In the late 1980s, a friend gave me a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “BLACK BY POPULAR DEMAND.” That gift came during a time when strong expressions and affirmations of black identity enjoyed a surge of popularity not seen since the 1960s. I’ve been thinking a lot about that catch phrase in the context of the recent, vibrant discussions about the place of African-Americans in today’s national food scene. For people of color who want to tell food stories, “Black by Popular Demand” poignantly exposes the twin challenges we face: getting the key decision-makers in mainstream food media (I call them “gatekeepers”) to desire our stories, and getting our own communities to devour our work.
Except for those times we self-publish, food writers try to persuade gatekeepers to publish our work. Gatekeepers are those who determine what content will go in magazines, newspapers, radio shows or websites; those who decide which book manuscripts to purchase, publish and market; those who book speakers for events, and those who approve projects and book appearances for television shows. I’ve been involved in food media for a decade, and I’ve interacted with gatekeepers in all of the fields above. Overwhelmingly, the food media gatekeepers I’ve met and worked with are white.
Just because a gatekeeper is white doesn’t mean a dead end for my food-writing endeavors. In fact, many have seen value in my work, and have given me opportunities to share my passion for African-American foodways. Though I fantasize about it, I certainly don’t expect every gatekeeper to immediately fall in love with my ideas for content. Rejection is part of the game. Yet, collectively, these gatekeepers continue to do things that are frustrating. Things that unnecessarily limit the opportunities for writers who want to share diverse food stories with a broader audience. Things that remain puzzling in the year 2017. What follows bears on my experience as someone who writes about African-American foodways, but other food writers of color have shared similar experiences with me.
The first, and probably most pervasive, challenge is that writers of color are often limited to writing about their traditional foods, while white writers are given much more latitude to explore a wide variety of cuisines beyond their immediate expertise. This not only applies to writing assignments from an employer or freelance work, but to getting a food media job. An established food writer of color, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of jeopardizing her ability to get assignments from editors, shared with me a failed attempt to get a senior-level editing job at a major food magazine. Despite an excellent resume featuring this person’s work experience as a trained chef, author and ghost-writer of several successful and award-winning cookbooks and freelance pieces on several types of cuisines, this person was turned down for the position. Why? Because the magazine’s gatekeeper making the hiring decision said that the applicant’s expertise in ethnic cuisine wasn’t transferable to a mainstream publication.
My personal “favorite” is the pervading and persistent belief that the only appropriate time for disseminating African-American food stories is on the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday or during “Black History Month,” which happens in February. I thought the word was out by now that black people, just like everyone else, cook and eat all year long. Perhaps not. Yet, other ethnic groups aren’t so arbitrarily constrained. Imagine mostly reading about Chinese food around the lunar New Year celebration, about French food on Bastille Day, about Italian food on Columbus Day and about Mexican food on Cinco de Mayo. I have pitched stories that offered a roundup of black-owned restaurants in a particular city in order to highlight the diverse culinary expressions of African-heritage cuisines in that city’s dining scene. In order to get a “hook” for their readers, editors have suggested running the piece in February. There’s an entire world of food out there waiting to be explored, but we tend to hear about the same cuisines over and over again. This happens despite growing evidence that Americans are more curious about different cuisines than ever before. For the moment, diverse food writers take comfort that stories are getting published at all.
Another mystifying occurrence is the ongoing invisibility of African-Americans in food stories that have an obvious African-American connection. How many more “Best Southern Chef,” “Best Southern Restaurant” or “Best Barbecue” articles (particularly ones with lists) and television shows must we read and watch that overwhelmingly feature white people? With 46 million black people living in the United States, isn’t it possible that there’s one African-American who can cook and has a good story to tell?
The final head-scratcher comes when media outlets finally choose to feature an African-American food story, and a white writer gets the assignment. Am I arguing that only people of a certain race should write food stories about their culture? No. I’m arguing for more balance in who gets the writing assignment. Depending upon the angle sought, an African-American writer may be able to tell a story with more dimension than someone unfamiliar with the culture. At the very least, that writer will avoid the kinds of mistakes that get people in a lot of trouble on social media.
I could go on, but one must ask, “Why does this stuff keep happening?” Having worked with a lot of these gatekeepers, I don’t think that the main problem is overt racism. We’re seeing the end product of an industry full of people living in a bubble. The gatekeepers tend to be cut from the same cheesecloth in terms of race, class and culture, and their professional and social circles are filled with similar people. This mix leads to a very narrow view of what’s possible and interesting in the food universe, and an echo chamber in terms of what’s trendy. Thus, the gatekeepers believe that their customers want stories from a certain range of subjects, and we readers and viewers get those stories ad nauseum. The gatekeepers may believe that they are casting a broad net, but it’s actually fairly limited when diverse perspectives are taken into account.
Given the intense competition for consumers, one would think that the gatekeepers would try to grow their following with diverse stories and writers. Instead, they squeeze every ounce from proven formulas of success in terms of subjects and storytellers. So, how do we get the gatekeepers to realize that diversity doesn’t mean showcasing different types of fascinating white people? The simplest answers are that we need more diversity amongst the gatekeepers, and more white gatekeepers who truly make diverse storytelling a priority, take more risks and make more of an effort to find and hire diverse food writers.
Yet, not all of the heavy lifting on this subject needs to be done by the gatekeepers. Food writers of color need to keep pitching ideas, continue seeking innovative ways to share diverse stories, keep the gatekeepers accountable when they fall short, and seek gate-keeping jobs when they become available. Consumers who want diverse stories need to support food writers of color by purchasing our creative products, reading our blogs, attending our presentations, suggesting we speak at presentations, and sharing our content on social media, because that has become the way that many gatekeepers measure success.
Most importantly, we have to continue growing our consumer market beyond cookbooks to include writing about food culture and food history. This will be challenging. As one person said while contemplating whether or not to attend one of my book talks: “I don’t want to hear some brother talk about soul food. I want to eat it!” It was kind of hard to argue with him. The main point is that gatekeepers are constantly making business decisions, and evidence of a strong consumer demand should tip the scales in favor of more diversity.
We all have some work to do to raise the visibility of diverse food stories and have diverse cultures acknowledged for their culinary contributions to our national food scene. Given the recent success of African-American-authored blogs, cookbooks and culinary histories, one can no longer argue with a straight face that there is no market for these stories. Unfortunately, some gatekeepers will continue to limit the opportunity for diverse food stories to be told, but others are trying.
Just recently, a gatekeeper for a popular, food-oriented website reached out to me to find diverse voices to include in a regional barbecue story. Diverse food stories are out there, and they are easier to find than one might think. Who’s ready to forage and harvest the bounty?
Adrian Miller is the author of the James Beard Award-winning book Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time. His latest book is The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, from the Washingtons to the Obamas.