually comedy, the perpetuation of stereotypes or the reinforcement of white supremacy.

The use of a person or group of people and their skin color as a means to an end can be interpreted most clearly as morally abhorrent under a deontological moral philosophy. In deontological ethics, actions are good or bad “because of some characteristic of the action itself” rather than the outcome of the action. Immanuel Kant is one of the most renowned deontological ethical philosophers. He believed in a supreme principle of morality which could be used to justify all other moral obligations. Kant’s Categorical Imperative includes the idea that it is immoral to use someone merely as a means to an end, and that all people regardless of the circumstances must be treated as an end in themselves. The action of blackface clearly violates this principle, and it might in part be that for this reason people across many political and philosophical ideologies react strongly in condemnation, while failing to assign the same condemnation to other racist actions which lead to racist outcomes.

Hubbard addresses this problem in her article, arguing that “If the litmus test for accountability is transparent racism, then this same vigor must be applied to policies and practices and the politicians who impose them.” Why is it that many are willing to condemn an action which uses a person or group as a means, but aren’t as eager to condemn actions that harm people based on these same identities?

One stark example that Hubbard gives is the issue of voter suppression, which often impacts people of color, specifically African-Americans, more than any other group. Politicians such as Brian Kemp, who have been responsible for the widespread implementation of voter suppression, have not been met with the call to resign as strongly as politicians such as Northam. Hubbard chalks up the difference in reaction to racist actions and racist policies to a difference in the blatancy, and the ability of politicians to hide behind the supposed amorality of their policies. However, Hubbard’s frustration can also be directly linked to a moral system which condemns on the basis of the consequences of one’s actions. This type of moral philosophy is known as consequentialism, and it gives no bearing to the intention of an actor, but rather the harm caused by their actions. While Hubbard is not calling for such a moral philosophy to take precedent, she is pointing out the clear lack of support for using this doctrine as a standard when it comes to racism.

One might also interpret this problem to arise from the moral doctrines society believes to be fundamental in combination with which groups are included within these moral philosophies. Another example of outrage over the use of a group as a means to an end is the controversy which surrounded Kevin Hart in December concerning tweets and comments from his past which were blatantly homophobic. Hart used homophobia for comedy and also social status, which was met with public outrage strong enough to have him removed from hosting the 2019 Oscars. However, similar backlash and condemnation is not always met with politicians or celebrities who implement or donate to causes which perpetuate the marginalization of LGBTQ+ folks. In this situation, which mirrors that of Northam, it seems that it is more mainstream to condemn a person for using a person or group as a means but not to condemn a person for causing substantial harm to a person or a group.

The application of these moral principles to both these situations is not to imply that the unified condemnation comes out of a place of genuine concern from all those doing the condemning. In fact, the concern about the racist actions of Governor Northam from the right may very well be, as Chauncey Devega argues “an opportunity to score political points by distracting public attention” from the wrongs committed by the Republican party when it comes to issues of racial justice. Without giving credit to those making the argument as being ‘moral’ ones, we can still assess the basic function of the argument in its appeal to the public’s ethos. Further still, incidences of blackface may not represent just one morally wrong action, but be a symptom of a larger moral problem within society. It is also important to note that while these philosophies may be used as guiding principles for how one assesses moral blame, they do not always necessarily, or have historically, extended to all people in society. However, it is important for us to truly assess why we believe an action or a person is immoral so that we understand the moral values present or lacking in our society.