Hey, Wait a Minute: Glimpsing What’s Really Behind Words like “Ethnic”

NOTE: Today marks SEVEN years since I first started writing this blog. It’s been an interesting journey, with many bends and curves along the way.

It’s fascinating to observe the increasing awareness of how language defines so many cultural attitudes and reveals long-held biases.

Take a recent article, “Why Everyone Should Stop Calling Immigrant Food ‘Ethnic,'” by Lavanya Ramanathan, a Washington Post writer. Although closely related discussions of terminology akin to “ethnic” have been fielded before (see this link for an example concerning the word “minorities”), the author zeros in on “ethnic,” a word that she finds troubling and frankly a tad bit derogatory. She writes,

“But it’s time to stop talking about ethnic food as though we’re Columbus and the cuisines served up by immigrants are ours for the conquering. Let us never again blog a lengthy ethnography, no matter how well intentioned, when we visit a pupuseria. In fact, let’s drop the term “ethnic food” altogether.

It’s not the phrase itself, really. It’s the way it’s applied: selectively, to cuisines that seem the most foreign, often cooked by people with the brownest skin.”

To sum up, the author basically believes it’s time to drop the colonial attitudes that still color so much of the world, recalling the fraying antique maps depicting the range of British or French imperial power that once hung on the walls of school rooms.

In spite of feeble attempts in a Facebook discussion of the article to label cuisines such as Icelandic or Finnish or Danish as “ethnic,” the truth is that “ethnic” as a word DOES carry with it a certain connotation, one quite strongly associated with white culture looking at the cuisines of immigrants as a sort of “otherness” or exoticism or foreign. “Ethnic” is a subtle marker for “Otherness.”

“Foreign,” too, well, that’s another one of those words.  Look at the word for “stranger” in many languages and you’ll find some semblance to the word “foreign.” Feranji  (Arabic) or faringhi, all which may be derived from “Frank,” referring to Europeans such as the Crusaders or merchants or just plain strangers (faranj).  But what’s foreign? Obviously it depends on where in the world you’re standing. Edward Said examined this phenomenon in his classic, Orientalism (1978), delving into the tendency for Westerners to apply a certain patina over their views of the Middle East, Asia, and parts of Africa

So much of what transpires in today’s food world leads right back to attitudes fomented during the long nineteenth century, and earlier, as Europeans strove to conquer the globe, first during the so-called Age of Exploration and then during the nineteenth-century imperialist race for African and Asian colonies.

Reams have been written about these subjects, and these few words here hardly do justice to the richness and complexity of the material available for study. At root of this particular inquiry lies my curiosity about the ways in which people assimilate the ingredients and cuisines of the strangers in their midst.

It’s truly an ancient story, a tantalizing and mysterious one, dating back to the days when humans lived in caves and ran free in the grasslands.

© 2015 C. Bertelsen

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7 comments

  • Good work. Translating America to the world ( and maybe even to America) is both worthy and brave.
    I have just re-read Caged Bird Sings for our book club. I don’t wànt to rush into my politically incorrect musings yet.
    The Calais migrant thing in UK is uppermost. Maybe not the best context.
    Just sayin.

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  • I think you may be overly sensitive. I am simply guessing at the cultural milleu which you inhabit/endure. My Chinese neighbours and Congolese neighbours ; my Lebanese, Italian. Indian and Greek friends – even the Swiss we had lunch with today ( Swiss national day), they all are quite robust. They do not need any protection. On the other hand. [ Maybe.]
    The Boermark (Afrikaans ethnic) is the only shy modest retiring food community I see here. It is difficult not to link modesty and guilt. International does not remotely apply to Afrikaans. They came from Nederlands in the 1600s and stayed. They seem to me to be even more insular than Irish people!
    You can see my photos on FB EasyezzyFoods. Pap and Kaiings from the Boermark is a dish no cuisine should be modest about.

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  • Good morning, Tony. Yes, “authentic” is another word we could use, only how do we really define what is authentic or not? I am getting to prefer “international” when talking about many cuisines, as in “You’ll very few international restaurants in my town” and then for individual cuisines simply saying something “I wish there were some Moroccan or Indian restaurants near my house,” instead of
    ethnic.” But the larger point of my initial comments was to elicit the idea rolling around behind the word “ethnic” to point out that “Otherness” is very much alive in the use of that word. And several other examples as well. And it’s an unconscious thing, still categorizing.

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  • I use the word “authentic”. It is one criterion for my cookbooks. French food written in France in French, Italian in Italian etc. It gets tricky with Lebanese and more tricky with Ethiopian ( Amharic).
    There is nothing wrong with Italian -American food. But it is it’s own authentic.

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  • The word “ethnic” equates “colonialism?” My goodness, I’ll have to adapt my vocabulary, since I am both “ethnic” and I was born in a colonized land. I see “ethnic” as a means to infuse different flavors into my dishes. “Ethnic” usually melds into “fusion,” and fusion is what makes the culinary world go round. My opinion.

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