Washington Post: Calling food 'exotic' is racist

This morning the Washington Post’s staff writer for the food section published a lengthy article titled “Stop calling food ‘exotic’.” The gist of the piece is that the use of the word “exotic” implies a white, western reference point from which all else is outside. This process of othering food from Asian or other non-western cultures is therefore racist.

The first problem with the word is that, probably within the past two decades, it has lost its essential meaning. The second, more crucial problem is that its use, particularly as applied to food, indirectly lengthens the metaphysical distance between one group of humans and another, and, in so doing, reinforces xenophobia and racism.

“I have never heard the word exotic used in reference to something that is White,” says Chandra D. L. Waring, professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Lowell. “You know that exotic means ‘other’ or ‘different’ from a dominant-White perspective because no one ever says, ‘I’m going to go on an exotic vacation, I’m going to Lowell, Mass.’ No one ever says, ‘Let’s go to that exotic new restaurant, let’s go to McDonald’s.’” I can’t imagine anyone calling a Big Mac an exotic sandwich, even if, when it was first introduced to countries outside North America, it may have been viewed with skepticism.

Maybe not now but that’s because there are a bazillion McDonald’s restaurants around the world selling those sandwiches (or something like them). Things stop being exotic when you can go into a global chain restaurant down the street and buy one.

Like ethnic and alien, the word exotic was invented to describe something foreign. It comes from the Greek prefix, “exo,” or “outside.” It used to mean something “alien” or “foreign,” and though this is an archaic definition, it’s part of the word’s legacy. According to Merriam-Webster, in reference to food, its modern-day usage may describe something “introduced from another country,” “not native” or something “strikingly, excitingly, or mysteriously different.” The problem is that it’s a definition that changes based on the user’s perspective….

It’s been a long time since European explorers traveled the world in pursuit of wealth, spices, coffee, tea, chocolate and places they would colonize or people they would enslave — in short, things they would label exotic — but that history is inextricable from the word.

Is it a problem that the word exotic changes based on the user’s perspective or is that just how words work. The word foreign obviously means something different in Japan than it does here in the US. Does that make the word racist or does it just indicate that people are born into a certain culture which includes and excludes certain things including types of food.

There is part of the article that makes some sense. The author is argues that America is so multi-cultural that writing about “exotic” foods doesn’t make much sense unless you assume you are writing for a specific, white audience. I take the point that there are people from around the world here who may not consider that food someone is calling exotic to be exotic.

In fact, that was the basis for a recent blowup on TikTok last month over this same issue. TV-host James Cordon was pressured to apologize for a recurring segment called Spill Your Guts or Fill Your Guts. This was basically a celebrity version of Truth or Dare in which people who refused to tell the truth were forced to eat some sort of unusual, often Asian food like Balut, a fertilized duck egg. Some kid lashed out over this saying Balut was something they had grown up eating. Their TikTok video went viral and Cordon eventually apologized. Again, I think this is where the author of this piece probably clued in to the power of shaming people over references to exotic foods.

But while it’s true that nearly everything that is eaten is probably familiar to someone living in America right now, that doesn’t change the fact that the majority of people who grew up here consider a hamburger pretty pedestrian and would consider Balut or other Asian foods to be unfamiliar aka exotic. That doesn’t make their intuition about these things racist. In fact, people in Asian cultures almost certainly have the same sort of revulsion toward some of the things we eat routinely, whether they use the word exotic to describe them or not.

At the very end of the piece we finally get this admission from one of the people the author interviewed that, actually, there doesn’t seem to be any ill-intent in referring to unfamiliar foods as exotic:

“It’s completely tied to the history of colonialism and slavery,” says Serena J. Rivera, assistant professor of Portuguese and Spanish at the University of Pittsburgh. “If you are exotic, if you’re automatically an ‘other,’ you’re not one of us.” But for someone to make such a judgment, they would need to be in a position of power…

“I don’t think people actually mean it maliciously,” Rivera says. “I think people just don’t realize how much power these words have, how much history they carry with them.”

It’s ironic because the people actually displaying power here are the ones word policing the rest of us. James Cordon has been a TV-host for a while now and has a lot of celebrity friends. Socially he has a lot more power than your average person. And yet, not as much as some aggrieved 20-something with a TikTok account. He was forced to apologize despite having done nothing wrong.

I think this comment (the top upvoted comment as I write this) sort of sums up my thoughts on this piece:

The author’s argument is very ethnocentric. Exotic is the opposite of familiar.  So a vacation to Lowell, Mass. is exotic to someone who lives in Croatia but not to someone who lives in New Hampshire. Food with unfamiliar spices is exotic. Also, McDonald’s owes its popularity in many countries to its exotic nature – it does not serve food similar to food served at other local restaurants in a large part of the world and its appeal lies in that foreigness.
The author also ignores the key argument that the commenters make – “please try to pick some recipes featuring ingredients that are readily available?” In many areas, specialized ingredients and spices simply aren’t available or are prohibitively expensive if purchased online.  Again, it’s very ethnocentric of the author to assume that all readers have the same access to these ingredients that they do and to criticize readers for it.
I believe that food is just food and people should try unfamiliar things and find out what they like.  But this attempt to police how people eat and talk about food in relation to themselves is distasteful.

Well said. People should try new things. It’s one of the best parts of being an adult. But having a preference for the food you grew up with and an aversion to things that are very different is a universal experience. And for the record, I spent 2 minutes on Google and found this Chinese food site talking about exotic American foods people might want to try. I’m sure there are a lot of comments like this from around the world and that’s okay.