“Eating the Other”: bell hooks on ethnicity as spice

Some time ago, Sociological Images posted this horrifyingly perfect example of how “postracial” discourse interprets racial diversity:

spicediversity

As blog editor Lisa Wade wryly comments, “Just a teaspoon or less of diversity, please.” Misguided as it is, this ad offers a strikingly on-the-nose visual representation of the racism in postracial discourse: the heaping helping of whiteness is something basic (or Basic?) like sugar or salt, while the nonwhite ingredients are there to provide a little color and a little spice (but not too much). As we’ve seen elsewhere, such as in the colloquial use of “vanilla” to connote blandness and whiteness, this kind of racial differentiation operates under the pretense of supporting inclusivity or complimenting individuals–white is boring, anything else is spice or flavor–while it in fact reinforces whiteness as normative and default, with anything else falling into categories of exotic or other. Food frequently provides the figurative vehicle for this sort of thing: in this really excellent guide at Writing With Color, Mod Collette rattles off a list of common descriptions of nonwhite complexions (coffee, chocolate, honey) and adds: “See how often these comparisons are connected to some sensual desire? As if people of Color are food to consume?”

bell hooks might argue that people of color are indeed food within a white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (a phrase she uses to convey the interlocking levels of power that sustain oppression). “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance,” an essay in Black Looks: Race and Representation, opens by making that explicit comparison:

Within current debates about race and difference, mass culture is the contemporary location that both publicly declares and perpetuates the idea that there is pleasure to be found in the acknowledgment and enjoyment of racial difference. The commodification of Otherness has been so successful because it is offered as a new delight, more intense, more satisfying than normal ways of doing and feeling. Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture.

She gives numerous examples, from white appropriation of rap music, to the fashion world’s infrequent employment of nonwhite models of color primarily to invoke sex or danger, to a chilling conversation she overhears among a group of Yale men who, just steps away from her, were openly discussing their desires to sleep with as many women from different racial backgrounds as possible. These exploitative forms of consumption allow white people to believe they are rebelling against white supremacist culture, but capitalism encourages white consumers to feel an imagined intimacy with racial otherness via exotic or primitive fantasies which in fact reinforce the status quo. To return to the measuring spoons of spice: diversity adds heat, it add flavor, it is a commodity desirable in certain quantities that don’t threaten or undermine white dominance in any way. Or to revisit the ubiquitous trope of chocolate skin: comparing bodies to food has the unavoidable connotation of suggesting that the body is an object of appetite. When describing the Yale men and their professed sexual desires for racial difference, bell hooks notes that she is sure that the men see themselves as non-racist, and believe that their open longing is evidence of their desire not to dominate but to be vulnerable and changed utterly by contact with the Other–but in fact, they are not in any danger of losing their cultural dominance at all.

To the contrary, this contact is arguably dangerous for non-white or non-mainstream cultures. bell hooks writes:

When I began thinking and doing research for this piece, I talked to folks from various locations about whether they thought the focus on race, Otherness, and difference in mass culture was challenging racism. There was overall agreement that the message that acknowledgment and exploration of racial difference can be pleasurable represents a breakthrough, a challenge to white supremacy, to various systems of domination. The over-riding fear is that cultural, ethnic, and racial differences will be continually commodified and offered up as new dishes to enhance the white palate – that the Other will be eaten, consumed, and forgotten.

This essay is from 1992, yet the fear of being overwhelmed by white supremacist capitalist patriarchy continues–most recently manifested in my social media feeds through widespread use of the word “Columbusing,” as in “What will white people Columbus next?” (Anything that be exploited for mass consumerism is the answer.)

ETA 10/12/2015: I’ve noticed a huge uptick in hits to this page, partly by way of a Facebook link that I cannot see. Don’t hesitate to drop me a line or a comment, new readers: discussion is welcome, and I’m especially interested to know if you have additional links or texts that connect to the ideas in hooks’ essay.

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2 responses to ““Eating the Other”: bell hooks on ethnicity as spice

  1. Pingback: » Persian Rugs and the Aesthetics of Whiteness in Apartheid-Era South Africa Ajam Media Collective·

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