Alison Roman came for Marie Kondo and Chrissy Teigen. The backlash tells us a lot about the state of our world under a racially oppressive capitalist system.
As with most cancellations, Alison Roman's is a nuanced issue that's more complex than it appears on the surface.
At best, it's a teachable moment—about cancel culture, about implicit bias, and about the capitalist systems that keep it all in place.
For anyone who needs a refresher on the details, Roman is a popular food columnist whose recipes in The New York Times have gained even more notoriety during the coronavirus outbreak, perhaps due to the influx of people looking for easy recipes and comfort food. Then, in an interview with New Consumer, Roman made some disparaging comments about two other women with successful lifestyle businesses. "The idea that when Marie Kondo decided to capitalize on her fame and make stuff that you can buy, that is completely antithetical to everything she's ever taught you," she said. "I'm like, damn, b**ch, you f**king just sold out immediately!" Roman said. "For the low price of $19.99, please to buy my cutting board!' Like, no. … It feels greedy."
People were quick to point out Roman's choice of the words "please to buy," which seems like a jab at Kondo, who speaks little English. Roman apologized, saying the wording was a reference to a European cookbook, but many didn't buy her apology.
She also came for Chrissy Teigen. "She had a successful cookbook. And then it was like: Boom, line at Target. Boom, now she has an Instagram page that has over a million followers where it's just, like, people running a content farm for her," Roman said. "That horrifies me and it's not something that I ever want to do. I don't aspire to that." The comments did not go over well. Teigen expressed her dismay on Twitter, battalions of followers retweeted the message and the backlash began. Roman initially defended herself, was quickly called out on her own hypocrisy, and eventually delivered extensive written apologies to both Teigen and Kondo—but the damage was done.
Today, the New York Times announced that Roman's column was being "temporarily suspended." People on Twitter—mostly white—immediately began to respond in protest, and their comments were also heavily criticized.
Does every woman of color need to come back AGAIN and re-explain that Alison Roman's Columbus cuisine column is tak… https://t.co/TTPerm2uet— Liz Hsiao Lan Alper (@Liz Hsiao Lan Alper) 1589942898.0
Teigen also denounced The Times' decision to pause Roman's column.
The debates will definitely continue on, though most likely the New York Times will face far more backlash for temporarily pausing Roman's column than for failing to hire food writers of color. Most likely, in the end, Alison Roman and Chrissy Teigen will be just fine, and millions of other people will continue to starve.
So let's not let debates over the nuances of cancel culture or over who's racist (spoiler: all white people are and acknowledging that is the first step to changing that) distract us from the deeper problems at the heart of this controversy and the end goal of all this backlash, which is reforming systemic oppression and dismantling capitalism. Cancel culture can only be productive when it leads to discussion about transformative justice, when it inspires education, and when it draws people into movements, not when it shuts down conversations or preaches definitive, rigid ideas of right and wrong.
The Inevitability of Implicit Bias
Roman's comments indicate (at the very least) some level of implicit bias against women of color, which is something all white people implicitly have, simply thanks to the nature and organization of our world, which is structurally designed to elevate white supremacist systems.
As many Tweeters pointed out, Roman could've easily brought up any of the innumerable white people who have started businesses and capitalized off their fame. "Women calling other women sell-outs and b*tches for their hard-earned accomplishments is not acceptable. White women calling women of color sell-outs and bitches for their hard-earned accomplishments is not acceptable," wrote Cherry Bombe Magazine, which has featured both Teigen and Roman on its cover. "There's no excuse in 2020 for not knowing better, especially when you're a gatekeeper or celebrated individual in the food world."
That's not to say nobody except white men should ever be criticized for taking advantage of capitalist systems. But it is to say that it's important to question why and how that criticism is being implemented, and it's important to ask if unconscious bias is playing a role in how we select people to criticize, just as it affects who we hire and how we interact in the world.
"If I could make an appeal, a question I wish more people with platforms would ask themselves before self-indulging is: What is the larger narrative my voice or opinion is contributing to and is that narrative inclusive?" writes Wong. Maybe we just need to hold our people and ourselves to higher standards.
A lot of the criticism of Roman's work swivels back to "the stew," one of Roman's most popular recipes—a chickpea stew containing turmeric, yogurt, and other ingredients that borrowed from a variety of ethnic cuisines. "I'm like y'all, this is not a curry…I've never made a curry, I don't come from a culture that knows about curry," Roman once said to Jezebel, an offhand remark that has since emerged as proof of her racial insensitivity.
"Roman made herself a curry and refused to acknowledge that she had made a curry, and this is colonialism as cuisine," writes Roxana Hadadi in Pajaba. The problem with this is that "Roman gets to be the next great white hope, and it's all over pieces like this one in Modern Adventure, where Roman basically acts as if she and she alone has discovered Vietnamese cuisine for the first time."
These offenses have deep roots. "I would take Iranian bread to school every so often as part of my lunch, and other kids would make fun of me for not eating "normal" white bread. Did some of those little jerks grow up to make The Stew? Maybe!" Hadadi writes. None of these are isolated incidents. The cooking industry is full of stories about white people who go to other countries and "discover" new, exotic cuisines and bring them back and profit off of them while the originators of these cuisines receive nothing. "It speaks to a larger problem within this food influencer culture itself, which is that we often give people outside of certain ethnic groups the authority on that group's food," Hadadi continues. We often give people outside of certain ethnic groups the authority, period, viewing whiteness as a kind of blank slate and not another slanted point of view.
Remember a month ago when I said @navalang was one of the best writers, period? Yeah, I definitely stand by that https://t.co/wpy4Wz2IUW— Helen R. (@Helen R.) 1590013682.0
I appreciated speaking w/ @lenakfelton at @thelilynews about the alison roman/chrissy teigen controversy, & reading… https://t.co/NuCQwJKnmK— ✍🏼 roxana | ✊🏼 zivar | ⚒️ hadadi (@✍🏼 roxana | ✊🏼 zivar | ⚒️ hadadi) 1589240747.0
Alison Roman, the Colonization of Spices, and the Exhausting Prevalence of Ethnic Erasure in Popular Food Culture https://t.co/xhQLaNHsSi— Kate Walton (@Kate Walton) 1589259705.0
Capitalism, Racism, and the Intersectionality of Systemic Oppression
"A lot of Roman's critiques of Kondo and Teigen, and her New Consumer interview as a whole, center on the idea of authenticity and her fear of 'selling out.' But 'authenticity' has no value in and of itself; it only gains meaning when imbued with specifics, and its history is indelibly rooted in political discourse and class struggle," writes Laura Bradley in The Daily Beast. "It's also worth remembering that the wealthy and the white disproportionately get to decide the parameters of this supposed virtue—making it an unfortunate coincidence that both women Roman chose to critique happen to be women of color."
This gets to the core of the issue, a fact that many women of color spent a lot of time explaining. "When I read Roman's interview, I wasn't so much offended for Kondo or Teigen as I was frustrated for every person of color who has worked themselves silly only to be viewed as a sellout or spoiled or privileged, especially if that work included navigating discrimination — and it always does," writes Kristin Wong.
Whiteness and capitalism are deeply intertwined, and capitalism enables the perpetuation of racism and other forms of social oppression. "By dividing human beings, conceptually and practically, into intrinsically different subgroups, capitalism's defenders could explain and justify why its economic benefits (e.g. the status of employer rather than employee) and burdens (unemployment, poverty etc.) were so unequally distributed (both within countries and globally)," writes Richard D. Wolff in Truthout.
"Certain population groups — conceived as races — were deemed underdeveloped, incapable, irrational and/or psychologically disqualified in relation to capitalism's productive rigors. Such presumed inferiority was then offered as an explanation for why people of some races were rarely employers and, among employees, were those last hired and first fired, poorly paid, ghettoized etc." Essentially, capitalism played a role in creating race as a construct and in perpetuating inequality under the guise of freedom. So what does this all have to do with Alison Roman? It gets at the deeper roots of the hypocrisy of Roman's comments, and it shows that any critique of capitalism has to recognize the intersectionality of race, gender, and class. It also highlights the importance of deeper education, especially as capitalism becomes even more of a glaring problem.
Transformative Justice and Canceling Cancel Culture
Change starts with education, which is always ongoing. At the simplest level, racism gets perpetuated not only by systems of conscious hate but also by a million largely invisible threads that are built into the network of a white supremacist society. The simplest mandatory workforce bias training will tell you this, but until every police officer and famous person participates in some level of anti-bias training, we'll still be dealing with debacles like the Roman controversy instead of actively recognizing and treating the festering wounds at their core.
Until then, unconscious racial bias will keep leading to much darker consequences than an offhand insult in an interview—it can result in disparities in who receives healthcare, in whose town winds up being chosen for the next pipeline, and in who gets sick from the next pandemic.
In that respect, it makes total sense that Roman's comments enraged so many people on different sides, but let's not miss the forest for the trees. Poverty can result in systemic exclusion from upward mobility regardless of race, and pitting lower class white people against nonwhite people is exactly what the billionaires who are actually destroying the world would like to see. Let's not reserve our critiques of capitalism only for women who run small lifestyle businesses.
The real enemy here isn't the one person who said something bad. It's the systems, and the people with the money that controls the systems. (Perhaps the argument that critiques of individual people's actions should be exchanged for systemic criticisms is flawed in its own way, but this thinkpiece is already too long). For now, if we're talking about canceling someone because of wealth privilege, let's talk about the world's first expected trillionaire Jeff Bezos, not Marie Kondo, who perhaps has won this entire debate by saying nothing at all.
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