Is the ethnic food aisle racist?

  • Ethnic food, or international, aisles can be found in any major grocery-store chain in America.
  • To many, these aisles create the sense of othering and that white American cuisine is the default option.
  • David Chang challenged the aisle's existence in his podcast last year.
  • We spoke with supermarket guru Phil Lempert about how grocery stores are organized and why ethnic food aisles exist in the first place.

    Following is a transcript of the video.

    Narrator: Here's a loaf of Italian bread in an East Coast supermarket chain. It's in aisle 12, the bread aisle, surrounded by other types of bread. So if Italian bread exists in the bread aisle, why do "Chinese noodles" exist here, in the international aisle? These crunchy Chinese noodles, or crispy wonton strips, are typically served as an appetizer or snack in American Chinese restaurants. So why aren't they in, say, the chip aisle? It doesn't seem to make much sense. So, is there some hidden racism in your supermarket? It's a question David Chang asked in his podcast last year.

    David Chang: If you go to the ethnic food aisle, that is sort of the last bastion of racism that you can see in, like, full daylight in retail America. How do we help kill the very notion of what is the ethnic food aisle, and why does it even exist anymore?
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    Narrator: To Chang, the foods in the ethnic aisle are accepted parts of American cuisine. Yet, they are still sectioned off and labeled as something else, something not quite fully American. In fact, the great irony of those Chinese noodles we mentioned earlier is that they're actually an American thing. You'd have a pretty difficult time finding them in China. And take sriracha for example. A few years ago, you would have most likely found the sauce from Thailand exclusively in the ethnic food aisle. But as the sauce has grown in popularity in the US, it's now here, right next to hot sauce. Chang isn't the only one who feels this way. Kim Pham experienced this growing up as well. She's the cofounder of Omsom, a meal-starter-kit company that features Southeast Asian sauces and seasonings.

    Kim Pham: I remember kind of, yeah, like, oh, it's kind of this, like, sad aisle in the back of the store. It's kind of neglected and really just, like, small and a hodgepodge of items. And I remember not necessarily understanding what it stood for but really just being like, "Oh, it's kind of embarrassing that we're back here," and like, "Why do we need to grab some ingredients from back here?" So, felt like a lot of internalized shame.

    Narrator: And the reason everything seems so jumbled has to do with the origins of the ethnic food aisle. Supermarkets became popular and successful in the early 1900s. Before this, Americans visited a butcher shop for meats, a produce market for fruit, a bakery for bread, and so on. It was also normal to shop entirely through a clerk to get all of your items. The first self-service supermarket, Piggly Wiggly, opened in 1916 in Memphis, Tennessee. This is a big deal, because it was the first time shoppers could select items they wanted themselves and purchase them all in one place. Many chain stores we know today became dominant forces in retail and food in the US during the 1920s. The growth of supermarkets called for more products to be placed in easy-to-understand aisles, and the rise of aisles coincided with the rise of ethnic food in the US.
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    Phil Lempert: As soldiers came home after World War II, they brought with them a new set of taste buds. They were in Japan. They were in Europe. They were in Germany. They were -- whatever. And they wanted all these ethnic foods that weren't available.

    Narrator: That's when companies like Chun King started, seizing an opportunity to mass-produce Americanized ethnic food. Other servicemen and soldiers sent abroad for war launched importing companies to bring in various products from overseas. These items were usually placed together in their own aisle, sharing only the characteristic that they were imported, or not essential to American cuisine. Italian wasn't always known as an extension of mainstream American cuisine like it is today. And it's the perfect example of how an entire food group can escape the aisle. The story of Italian food entering and exiting the ethnic aisle starts in 1890, during the first mass immigration of Italians to the United States. Many immigrants went through Ellis Island and stayed in New York City. At that time, mostly German, Irish, British, and Scandinavian people were immigrating to the US, and Italians faced discrimination for their darker skin, food, living conditions, and language barriers. But by 1920, Italians were able to break into the working class. And by 1940, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had launched the New Deal to assist that working class. New York City started marketing Italian restaurants as interesting, cheap, and exciting places to eat. From there, Italian food was pushed into American cuisine. Lempert: Advertising was much easier and much cheaper years ago. You bought TV commercials, and you ran them a lot, and you hit everybody. And I think that's what broke it out, as well as other products that were coming on the market that were highly advertised. Chef Boyardee, for example. Canned pasta. You were being inundated with all these new brands of Italian foods that were being heavily advertised on TV.
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    Pham: Who gets to choose, like, what is ethnic, right? And why have some cuisines and communities been able to transcend that aisle? So, like, Italian food has largely left that. I would say Greek food, it has largely left that. And so you can almost tie, frankly, colorism to how, you know, what cuisines are considered ethnic.

    Narrator: When Italian food moved from the ethnic aisle, Moroccan, Middle Eastern, Indian, and many other foods were left behind. This created the theme of white American foods as "mainstream" and everything else as different, strange, or nonwhite. So if proximity to whiteness is what gets you out of the ethnic food aisle, it's no wonder Chang and Pham feel alienated.

    Pham: When you actually think about its origins, it's literally centered around kind of white Americana as the default, right? And, makes sense then, and now it's 2020. We're changing American society and changing American diet. But this continued existence of this aisle, which largely has not changed, just continues to other POC communities. And now, as an adult, I understand that. Like, I can put words to those feelings of shame and feeling different and othered.
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    Narrator: As the palates and trends of US food change, grocery stores seem to be stuck in the '50s. Produce is in the front, dairy in the back, pantry staples in the middle.

    Lempert: I don't think it's racist. I think it is limiting the opportunities of companies to reach a broader market, because there are not as many consumers who walk down the ethnic food aisle that walk down the salad dressing aisle.

    Narrator: If the ethnic food aisle makes people feel othered, has roots in colorism, causes "ethnic" brands to experience less foot traffic, and doesn't make much sense to begin with, then why don't we just get rid of it? Supermarket experts like Lempert think getting rid of the aisle and restructuring based on ingredients could confuse customers. But Italian food is proof that shoppers can adjust. And to Pham, a system that hasn't been changed in over 70 years is completely out of touch.
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    Pham: Vanessa, my sister, sometimes frames it, she's like, "These products should be categorized as they are." So, like, in the condiment aisle should be, like, ketchup, next to garlic achar, next to fish sauce. And, like, that should be normal. I don't think they're intentionally racist, but I think they are rooted in an outdated view of American society and how we eat. And I think in 2020, it just doesn't cut it anymore.
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