Monday, July 1, 2013

B(l)ack in the Kitchen: Food Network

by Lisa Guerrero

The conversation surrounding Paula Deen and her use of the “N word” has simultaneously erased the accusations of job discrimination and harassment all while ignoring the larger issues of race and Food Network. In fact, Deen’s ultimate firing by the Food Network has allowed the network to position itself as anti-racist, as America’s moral conscience. Refusing to allow prejudice to stain its airwaves, the Food Network has situated itself as a progressive force of accountability and justice.

Deen, however, is reflective of their brand—one that normalizes and operationalizes whiteness all while reimagining the world of food as racially transcendent. Revelations regarding Deen burst that illusion. With this in mind, we are sharing an excerpt from Lisa Guerrero’s brilliant chapter from our recent book, African Americans on Television: Race-ing for Ratings

. . .

In all of its programming, even within programs where race is undeniably apparent, either because of the celebrity or the cuisine, food is presented as a race-neutral cultural object.  Unfortunately, in a race-based society, as the United States is, “race-neutral” invariably gets translated as “white.”  Food Network trades in the notion of the “racelessness” of food to create a commodified sense of neoliberal inclusion and equality, wherein the focus is placed on individuals and not on systems. Food is portrayed across the network as a “universal language;” but as discussed above, it is definitely constructed as a specifically class-based language, as well as a language constructed in specifically racialized terms.  To be fair, Food Network is no different from most other cable television networks where whiteness is predominant and becomes easily normalized and rendered invisible to most viewers.
Ironically, the relatability that Food Network carefully crafts around its personalities is almost completely belied by the “everyday” lifestyles many of the network celebrities are show to have as they are strategically integrated into their respective shows, most notably with Ina Garten, Giada DeLaurentis, and Bobby Flay.  While the wealth and whiteness displayed in these, and much of Food Network’s other programming is conspicuous, they are treated as commonplace, the effect of which is twofold:  1) it creates a socioracial standard when it comes to the act of food consumption; and 2) it suggestively endorses the idea of food as a racial and economic privilege. 
Through its successful erasure of race and class, Food Network perpetuates certain understandings about the social landscape in which people think about food consumption and commodification as being generally equal amongst various populations, even as statistically and programmatically most people can see that food equality isn’t a reality.  But Food Network is able to maintain this profitable food fantasy by constructing its food narratives in a very particular sociohistorical vacuum that allows audiences to distance themselves from not only certain tediums surrounding daily food habits, but also the sociohistorical and socioeconomic systems of food production and preparation in the United States.  The strategic use of blackness on the network is one of the primary ways in which this distancing is enabled.
The relative absence of blackness on Food Network, while not unlike the relative absence of blackness on network television generally speaking, succeeds in denying the significant place African Americans have, both historically and contemporaneously, in the creation of American food culture and foodways.  This erasure, while creating an amputated impression of American food backgrounds, does so in deliberate ways that are in keeping with long histories of using whiteness to signify notions of expertise, virtuosity, superiority, propriety, and polish.  In other words, in order to cement the network’s guiding narrative of elevating food to a craft, an art, an aspiration, it needs to simultaneously elevate whiteness, usually white maleness. 
 Not surprisingly, the programming on Food Network frames American food in very Eurocentric terms, tracing food origins and traditions to primarily Western, European nations, while periodically recognizing the “exotic” fare of Latin America or Asia.  There is little to no recognition of African cuisines within programming, despite the growing popularity of African food and restaurants among American consumers sparked by growing numbers of African immigrants to the United States, and probably represented most notably by the often tokenized celebrity chef, Marcus Samuelsson, who was born in Ethiopia and raised in Sweden.  Neither is there much linkage drawn between the specificity of African American soul food and the development of much of what is considered American “southern food.”  The erasure of these African and African-American cultural linkages to American food habits and histories effectively reimagines a significant portion of American food architecture as almost exclusively white, a reimagining not supported by history. 
Now certainly Food Network isn’t The History Channel, and viewers aren’t necessarily expecting to be provided with critically accurate or developed histories of food origins, routes, or social significances.  Nonetheless, its lack of wider, more representative narrative frames within its programming results in two things:  First, there is a barely perceptible, encompassing whitening of both the network itself, as well as the perspectives it creates about food relationships within American populations.  Secondly, when racial “diversity” and representation do occur, they have the effect of “tokenism” rather than inclusion.  Nowhere is this latter effect more apparent than in the network’s small club of Black cooking personalities.
 The framing of Food Network and The Cooking Channel break down into simplistic terms as “The U.S.” and “The Global,” respectively.  As such, The Cooking Channel does appear to embrace diversity in a larger, more transparent way than Food Network.  However, the apparent differentials of framing are really only on a cosmetic level.  There are more people of color that appear regularly on The Cooking Channel, but only slightly more, and considering the overbearing whiteness of Food Network, it really wouldn’t take much to have “more” racial diversity.  But the neutralized by emphasizing the notion of  “the exotic.”  The people of color on The Cooking Channel are, by and large, not of the United States, creating a comforting distance between U.S. audiences and any troublesome considerations about racism. 
In scholarly terms, it wouldn’t be far off the mark to think about Food Network as “the colonial” and The Cooking Channel as “the postcolonial.”  In other words, Food Network denies race and its systems by trying to devalue and/or erase race altogether, while The Cooking Channel denies race and its systems by putting race on display in almost exhibitional terms so that audiences don’t relate to it as a “real” thing.  In both cases, whiteness is positioned as the fulcrum of food experiences and knowledges.  And ultimately, blackness, especially American blackness, is relegated to becoming the specialty ingredient that gets used sparingly in the recipe of televisual food programming for fear that its flavor won’t be palatable to American consumers.


As we’ve seen over the last few days not only with the vociferous response by Deen supporters, but also with SCOTUS gutting the Voting Rights Act, Texas scrambling to capitalize on that decision by pushing through a Voter ID bill, the dehumanizing tactics of the defense counsel in the George Zimmerman trial, and the countless racist microaggressions the accounts of which we are bombarded with daily, Paula Deen’s words and behaviors are, in themselves, unsurprising and relatively unremarkable, but rather indicative of the banality of American racism.  As several scholars have articulately pointed out in response to the Deen controversy, (including David J. Leonard), and as I have tried to address in this piece in broader ways, while Deen should certainly be held responsible for the ways in which her actions contribute to the continuation of systemic and ideologic racisms in the United States, the problem is much bigger than her use of racial epithets and her disturbing bucolic nostalgia for the racial order of the antebellum South. 

Perhaps the biggest problem of which Deen is but one very small symptom, is a problem which will, in all likelihood strangle equality and freedom for all American citizens; it is the problem of the United States’ misguided belief in its own magnanimity of race; the delusion that we have remedied our racial illnesses and no longer need to be vigilant about the sickness, and in fact, can be prideful about the “past tense” of our racial struggles.  This blind hubris (which Justice Ginsburg so aptly identified in her dissension to the Voting Rights Act decision), allows for people like Paula Deen to sincerely dislocate their actions from the insidiousness of racism…since racism has been fixed, (so it goes), then certainly what people do and to whom they do it can’t be considered racism. 

Unfortunately, this racist psychosis, the inability to see racism even as you are enacting it, supporting it, contributing to it, benefitting from it, is one of many deleterious side-effects of our post-racial nation, and is sure to kill us quicker than a Paula Deen recipe.   

. . . 

Lisa A. Guerrero is Associate Professor of Comparative Ethnic Studies at Washington State University Pullman.  She is the editor of Teaching Race in the 21st Century: College Professors Talk About Their Fears, Risks, and Rewards (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) and co-editor of African Americans onTelevision: Race-ing for Ratings (Praeger Press) with David J. Leonard.

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