The Double Bind of Being a Woman of Color in the Food World
Women of color are often unheard in this industry. When we're not, we're outright dismissed by gatekeepers if they don't like what we have to say.
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The camera is focused on Mark Bittman, who is sitting in a chair at the front of a room at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture.
“Are you going to answer my question?” says Nadine Nelson. She’s off-camera, but you can hear her speaking clearly.
Nelson, a black woman chef and activist, has just asked Bittman “how he holds himself accountable to communities of color and vulnerable communities” in regards to the food movement.
After she asks him if he’s going to answer, he replies, “I’m not sure what the question was. I’m not sure what ‘hold yourself accountable’ means.” This is his only response.
Nelson is asking Bittman—who has made a name for himself partially by talking about racism and sexism in the Good Food Movement—for tangible proof that he’s actively thinking about being inclusive. Instead of getting an answer, she’s met with annoyance, expected to go back to her seat once Bittman decides her question isn’t worth an answer.
If I had to encapsulate what it’s like to be a woman of color in the food world in 2017, this interaction would suffice. Women of color are often unseen and unheard in this industry, and when we’re not, we’re dismissed if gatekeepers don’t like what we have to say. We have to propel ourselves forward, often with fewer resources and less investment than others might get. The significance of women of color in food cannot be overstated, yet we don’t saturate the market.
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This year, we took a long look at the old guard of the food world and asked some hard questions. There was a lot of harrowing news, and many accounts of the bad behavior of some of the industry's biggest names. A rush of women’s stories about sexual assault at the hands of well-known chefs have been published, rippling across social media sites like the surface of a puddle into which a rock has been tossed.
It’s been hard to continue believing in our industry’s integrity, to have hope that the food world will one day be a place where women can be safe.
When I worked in restaurants, I was praised for my ability to provide comfort and hospitality for the tables I interacted with. I was chameleon-like, altering my words and demeanor based on what that table wanted and what I thought they needed (a couple celebrating an anniversary has different needs than a table of five coworkers). I moved with the flow of the restaurant, between front and back of the house, between tables in the dining room. I made myself fade into the background when I didn’t want attention.
In 2017, I learned that it’s my right to take up space, in the physical sense and in the metaphorical sense with my work as a food writer.
For a long time, I thought this was my skill, the ability to be of service to other people. My understanding was that that was my value, and what I needed to amplify to be a part of the food world. I derived joy and a sense of purpose from my ability to provide for others.
In 2017, I learned that it’s my right to take up space, in the physical sense and in the metaphorical sense with my work as a food writer. I’m no longer interested in going with the flow, with constantly seeking approval. As a black woman, it’s important that I share my story, and know that it’s just as valuable as anyone else’s. In doing so, I open up space for other women of color to tell their story as well.
I’m tired of food publications noticing their lack of diversity and thinking a couple of people-of-color profile pieces or a Harlem restaurant round-up will act as a Band-Aid. It’s time to look at the very structure of our food media and our restaurants. They need to be rebuilt with women of color having as much input as men and white women.
This is not to say that women of color are asking to be invited to a seat at the table. We’re making our own plates and we’re taking our rightful spots among everyone else.
As we move forward, we need to know one thing: The way that we get to true equality is to uplift women of color who are so often unseen and unheard, just like in that video from Stone Barns. We’ve taken some major steps, but we have a lot further to go, and we won’t get where we want to be until women of color are included.
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In the food world, we like to rely on the idea that food brings us together, transcending racial and gender lines to unify us in a shared love of cuisine. I wish it were that simple. Food is just as susceptible to the same oppressive power structures that impact every other part of our lives, and we have to dismantle them one brick at a time. As legendary civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer once said, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”