The work of coming to terms with implicit bias is a lifelong process that comes with plenty of uncomfortable learning moments.
It’s a process that asks us to look deeper. When it comes to race, this process asks white people to examine dominant power structures that have disproportionately benefited them, while also asking, “What am I willing to change?”
Communities that aren’t part of this group have been denied the same opportunities and have been encouraged to assimilate to fit the dominant mold.
In essence, there’s been an unspoken rule that to be mainstream and acceptable means forsaking many aspects of one’s culture, including food.
To understand this issue, there needs to be a discussion on culture. White people in the United States have long thought of themselves as the cultural norm, the default.
This is problematic for a number of reasons.
When communities are told that their food isn’t valuable, it’s another way of saying they aren’t valuable until they assimilate to the mainstream.
Dominant groups often refer to ethnic and cultural foods as a monolith, without acknowledging distinct nuances and regional cuisines. For example, the lumping of cultures together removes their individuality while making them more palatable for a Western audience.
Food has always been an integral component of culture, one that has often been weaponized with a cloud of fear.
Historically, marginalized groups have been told that they don’t matter. Ethnic and cultural foods outside of the mainstream have existed on opposite ends of the spectrum, where they’re deemed unhealthy, lower class, or “exotic.”
There’s rarely been a middle ground.
Classical and haute cuisine tend to categorize regional and ethnic food as a pleasure trip for the senses or something that requires fusion so it can be safely eaten.
When white culture is the barometer for measuring worth, the cultural foodways of Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) are often deemed worthless until they become trendy and invited into the mainstream.
A “clean Chinese Food” restaurant opened in 2019 and experienced major backlash when the white owners openly talked about making Chinese food you can “feel good about.”
What were the owners implying?
This is a clear example of the demonization and exoticization of “ethnic food” in one fell swoop. It shows the anti-Asian racism behind the idea that Chinese food isn’t “clean” or healthy.
Another example is soul food.
It’s largely been unfairly categorized as unhealthy. The fast and processed version of soul food is a distant relative of traditional rice dishes offering meat, seafood, a wide variety of vegetables, and beans and lentils, all seasoned with delicious spices.
Some fabulous soul food restaurants have cropped up to combat this myth, like Souley Vegan in Oakland, California, which offers a delicious plant-based Louisiana creole menu based on chef Tamearra Dyson’s vision. The offerings include dishes like New Orleans okra gumbo, roasted zucchini etouffee, and country collard greens.
If we’re committed to the radical act of decolonizing our plates, we must acknowledge that ethnic and cultural foods have been subjected to severe put-downs in relation to flavors, spice, and aroma.
Additionally, we need to understand that many of the current recommendations for healthy eating do not offer visual representations of culturally diverse food options.
Just as health exists on a spectrum, there are many iterations of healthy food. Mainstream food has been homogenized to satisfy the dominant culture, leaving minority communities to experience shame for the foods that represent their identity.
Learning to respect the intersection of food, culture, and history means respecting and acknowledging that cultures that exist outside of whiteness are valuable.
Within the United States, this means unpacking biases associated with racial stereotypes. It also means seeing the cultural, racial, and ethnic diversity that is this country and celebrating it, without asking anyone to assimilate and follow one food culture.
Decolonizing our plates must be linked to a mainstream mindset shift. It requires a general acknowledgement and understanding that there’s no one size that fits all when it comes to food.
This means that meals don’t need to be composed of the standard protein, vegetable, and carbohydrate at each sitting. In the nutrition, health, and wellness space, we have been taught and continue to teach that a healthy or balanced plate should always follow this rubric.
We often see visual representations of “the healthy plate” as brown rice, chicken, and broccoli. That particular iteration of a meal may work for some, but it certainly does not fit for all.
In fact, many cuisines and cultural foods outside of the West don’t subscribe to Western eating patterns.
Foods from around the world morph and change based on migration and exposure to different ethnic groups.
Breakfast may be a savory meal or salted fish in Trinidad, Tobago, or Jamaica. Lunch may be a delicious starch-based meal as commonly seen in Ghana or Nabemono or a hot pot meal eaten in a communal setting in Japan.
All of these are delicious combinations of foods that are unique to their cultures of origin. Most importantly, no one home or restaurant will make these dishes the exact same way.
That’s the beauty of food from around the world. It’s as nuanced as the cultures from which it comes.
There’s no reason to exoticize or demonize these foods, and they don’t need to be modified or “healthified” or made palatable for one group.
They can and should be enjoyed in their original forms without guilt, shame, or embarrassment.
The next time you find yourself sitting down to a meal and critiquing the ingredients, the cooking process, or the culture behind it, look deeper. You can ask:
- What makes me uncomfortable about this food?
- What implicit bias is at work here? Is my initial judgment actually accurate?
- Is this an opportunity to learn about a culture other than my own?
- Can I reframe my thinking to look at this meal in a new way?
Simply taking the time to pause and reflect can completely transform the way you relate to food from other cultures and traditions. It can also open you up to a world of delicious, creative cuisine that you may have never known was out there.
Food bias is linked to implicit bias, which dictates the unconscious attitudes that everyone has. Looking down on another culture’s food demonizes one of the major pillars that makes that culture who they are.
By reflecting and reframing, you can learn to see your unconscious bias at work and let go of the attitudes that prevent you from embracing difference on your plate.
Maya Feller, MS, RD, CDN of Brooklyn-based Maya Feller Nutrition is a registered dietitian nutritionist and nationally recognized nutrition expert. Maya believes in providing nutrition education from an anti-bias, patient-centered, culturally sensitive approach. Find her on Instagram.