Overthinking It: Using Food As A Racial Metaphor

September 14, 2014

In February, a state-run media outlet in China mocked Gary Locke, who was signing off as U.S. ambassador to that country. “Gary Locke is a U.S.-born, third-generation Chinese-American, and his being a banana — ‘yellow skin and white heart’ — became an advantage for Obama’s foreign policy,’ ” the editorial read.

Michael Steele, the black former head of the Republican Party, likes to tell a (probably apocryphal) story about how Democratic sympathizer threw Oreos at him while he gave a campaign speech.

That got us thinking about the very long list of foods that double as shorthands for racial betrayal. Banana and Oreo, sure. There’s Twinkie, which does the same work as banana. There’s apple, leveled at Native Americans who are allegedly white on the inside. And there’s coconut, which is a sort of an all-purpose, you’re-white-on-the-inside epithet for all manner of brownness — Desis, Latinos, Afro-Caribbeans.

Freddie Boswell, our colleague who went to school in the United Kingdom, said that the folks across the pond have their own term for this: Bounty Bar, as in the coconut-filled chocolate bar. According to the Racial Slur Databaseisn’t the Internet amazing? — black police officers in England apparently get this one a lot.

(The list of creative food slurs winds on and on. When we asked our followers on Twitter to share their stories, folks were sharing random fruits and vegetables that’d been used to mark them as something else. Kat says that this would all be so much easier if we just used variations of potatoes for everyone. You know, “Yukon gold potatoes” for Asian folks who are charged with being insufficiently Asian or “red potatoes” for similarly situated Native Americans who ostensibly want to white. Gene thinks this is artless and makes us all vaguely British.)*

What about white folks who are something else on the inside? If you’re “Asian on the inside,” you’re an egg. White on the outside but black on the inside? You’re a snowball. Asian on the outside but black on the inside? Gelt. If you’re a Native person who thinks she’s Barack Obama on the inside? Dragonfruit. (Okay. So we might have made those last two up.)

But Matt Thompson, our Code Switch teammate (and, heh, boss), argued that eggs might make more sense as a descriptor of East Asian folks who “act white”; after all, it’s their presumed cultural performance that’s front-facing and that folks are responding to. We looked at him and blinked. “Dude, we’re talking about racist food here. You’re really overthinking this.”

Why are foods the stand-ins for all this racial ostracism?

Well, food is easy. There’s a platonic apple in your head. (And it’s red, unless you’re one of those deviants who hears apple and thinks it’s green. You go have a seat somewhere.) And if kids are the people who are tossing these epithets around, it probably makes sense that these are all foods that are in kid’s lunchboxes.** Twinkies. Oreos. Apples. Bananas.

To a kid, racial classifications are that simple. And viewed in that light, food is actually a more complex metaphor — it’s almost synaesthetic. This whole phenomenon implicitly relies on people using “red,” “yellow,” “brown,” “black” and “white” — color markers — as fair and clear descriptions of race.

If we’ve been reduced to simple colors, then it follows we’re reducible to junk foods.

*In rare instances, the race-to-food nomenclature thing goes in the opposite direction in terms of language. Our colleague Ricardo Sandoval hipped us to a popular Cuban dish made up of black beans and white rice called moros y cristianos. That is: “Moors and Christians. ”

**Wait. Do kids still use lunchboxes?

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.