Last week, local writer (and Stranger contributor) Naomi Tomky wrote an article published on CityLab titled “How Not to Be a Restaurant Racist.” You should read it. Tomky explores what she calls the “restaurant racism” of diners who are unwilling to pay higher prices for non-Western food, as well as only classify Chinese, Ethiopian, and Mexican cuisines as “ethnic” although French, Italian, and German food are just as much so. “Check yourself before you play into thinly veiled assumptions about cultural hierarchies,” she writes.
I was happy to see a food writer—specifically, a white food writer—address these issues. By framing the article as a “how to,” Tomky points out problems, but more importantly, provides clear instructions on how to avoid behavior she rightly calls out as “restaurant racism.” While it’s easy for people of color like myself to point out these same problems, when white people do it, white readers, rather than feeling guilty and defensive, are often better able to see themselves in these situations and change their habits.
But the last section of Tomky’s article takes a misguided turn, when she writes that “The line between cultural understanding and racism is pushed just as easily with a fork dropped in front of a white diner at dim sum.” Here, Tomky equates a Chinese server giving a white diner a fork with a white diner being discriminatory of or prejudiced against the cuisines of people of color. It's a weak and dangerous argument—and I told her directly, in a conversation we had on Twitter.
I respect Tomky’s work. She consistently writes about cuisines and cultures from around the world and immigrant-owned businesses, including this recent piece about Seattle’s Ethiopian coffee culture. And while I agree that a Chinese server giving a white diner a fork is stereotyping, it's not reverse racism.
In fact, it’s dangerous to give any credence to the idea that “reverse racism” exists. (Watch this video of comedian Aamer Rahman to understand why.) Claims of reverse racism are what make it possible for a conservative radio show host and his listeners, via death threats and intimidation, to shut down a class that provides a safe space for people of color to practice yoga.
Racism is prejudice plus power. In America, where white people have systematically and violently subjugated and oppressed people of color for hundreds of years in order to maintain their dominance, it is impossible for a person of color to be racist toward them.
In this case, it’s also important to remember that the server is doing just that—catering to customers within a dominant culture that has strong cultural norms such as using a fork. Instead of seeing it as a dis to their dining cred, white diners should simply see it for what it is: a server being considerate, going out of his or her way to make them feel comfortable. It is not a personal attack; it is not an attempt to devalue them as a white person.
To even be able to equate a harmless act of an Asian server with racism is indicative of the inherent privilege of whiteness. There’s an entitlement in expecting people to see you as an individual with unique traits when so many others struggle for basic respect and recognition on a daily basis.
On Twitter, Tomky told me that she knew her argument was “stretched there but [I] wanted to bring in dialogue from all sides.” I understand the urge to bring in other perspectives—we're constantly told that there are “two sides to every story.” But in this case, when the premise was to educate diners about very real, racist discriminations they may not realize they are making, there wasn’t a need to include a perceived act of discrimination on the part of servers. In fact, it weakened what is a very important piece.
For me, one of the most important takeaways from the article is seeing how someone—even someone who is very aware and engaged with these issues—can still have a major blind spot. I’m glad Tomky was open to hearing my criticism of her argument and that we could have a conversation about it. And I'm glad that other food writers expressed an interest in prioritizing and continuing this important conversation.