Vegans of Color

Because we don’t have the luxury of being single-issue

The Exotifying Gaze August 15, 2008

Filed under: Uncategorized — johanna @ 3:02 pm
Tags: ,

During IBARW, I came across this great post from a Chinese-Anglo woman living in Australia about “ethnic” food, & the misuse of the word “ethnic,” which I also happen to hate:

I read Jay Rayner’s attempt at a week of veganism, where he suggests that “ethnic is the default position for the vegan.” I bet he uses ‘exotic’ ingredients in his cooking, too. I have an ethnicity; we all have ethnicities: the fact that the food I grew up with is easier to veganise than the stuff he ate as a child doesn’t make me ‘ethnic,’ it makes me Chinese. Using these words trivializes the decision I have made to be vegan, and it others my family and my whole freaking life, because using words like that aren’t just saying that I’m ‘different,’ they’re saying that I’m ‘other.’ And he is not alone in this, many people are guilty of this all the time. That you’re trying something you’ve never before heard of doesn’t make it ‘exotic,’ it makes it new to you. And you definitely don’t get to describe it as exotic if you’re talking about it on the internet – there’s a good chance it’s not new to your readers. Just because the things I did as a child are different doesn’t make me special, and I certainly don’t want to feel like a freak. And I realise it’s just semantics but semantics are important, because they indicate attitudes – so really, it’s not that I have a problem with the word ‘exotic,’ it’s that I have a problem with the attitude that leads to its use, that the food I eat is ‘not normal,’ that it is other, that I am other. (emphasis mine)

I am really uncomfortable with how a lot of vegan cooking is described as “exotic” (to whom?). It assumes so much about the audience racially & culturally, & as well is loaded with really creepy connotations — the exotic is there to be conquered, mastered; it’s there purely to titillate your (white/Western/etc.) self (which also implies that white people have no culture — a convenient excuse used by people participating in cultural appropriation, but not actually true). It’s a “safe” way to imagine you’re experiencing other cultures without, you know, having to do that pesky thing known as actually engaging with the people whose cultures you’re attempting to eat via their food.

Today I was listening to an interview with a vegan cookbook author (whose cookbook has the word “exotic” in the subtitle). One of the “exotic” recipes she mentioned was mofongo… which I’m guessing probably isn’t exotic, oh, if you’re Puerto Rican.

I also was killing time browsing vegan cookbooks in a bookstore & flipped through Skinny Bitch in the Kitch out of a morbid curiosity. What kind of audience are they catering to, with bits like this, from a chapter called International Bitch, I wonder:

You can totally pretend to be cooler and worldlier than you actually are. Just make one of these global goodies:

  • Falafel
  • Japanese Soba Noodles with Steamed Vegetables and Tofu
  • Potato and Pumpkin Curry with Brown Basmati Rice
  • Pad Thai
  • Veggie Enchiladas
  • Advertisement

    23 Responses to “The Exotifying Gaze”

    1. Meep Says:

      It’s a “safe” way to imagine you’re experiencing other cultures without, you know, having to do that pesky thing known as actually engaging with the people whose cultures you’re attempting to eat via their food.

      So… you’re telling me that most people hang around people of the same ethnicity? And then they only eat food from other cultures because they never had homemade versions? CRAZY.

      Now, seriously, I think it’s interesting how veganism is automatically assumed to be a domain of white people with them asserting Privilege and colonizing our food, when it is possible to eat vegan in many cultures including their own culture.

      For some reason this reminds me of a comment I overheard once: “Mexicans make the best Chinese food!” Ugh.

    2. johanna Says:

      I agree w/you that there are many vegan options in lots of cultures — my point is that it always seems to be the white/Western gaze calling things “exotic.” Obviously, given this blog, I’m not saying veganism is just for white people.

      (& actually, at least in the US, there is ever-increasing social segregation by race — Beverly Daniel Tatum’s talked about this a lot in her most recent book — & I think that can only feed into the tendency to exotify.)

    3. be(the)cause Says:

      so first, great post. seriously, could i be more uncomfortable with the jokey crap phrase, “international bitch?” proooobably not.

      second, i’ve integrated some pretty vague discussion of the exotic into talk about (specifically brown women) folks through sociology courses, but this…
      “the exotic is there to be conquered, mastered; it’s there purely to titillate your (white/Western/etc.)”
      …is a way better articulation on the exoticization of people/ bodies/ cultures than my articulations have been. is that your own theorizing, or does that come from someone in particular? cuz i sure would like to read more on the titillating/ conquering/ mastering factors.

    4. Megan Says:

      I’d never really thought about the use of the words ‘exotic’ or ‘ethnic’ in that way (ie, my white middle class American way). Thanks for opening my eyes a bit. 🙂

    5. Noemi M Says:

      yep, the ol’ exotic in food discussion. Didn’t we talk about this at amc?

      One of the “exotic” recipes she mentioned was mofongo… which I’m guessing probably isn’t exotic, oh, if you’re Puerto Rican.

    6. Sami Says:

      I’ve never really thought as food as “exotic” or generically “ethnic”. I’ve had Japanese food, Cantonese food, Mexican food, etc, and some delicious cross-cultural fusions, but to me “ethnic” food has connotations of being part of a culture and lifestyle – you’re not eating ethnic unless it’s home-made and served in The Way Of The People, which means the food I most often eat that I consider ethnic is food made by me or my family, that’s bound up in the traditions and rituals of our culture. Curry? Indian, but not ethnic. Yorkshire Pudding, served amid trimmings? Ethnic.

      Exotic is more complicated. I think, used non-pejoratively, exotic is what you can’t have locally, not what you don’t have – local, regional delicacies that you can only get in a faraway country are exotic to the stranger who’s eating them, a recipe that’s just unfamiliar to you is not.

    7. johanna Says:

      (be)thecause: Hm, I haven’t done a ton of academic reading on exotification — I haven’t even read Edward Said’s Orientalism, I must admit… most of my thoughts on this kind of stuff come from my own experience & from conversations w/friends (many of whom have read about this academically, so while I may be talking theory that I absorbed through them, I couldn’t name whose theory, alas) . Sorry I couldn’t point you in more helpful directions!

      Megan: Glad the post made you think!

      Noemi: I don’t remember having convos about this @ AMC, but… my memory could be wrong &/or it could’ve been during one of the times when I was having social overload & fled to have some chilling-out-alone time, eep.

      Sami: You’ve got an interesting take on “ethnic” wrt authenticity. I don’t think “exotic” is a neutral term at all, though, & I feel strongly that there is not a non-pejorative way to use it. It is NOT just a way of saying “something different that isn’t available here,” there’s a whole boatload of connotations attached that are nasty & imperialist & gross. My experience is that many, many women of color (for example) find this term to be as problematic as I do. To be honest, I’d be suspicious of anyone who used it thinking it was neutral.

    8. […] by Jack Stephens on August 16, 2008 Johanna blogs: I am really uncomfortable with how a lot of vegan cooking is described as “exotic” (to whom?). […]

    9. Lisa Heldke wrote a book called “Exotic Appetites” that I read this past spring. She dissects how “exotic” is used as part of a legacy of language and attitudes of “colonialism” and “whiteness” when it comes to “adventuring” into the domain of the food of the “other”.

      I highly recommend it. She, as a white middle class woman from the midwest USA, Heldke does some DEEP reflective thinking about her own “colonizing” attitudes when it came to her “exotic” foods venturing.


    10. Here are some themes and quotes from the book. Food Colonizing Attitudes of Euroamerican food adventurers:

      1. Obsessive interest in and appetite for the new, the obscure and “the exotic”

      2. Their treatment of dominated cultures not as genuine cultures, but as resources for raw materials that serve their own interests.

      3. the adventurer’s intense desire for authentic experiences of authentic cultures

      4. Heldke constructs a “new” phrase/concept, called Cultural Food Colonialism, for the “food adventures” of the white class-privileged demographic who appropriate the “exotic other’s” cuisine.

      5. Analyzes white middle class “food adventurer” practices as a way to make visible the underlying ideologies of:
      a) necolonialism;
      b) the practice of multinational food firms moving their growing and production facilities ‘offshore’ in order to exploit cheap labors and;
      c) uprooting indigenous peoples’ local food sustainability and self-sufficiency and replacing it with export economies

      6. “Novel” and “ethnic” as somehow synonymous.
      7. How a capitalist consumerist economy feeds into being able to “buy” “ethnicity” and “culture”

      8. White male food writers and their colonizing perception of the “other’s” food. Heldke analyzes famous “food adventurer” and writer, Paul Levy, and his reliance on the symbolics of meat and consuming “exotic meats” as a way to strengthen his masculine identity.

      9. Heldke critiques the Imperialist nostalgia in Jennifer Brennan’s “The Original Thai Cookbook.”

      10. Intellectual property and “stealing” recipes for cookbooks written by white USAmericans from “the other’s” cultural “commons.” Heldke parallels this to “seed ownership” in the Global south.

      11. Heldke suggests that cookbooks or dining guides “could be constructed in ways that actually acknowledge and grapple with the fact of continued colonialist domination by Western cultures” (179)

      12. Heldke writes: “Mutual recognition of colonialism and racism would also certainly transform the actions of eaters…only addressing colonialism directly through our cooking and eating can we possibly transform them into activities that resist exploitation.” (182)

      13. “How might we cultivate radical joy in our adventuring– joy that is grounded in [bell] hooks’s mutual recognition of systems of domination and subordination?” (184)

    11. These are from Lisa Heldke’s book, “Exotic Appetites”. That is what I forgot to write.

      Also, Uma Narayan’s essay, “Eating Cultures” is a pretty intense critique of what “curry” and other “Indian” cuisine has meant in India and Britain.

    12. be(the)cause Says:

      sheesh, breeze, THANK YOU THANK YOU!
      and thanks again for your post, johanna. turned out even more provocative than its initial very-provocative-ness. i’d say your “not pointing [me] in more helpful directions” is just about false now.

    13. Excellent post and comments, as usual. This gets me going like nothing else–let’s eat ethnic food! URRHIHSH:LFLJL!!

      I was surprised that sociologist Bob Torres of Vegan Freak Radio–where the vegan cookbook author used “exotic” in the title–didn’t pick up on why this is problematic. Hopefully he and Jenna Torres will see this and rethink the title (since they will be publishing the book) and just think more about what they cover–or rather what they don’t cover–on the podcast.

    14. Gary Says:

      Thanks for bringing this up. I was looking back over my recent writings, and I think sometimes I was a bit careless in my use of “exotic.” I will watch out for that in the future. What would be examples of acceptable uses of “exotic?” In a couple of instances I used “exotic” in a tongue-in-cheek manner, e.g., calling sweet potato chips “exotic” because so many people don’t vary from plain old potato chips. (Not exactly a knee-slapper, I know.) But does even using it like that subtly reinforce the negative connotations of the word?

    15. I wanted to note that Heldke’s book really only focuses on “exotic” and white middle class demographic in the USA. However, I have met a significant number of people of color who call certain “non-white” peoples “exotic”. In “Pimps Up, Hos Down: Hip Hops Hold on Young Black Women”, Sharpley-Whiting dedicates a chapter of how there is a demographic of black men in the USA who travel to Brazil because they believe that Brazilian women are “sexually exotic” . It simply helped to remind me that maybe “exotifying” the “other” may also have to do a lot with “American imperialist privileged perspective” and not just a white middle class perspective.

    16. Exotic is another word for different. It definitely implies and us/them dichotomy and it others whoever or whatever is called exotic.

      I think it’s interesting how typical American grocery stores will often have an “exotic” section where they sell dried beans for even cheaper than the dried bean section and spices for even cheaper than the spice section and noodles and canned goods and more… all for cheaper than the rest of the store, and much cheaper than the “health food” section.

      Or, there will be an “Asian” section for the entire continent. And a separate “vegetarian” section. And they won’t overlap. Just look at the way food is categorized online in web groceries.

      Some people are definitely trying to market veganism and vegetarianism as a rich, white thing.

    17. Lauren Says:

      Ah yes, the Orientalization and Othering of the kitchens of the world. Wonderful to see that where the commodification of culture comes into play, folks are more than happy to put their less-visible bigotry where their mouths are, so to speak.

      This has long been an issue for me, having grown up as a “minority” whose “ethnic cuisine” has recently become oh-so-glorified, particularly in vegan circles.

      Mr. Said, I believe, would have a whole set of forks devoted solely to stabbing-purposes for this one …

    18. breezeharper Says:

      I was just surfing the internet and ran across this company. They are called “Veg Voyages: Adventure…the vegetarian way”.

      Here is what they have to say:

      “At VegVoyages we specialize in vegetarian and vegan adventures in select Asian countries. When you join a VegVoyages adventure you can count on an exhilarating journey to some of the most exotic places on earth.”

      and on about us:

      “Founded by long-time vegetarians with extensive experience traveling and organizing trips within Asia, VegVoyages aim is to provide you with an exciting and exotic vegetarian adventure.”


    19. breezeharper Says:

      You’ll notice on the About Us page, 1/2 of the employees are Asian.

      OKay, this is simply a question out of curiosity: I wonder if they consider themselves and their culture as ‘exotic’? If you were born and raised in an Asian country, and this is your “familiar”, would you consider it “exotic”?

      I’m asking these questions because as much as I enjoyed Lisa Heldke’s book, “exotic appetites”, I wanted to read more about if people from supposedly “exotic places” consider themselves and their culture “exotic”; and if so, why?

      And, if VegVoyages were to provide trips to Veggie places in Finland, Norway, or Sweden, would these places be considered “exotic”? Thus far, I have never encountered “white European bodied spaces and cultures” as being described a “exotic.”

      Breezie 🙂

    20. johanna Says:

      Breeze — I bet the employees don’t consider their own culture exotic, but they’re banking their financial future/stability/etc. on Westerners thinking it is. :/ Although I think my dad (Filipino) totally puts forth the idea of his country as being all Mysterious Orient — yay for colonialism, which I’m sure shaped part of his mindset.

      Re: Scandinavia — I’m actually half-Finnish (but “don’t look it,” as I’ve been told zillions of times by Finns, scowl) &… there are definitely people who have obsessions w/Finland, Sweden, etc. but I don’t know if I’ve ever heard them referred to as “exotic.” I wonder if “exotic” usually/always also includes an undercurrent of danger? Because I know part of the appeal of Scandinavia to a lot of tourists is that it’s seen as safe & w/a high standard of living. But, you know, the brown parts of the world… so interesting & exotic, but OMG TERRORISTS OR DICTATORS OR WILD ANIMALS OR JUST POOR PEOPLE OUT TO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF US!

      Also Breeze, thank you so much for posting those quotes & references!! I definitely want to check them out.

      Gary — I’ve used “exotic” in a tongue in cheek manner, but yeah, I don’t know if I could ever see a situation where it could be used seriously & not be offensive.

    21. s Says:

      Oh! You link to me! :o)

      What kind of audience are they catering to, with bits like this, from a chapter called International Bitch, I wonder:

      Oh, that just makes me all angry eyes.

    22. […] talked about how frustrating this stuff is recently. I thought I’d examine some specific examples of the ways in which vegan travel is discussed, […]

    23. […] — johanna @ 7:32 am Tags: exotification I’ve written before about exotification in discussions around vegan food, but it’s something I’m always thinking about & that has come up […]

    Leave a Reply

    Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

    You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

    Twitter picture

    You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

    Facebook photo

    You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

    Connecting to %s