Culinary Injustice (Guest Post)

Culinary Injustice

by

Axel Arturo Barceló Aspeitia

It is not rare to find people who make statements such as “people who dislike reggaetón are being racists and classists” (Rivera-Rideau 2005). In the early eighties, many people claimed that anyone who chanted “disco sucks” was racist and homophobic (Hubbs 2007, Lawrence 2006, Hughes 1994); and some people said that anyone who disliked Heavy Metal was classist (Bryson 1996).

The same thing happens with food. Many people say that a person’s distaste for eating fried chicken with their hands just shows their ethnocentrism, classism and/or racism, that our distaste for people eating KFC is snobbish. As a matter of fact, all of these accusations share the general features that Matthew Kieran (2010) found in snobbery:

A snobbish judgment or response is one where aesthetically irrelevant social features play a causal role in S’s appreciative activity in coming to judge the value of x qua aesthetic object, so that how they are formed, along with any concomitant rationalization, is explained more fundamentally in terms of S’s drive to feel or appear superior in relation to some individual or group. (244)

According to Kieran, these judgements are, at least, epistemically deficient, for they are driven by “social features such as a particular class or group’s liking something [that] are often irrelevant to its aesthetic value” (Kieran 2010, 244). And notice that Kieran’s broad characterization of snobbery also covers cases of people who positively (and aesthetically) value certain food because it is authentic, traditional or exotic. Presumably, these criteria are also “external to appreciation proper” (Kieran 2010, 244) and thus epistemologically problematic—and snobbish—for the very same reason.

Most people are, however, interested in these judgments due to broader political concerns, not because of their epistemic shortcomings. When trying to explain the political damage in these prejudiced evaluative judgments, hypotheses of two different sorts tend to be offered: On the one hand, one can think that it is the evaluative content of the judgement that is harmful; for example, judging these cultural artifacts negatively, damages the people who do appreciate them and/or engage in them by failing to recognise their actual value. In other words, these judgments shortchange the cultural contributions and everyday aesthetic experiences of whole peoples. Thus, for example, to disparage the taste of Hakarl (dried Greenland shark) as fetid and revolting, damages Icelanders by failing to recognise its actual culinary value and/or the aesthetic experience of tasting it. Furthermore, the devaluation of minority cuisines can have, and usually does have, economic costs that accrue to these minorities (Meléndez Torres and Cañez de la Fuente 2009).

The problem may be one of standing, i.e., the damage comes not from the content of the evaluation but rather from the fact that whoever makes such a claim places himself in a superior position from which he acts on this assumption of superiority—which becomes a presupposition through his confident speech act—an assumption according to which he is entitled to judge such cultural artifacts. As Wiggins and Potter (2003), following Heritage and Raymond (2002), recognise, in making such evaluations, people demonstrate their entitlement to express an opinion, as well as that they have sufficient knowledge about the object, event, or practice that they evaluate. When unwarranted, this presupposition can be damaging insofar as it implies the inferiority of the culture whose objects and practices are judged. As Zilka Janer (2007, 393) has written, “all cuisines should be respected as living contemporary culture with their own rules, techniques and epistemology.” It is only by knowing and respecting the rules of the cuisine to which it belongs that can we earn the standing to evaluate the taste of a dish. One who authoritatively evaluates a dish without knowing or respecting its cuisine enacts cultural injustice, as well as denotes their own lack of humility (Mason 2020).

Notice that the problem is not ignorance itself, that is, it is not wrong to be unfamiliar with a particular cuisine and its rules. Rather, what is wrong is the arrogance that one enacts when one thinks that one can make an evaluative aesthetic judgment despite lacking the proper knowledge or requisite skill. From this perspective, even if it is true that Oaxaqueñan black mole’s combination of spices is difficult to digest for most people, it can be wrong for someone outside of mole’s culture to criticise mole for it. Even if Ambrosia is full of refined sugar, calling it a “sugar bomb” can denote cultural insensitivity, if not outright classism and ethnocentrism.

Unfortunately, this explanation also has its limitations. After all, it was Mexicans ourselves who, for decades, considered pulque, tequila, and mezcal inferior spirits in comparison to european products like whiskey or cognac. In other words, it was not out of an arrogant sense of cultural superiority or because of an irresponsible lack of knowledge of Mexican culture that Mexicans undervalued pulque, tequila, and mezcal. Nor was it due to a false consciousness that led us to adopt an alienated self-conception of ourselves as Others. Indeed, I think that something else is taking place.

This apparent paradox has long been studied in the sociology of music. Consider that most of the people who strongly disparage reggaetón, for example, are black and brown-skinned, working-class latinxs, while many of the people who advocate for its cultural and aesthetic value are white and middle or upper class. In her seminal work, Bethany Bryson (1996) proposed that we explain away this difference in attitude in terms of the social cost that results from embracing the relevant genre. Embracing reggaetón for a white middle- or upper-class Latinx, for example, does not affect his or her social opportunities in the way that it does brown and black working class latinxs whose reggaetón parties are regularly denounced by neighbours and raided by the police (Hernández Pastén 2012, Rivera 1996). Rejecting reggaetόn is part of marginalsed latinxs passing arsenal in a context of discrimination and, as such should be understood.

So, it is true that white latinxs who dance to reggaetόn at exclusive (and expensive) music festivals pose a challenge to eurocentric narratives of coolness; in doing so, however,  they also demonstrate their privilege. The same can be said about the renewed appreciation amongst upper-class and middle-class Mexicans for tequila, mezcal, and pulque (Bennett et al. 2009). In consequence, white and/or middle and upper class latinxs who call out working-class latinxs of colour for not embracing reggaetón or not drinking pulque fail to recognize the privilege that allows them to dance and drink in relative social safety.

The heart of Bryson’s theory (as far as I have appropriated it for my purposes in this post) is that snobbism plays an important role as a defense against negative stereotypes. I know people who will not have lunch at cafeterias in the business district because they work white collar jobs themselves and do not want to confirm the “godinez” stereotype—the Mexican equivalent of the white collar “working stiff” stereotype—not because they refuse to rub shoulders with people who do office work.

In a recent (and, I would add, excellent) comedy sketch by Raphael Chestang (2008) that appears on College Humour , an African American man on a dinner date with a white woman says “I’ll have literally anything but the fried chicken.” The man explains that he does not want to perpetuate stereotypes about black people by doing so, even though he has good reason to believe the fried chicken is (in the words of the waiter) “soooo good”. The white character, by contrast, says with a wink of her eye, “I will have an exotic sounding dish to show how worldly I am.”

References

Bennet, Tony, Mike Savage, Elizabeth Bortolaia Silva, Alan Warde, Modesto Gayo-Cal and David Wright. 2009. Culture, Class, Distinction, Routledge.

Bryson, Bethany. 1996. “Anything But Heavy Metal: Symbolic Exclusion and Musical Dislikes.”  American Sociological Review, 61(5): 884-899.

Chestang, Raphael. 2008. “Honest Interracial Date.” Directed by Michael Schaubach, College Humour, https://youtu.be/SHLta_M6chM

Heritage, J., & Raymond, G. 2002. “The Terms of Agreement: Indexing Epistemic Authority and Subordination in Talk-in-interaction”. Paper presented at the International Conference on Conversation Analysis, University of Copenhagen, 17–21.

Hubbs, Nadine. 2007. “’I Will Survive’: Musical Mappings of Queer Social Space in a Disco Anthem.” Popular Music 26(2): 231-244.

Hughes, Walter. 1994. “In the Empire of the Beat: Discipline and Disco.” In Andrew Ross and Tricia Rose (eds.) Microphone Friends: Youth Music and Youth Culture, Routledge: 147–157.

Janer, Zilkia. 2007. “(In)edible Nature:  New World Food and Coloniality.” Cultural Studies 21(2-3): Globalization and the De-Colonial Option: 385-405

Kieran, Matthew. 2010. “The Vice of Snobbery: Aesthetic Knowledge. Justification and Virtue in Art Appreciation.” The Philosophical Quarterly 60(239): 243–263.

Lawrence, Tim. 2006. “In Defence Of Disco (Again)”, New Formations 58: 128-146.

Mason, Cathy. 2020. “Humility and Ethical Developmen.t” Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy 17(1): 48–74.

Meléndez Torres, Juana María, & Cañez De la Fuente, Gloria María. 2009. “La Cocina Tradicional Regional Como Un Elemento De Identidad Y Desarrollo Local: El Caso De San Pedro El Saucito, Sonora, México.” Estudios Sociales, 17: 181-204.

Hernández Pastén, Alan. 2012. “Reggaetón: del baile a la discriminación”, BBC World News. https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias/2012/09/120912_mexico_reggeton_discriminacion_jcps

Rivera-Rideau, Petra. 2015. Remixing Reggaeton: The Cultural Politics of Race in Puerto Rico. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Rivera, Raquel Z. 1996. “Policing Morality: Underground Rap in Puerto Rico.” Against the Current 62. https://solidarity-us.org/atc/62/p2425/

Wiggins, Sally, and Jonathan Potter. 2003. “Attitudes and Evaluative Practices: Category vs. Item and Subjective vs. Objective Constructions in Everyday Food Assessments.” British Journal of Social Psychology 42: 513–531.

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Axel Arturo Barceló Aspeitia is a professor at the National University of Mexico’s Institute for Philosophical Research where he studies human representations (words, formulas, pictures, diagrams, etc.) and their use, especially in inference and argumentation. He received his Ph.D. at Indiana University, Bloomington and was awarded the National University Recognition of Distinction Award for Young Researchers in the Humanities. Throughout his academic career, he has published two books and more than 40 journal articles and book chapters in Mexico and abroad.

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