Last week when my Twitter feed blew up with references to a racist cake, I thought it was a revival of the criticism of Sandra Lee’s Kwanzaa “harvest” cake.
Racist is a strong word for a cake, you might say–even a particularly ugly one that looks fairly difficult to serve. (Clicking the photo will take you to the video, in which Lee struggles to wrangle a knife through spongey angel-food cake and plate it up with proportionate amounts of apple pie filling and corn nuts.) This poor cake is not trying to hurt anybody; it just wants to include Kwanzaa alongside the more mainstreamed winter holiday celebrations! But there is the rub: this cake represents nothing in Kwanzaa practice except the candles. No reference to Kwanzaa principles, no allusion to foods of the African diaspora. It’s just a brown cake with corn nuts on it; it only represents Kwanzaa because the white lady said so. That’s the problem with this cake: it was made (by Lee, but primarily her food designers) to act as both a symbol of and a tribute to Kwanzaa with a profound ignorance and misunderstanding of what actual Kwanzaa represents to actual people. That’s pretty much privilege–in this case, white privilege–doing its thing.
Unfortunately, the racist cake that was making headlines this past week was far, far worse.
Here’s the set-up: the Stockholm modern art museum was celebrating World Art Day with a number of cakes made by Swedish artists. One of these was created by Makode Linde, an African Swede who often explores black stereotypes in his work. His cake was built in the shape of a woman’s body with exaggerated swells and bulges, covered in extremely black icing. The woman’s neck is adorned with gold rings, marking her as exotic or Other. He himself played the head of the “woman,” painting his face in minstrel style. Then he invited the Swedish Culture Minister to give the cake a “clitoridectomy,” which she did. Then everyone else at the art party was free to have a slice, revealing a rich red interior as Linde screams and moans painfully.
Clicking the photo will take you to the video embedded at The Guardian‘s website. I don’t recommend it.
There is a lot–a lot!–going wrong here, but the story has stirred up so much controversy in part because there is some disagreement about where and with whom the fault lies, or if there can be said to be fault at all. From one perspective–the one I favor, to be frank–the entire scenario is repugnant and unenlightening. The artist grossly misappropriates, distorts, and displays a black female body to trivialize a horror that he will never experience; the Minister participates in this trivialization with good humor; the rest of the party guests follow suit (I am particularly impressed by the white woman who takes a piece and goes back for the slab of black icing that fell off of it). Others focus on the performance of the piece, arguing that that the Swedish Culture Minister and other white guests were basically punked. In this view of things, the artist has created a very clever scene in which the Minister acts out the wider world’s ignorance of and indifference to female genital mutilation–although that still leaves room for argument whether the Minister is a shallow, racist person who truly is indifferent, or whether the artist is a sophomoric troublemaker who compelled that poor lady to play along (“What else could she do?”).
Those divisions are impossible to make. This is what it means to make and share food: it’s crossing a boundary, it’s literally destroying something that was made outside of you and bringing it inside of you. No one eats alone–and not just because you’re at a party, in a room full of people, in the public eye. Your appetite and digestion can’t be reckoned apart from the culture, economy, and circumstance that bring you the food you eat and are affected by your decision to eat it or not. Intentions are not strictly relevant: you don’t intend to absorb some nutrients and not others, either, and you may not even think about the repercussions of the food choices you make. But divisions cannot be meaningfully made between eater and eaten after a certain point: you can’t separate out the blame of the cake, its maker, and its eaters any more than you can separate the eggs and flour out of the cake.
How can a cake be racist? By being made in a racist culture that coasts on profound ignorance and misunderstanding in place of empathy and awareness, insisting that we accept good intentions in place of self-critical reflection.
But you can choose not to eat it.