Food Media Has A Tokenization Problem — So How Can We Create A More Equitable Future Together?
Written by: Jenny Dorsey, Addy Zou
Edited By: Emily Chen, Karen Kumaki, Edric Huang
Last Updated: February 26, 2021
This document is meant to be a resource for anyone in (or wants to be in) the food industry interested in learning how to disrupt tokenization within our current food media framework, leverage your access and power to act in solidarity with people of color, and take personal responsibility to do better.
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Table of Contents
Click to jump to the section
Tokenism and how it works in relation to systems of oppression
A discussion about gatekeepers and how tokenizations presents in food media settings
What you can immediately do as a food media professional to disrupt the current food media system
People, organizations, and publications that have been leading the way for a more equitable and just food media industry
Important terms for understanding how tokenization functions in society
Why Does Tokenization (In General) Happen?
First of all, what is tokenization/tokenism?
The words token and tokenism date back into the civil rights movement and have been referenced in academia many times since then. A few examples include:
The Case Against Tokenism by Dr. Martin Luther King (1962): “But in the tradition of old guards, who would rather die than surrender, a new and hastily constructed roadblock has appeared in the form of planned and institutionalized tokenism...Thus we have advanced in some places from all-out, unrestrained resistance to a sophisticated form of delaying tactics, embodied in tokenism.”
Malcolm X’s interview with Louis Lomax (1963): “What gains? All you have gotten is tokenism — one or two Negroes in a job or at a lunch counter so the rest of you will be quiet.” (In response to Lomax's comment "But we have made some gains…")
Tokenism and Women in the Workplace by Lynn Zimmer (1988): “the token's marginal status [is] as a participant who is permitted entrance, but not full participation…someone who meets all of the formal requirements…but does not possess the ‘auxiliary characteristics’ (race, sex and ethnicity)... Consequently, they are never permitted by ‘insiders’ to become full members and may even be ejected if they stray too far from the special ‘niche’ outlined for them.”
The Making of a Token: A Case Study of Stereotype Threat, Stigma, Racism, and Tokenism in Academe by Yolanda Flores Niemann (1999): “I was told, ‘Now that we have you, we don’t need to worry about hiring another minority.’ This sentiment is an example of covert racism in academia, which also includes the 'one-minority-per-pot syndrome."
Currently on Wikipedia, the definition of tokenization reads:
The practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to do a particular thing, especially by recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups in order to give the appearance of sexual or racial equality within a workforce.
From Merriam Webster: the policy or practice of making only a symbolic effort (as to desegregate)
From “8 Ways People of Color are Tokenized in Nonprofits” by Helen Kim Ho in Medium:
Tokenism is, simply, covert racism. Racism requires those in power to maintain their privilege by exercising social, economic and/or political muscle against people of color (POC).
Tokenism achieves the same while giving those in power the appearance of being non-racist and even champions of diversity because they recruit and use POC as racialized props.
Where Tokenization Begins: the Foundational Hierarchies in American Society
Let’s break this down. In order to understand tokenization, we must first accept the foundational hierarchies of our current society in the United States.
Systems of oppression (including capitalism and white supremacy) work in concert to center the experiences, knowledge, and perspectives of white people, wealthy people, straight people, men, and non-disabled people, while oppressing people with marginalized identities.
Mainstream progressive movements (e.g. feminism) often erase people who exist at the intersections of marginalized identities (e.g. a black queer non-binary person), while centering white identities (e.g. white woman, white LGBTQ+ people), and people with proximities to whiteness (e.g. wealthy people of color, people of color with fairer skin).
As one of our Experimental Salon attendees noted:
“People with marginalized identities are taught from an early age that there is room for only one of their kind in any given space.”
The success of the one token minority person who’s “made it” is seen as proof of society’s progress and equality (e.g. Remember when President Obama supposedly ushered in a post-racial society?)
Even as “the one indigenous person” or “the one queer person” or “the one working class person” has gained social and economic capital, the same oppressive systems continue to operate.
Capitalism, white supremacy, settler colonialism, and cisheteropatriarchy, by definition, operate by privileging some people at the expense of other people. These systems exploit, marginalize, and profit off of people and their communities. For example:
From NAACP: Though African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately 32% of the US population, they comprised 56% of all incarcerated people in 2015. If African Americans and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates as whites, prison and jail populations would decline by almost 40%.
Indigenous folks in the United States experience extremely high rates of poverty: “Many American Indian communities are impoverished, with some tribes reporting unemployment as high as 85% [...] Native Americans have the lowest employment rate of any racial or ethnic group in the United States.” (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012)
Without undocumented immigrants, 8 million of which make up 5% of the U.S. workforce, the American economy would be severely impacted: “Total elimination of immigrant labor would increase milk prices by 90 percent. In 2014, unauthorized immigrants made up 24 percent of maids and cleaners, an occupation expected to need 112,000 more workers by 2024. the U.S. will soon require more than 800,000 people to fill the jobs necessary to take care of retiring baby boomers.”
Flint, Michigan has not had reliable clean water for 6 years.
Tokenism is a prime example of racial capitalism (a term coined by Cedric J. Robinson) -- that is, the extraction of social and economic value from people of color through the use of their racial identities. In essence, tokenism attempts to convince us that progress looks like people of color driving these same oppressive systems, as to delay and/or divert attention from overhauling the oppressive systems altogether.
How Tokenization Works Within Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI)
As an attempt to pave the way for POC, we’ve seen waves of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) training, seminars, departments spring up in the last few years. However, these DEI networks often rely on a quota system when it comes to “diversifying” their workforce, or by hiring a few tokens to “represent” diversity in their organization, which only serves to reduce individuals to only their marginalized identities.
From “3 Ways to Stop Tokenizing People (Because I’m Sick Of It)” by Denarii Monroe for Ravishly:
But there’s a difference between me choosing to talk about my own unique experiences, giving visibility to the issues that my various communities battle on a daily basis, always recognizing my humanity in all its complexity, and someone else — usually a mere acquaintance or stranger — reducing my existence to one part of me.
We’re painfully aware of the fact that we’re “the only one” in the room, or one of very few...that’s what a token is — an object, not a person.
This act of tokenization, especially within a PR-friendly DEI campaign, is particularly insidious because it presumes the token will be able to “fix” pre-existing internal issues without challenging the toxic structures already in place. This is usually because the organization’s leadership fundamentally does not want to, see the need to, or is equipped to to alter their approach or processes pertaining to how marginalized identities are addressed within their workplace; although diversity is a goal, inclusion is not.
In the worst scenarios, it becomes frustrating to the organization that the token hire is not supporting this underlying initiative -- to stay static but give the outward appearance of being “diverse” or “inclusive” -- and often gives way to that token hire becoming seen as the problem, because they are easier to attack, diminish and ultimately remove than addressing the true structural changes required.
After a period of time in her new position, where weeks, months or even days, the reality of a white dominant space becomes apparent. The racialized woman experiences recurring microaggressions and structural barriers. For example:
heightened surveillance of her work and interpersonal relationships
repeated comments about her body and physical presentation
expectation of her addressing internal race dynamics
These dynamics are further complicated by the fact that if she were to explicitly name her experiences with race, both the organization as a whole and individuals within it will deny her experiences of racism. In fact, her attempt to address these dynamics can often become the arsenal for retaliation: the racialized woman becomes the source of the problem. She is viewed as no longer being “a good fit” or “not qualified”. She is then targeted and attacked by the organization by both formal and informal mechanisms (comments by co-workers, HR practices). In response to these experiences, the racialized woman leaves the organization, having been fired, quitting, finding a new job or going on sick leave.
Why Tokenization Continues To Work
Ultimately, the act of tokenization perpetuates two major falsehoods:
The organization who hires, support, promotes the token is a believer in equality for marginalized individuals, with internal & external systems in place to support them where necessary
Marginalized individuals have a chance to fight for a better future by achieving token status within the same systems that once oppressed them
Put plainly, tokenization is embraced by those in power and the privileged majority because it offers a veneer of social progress and open-mindedness without actually challenging the fundamental dynamics at play or forcing them to face any discomfort. In this way, tokenization deflects and defers the importance of real change by encouraging inaction and complacency from all parties.
Why Does Tokenization in Food Media Happen?
Because of the omnipresent nature of current systems in place, tokenization happens everywhere and in every industry. In food media, tokenization can sometimes feel difficult to pinpoint beyond a “gut feeling” that you may have functioned as “the interchangeable Asian”, that you must choose inaccurate or tokenizing representation or not at all, or that that “well-intentioned” piece may do more harm than good.
To make this matter more difficult to surface is the fact that when those in food media voice their uneasiness with incidences of tokenization, they are often also subject to the same scrutiny and dismissal of their racial experience from management (or insistence the act of tokenization was done for “diversity”) -- much like those facing tokenization in the workplace (see above for “The Problem Woman of Color In the Workplace.”)
There are many ways ways tokenization presents itself in the food media ecosystem, from what kind of language is (or is not) used and the reward systems in place to continue the idea of a limit to how much non-white content is allowed to be distributed at one time. Some major themes we heard repeatedly were:
1. Non-white foods each have a short-lived time and place to shine. Non-white foods and talent are seen as “trends”, or a novelty because they are different from the “status quo” that centers a white, upper-middle-class interpretation of food. There is a temporariness attached to highlighting a certain non-white food or culture, as they are only considered interesting or relevant for a short period of time.
For an example of non-white foods being reported on as “trends”: New York Times: Our Readers Call Us Out Over Bubble Tea. They Are Right.
During certain occasions, such as Thanksgiving or Black History Month, a rush of content will be greenlighted only for that time period, and consequently similar topics (e.g. another piece on an emerging Native American chef) rejected for publication during other times.
2. Non-white food professionals (writers, chefs, makers, etc.) are pitted against each other and trained to approach media opportunities with a scarcity mindset, because media outlets offer fewer opportunities for them to be featured (often because they are using said person to fulfill some type of diversity quota). This makes it more difficult for these professionals to access media attention, social capital, and economic capital.
3. Non-white food professionals who do receive public attention and accolades, are too often made to be tokens: a single person who stands in for their entire country, for all people in that classification (“Latino”, “African American”, “Asian”, “Native American”), or for an entire tradition of food. This results in media outlets and brands extrapolating the opinion of one person and assuming that this opinion is universal to the group, which furthers the predisposition to assume those in these “other” groups are a monolith and not as nuanced, complex, and varied as white Americans.
The framing of non-white food pieces often play into stereotypical and/or more readily accepted depictions of “ethnic” or “immigrant” food. As one attendee noted, “people love the stories of ‘my grandmother’s cooking’, and there’s pressure that I have to provide that [type of story] to get any attention, gain any traction, or even make a career for myself.”
4. Non-white writers are always assumed to and/or expected to cover stories related to their ethnicity, regardless of their familiarity or interest in the topic. Even for those who are familiar and interested in writing on or being featured in topics relating to their ethnicity, too often these are the only topics those individuals are assumed to be qualified to cover -- whereas white writers, editors, hosts are given flexibility to cover a far wider berth of topics.
From one of our attendees: “I'm approached a lot to write about Taiwanese and Taiwanese American topics, but the truth is that I'm not even fluent in Taiwanese or Mandarin. I'm actually a generalist...When you grow up ‘not white enough’ for the first half of your life, and then thrown into a collegiate environment where you're ‘not Asian enough’, you're never not the fish out of water. You have to carve out your own space.”
Read: The Bon Appetit Test Kitchen’s Race Problem & Bon Appetit's Race Problem is the Food Media's Race Problem by Soleil Ho in SF Chronicle
5. Non-white food media professionals need to appeal to the sensibilities of gatekeepers (editors, CEOs, investors) who are often white and come from similar backgrounds as each other. This often means acquiescing to demands that alter the piece in ways that make it more “approachable” or “friendly” to a white demographic. Examples of this include:
Requiring non-white foods to have additional explanation and introduction in a piece, because the reader is assumed to be unfamiliar with it, perpetuating the idea that these foods are not “common” and the people to which they may be common are not the target demographic.
Renaming or re-categorizing non-white foods to be more easily “understandable” by a white audience, such as equating it with certain food groups it holds no bearing to, or giving it a friendly name.
Softening or omitting language around incidences of systemic violence (e.g. colonialism, slavery) regardless of its importance to the story or author, because it would be seen as “divisive”. This insinuates that food is not inherently political, and that food media should be exempt from this kind of reporting
6. The visual representation of non-white food stories, including thematic colors, food styling, and person(s) shown often have unconscious bias, are misleading, or present "culture" through a white PoV. For example:
A certain group of people continually being used to visually represent an idea, such as overtly non-white foods (i.e. not a salad) always being the cover photo for "Cheap Eats" sections.
Misrepresentation of a dish/cuisine, such as in the form of incorrect utensils or accompaniments, which show a lack of understanding of the fundamentals of a dish/cuisine or wider culture despite eagerness to capitalize on it.
A fetishizing focus on the cultural background of a dish, however misplaced or irrelevant it may be. For example, one panelist described the decor placed around a butternut squash dish her mother, an Indian woman, had created: “there were pictures of Indian deities around the dish...even something in Sanskrit type...none of which contextualized the dish itself. It looked like all the Indian stereotypes pulled into one photo frame.”
7. An important thing to note: People of color are also capable of tokenizing others when being complicit in systems of oppression.
The Impact of Tokenization in Food Media
As a result, stories from non-white people are often ignored, underrepresented, reshaped, compromised, misrepresented, appropriated, or otherwise published by someone else who tells a very different story of how they stumbled across this “new thing” (See: discovery syndrome in our Glossary.)
In order to make a living in this industry, PoC chefs, writers, editors, and other media professionals are constantly making internal sacrifices. Some deliberations we heard from our Salon attendees included: Should I speak up about these interview questions that rest on outdated stereotypes about Chinese culture? Should I write the piece about soul food?
The continued existence of these trade-offs as a requirement for POC food professionals to receive opportunities and access through food media show how often non-white coverage is done merely for benefit of the media outlet to virtue signal when, in reality, they still adhere to problematic quota systems, center the white experience, and “other” non-white cultures. Ultimately, tokenized PoC and their stories are not treated as unique individuals with personal stories to tell, but useful tools to check various “diversity” boxes on contributors and content.
As one of our participants described it:
“This is the food justice we don’t talk about. This is not a fascinating topic: this is the destruction of your community, this is my livelihood...in gaining an inch, we lose ourselves.”
Adrian Miller puts it eloquently in “Breaking the Bubble of Food Writing”:
“We are seeing the end product of an industry full of people living in a bubble. The gatekeepers tend to be cut from the same cheesecloth in terms of race, class and culture, and their professional and social circles are filled with similar people.
This mix leads to a very narrow view of what's possible and interesting in the food universe, and an echo chamber in terms of what's trendy. Thus, the gatekeepers believe that their customers want stories from a certain range of subjects, and we readers and viewers get those stories ad nauseam. The gatekeepers may believe that they are casting a broad net, but it's actually fairly limited when diverse perspectives are taken into account.
Given the intense competition for consumers, one would think that the gatekeepers would try to grow their following with diverse stories and writers. Instead, they squeeze every ounce from proven formulas of success in terms of subjects and storytellers. So, how do we get the gatekeepers to realize that diversity doesn't mean showcasing different types of fascinating white people? The simplest answers are that we need more diversity amongst the gatekeepers, and more white gatekeepers who truly make diverse storytelling a priority, take more risks and make more of an effort to find and hire diverse food writers.”
Much like tokenization in the workplace, tokenization as it relates to food media is another way for media companies -- historically led by white, male leadership with a emphasis on the white gaze — to resist real, systematic change in the media landscape by offering small windows of opportunity for non-white food, cultures and people as an illusion of progress.
Things You Can Do Today
to Leverage Your Power and Disrupt Tokenization in Food Media, Act in Solidarity with People of Color, and Take Responsibility to Do Better
So what can we do about tokenization?
This section is about the things you can immediately do to disrupt the current food media system. While these actions may make you uncomfortable, they place the onus on those with more power and privilege to educate ourselves and use our own talents for bettering the world for others. Please note: this is not an ask for saviors (see Glossary) of any kind. This is about taking personal responsibility for complicity and proactively doing your part to disrupt an unjust system.
If you are a gatekeeper, the main takeaway is to share your knowledge about institutions, access, and power.
1. Hire talented, experienced people of color in decision-making roles. Reflect, meditate on, and re-evaluate what “experience” or “knowledge” you consider to be valuable, and why.
Ultimately, we need to address the fact that most gatekeepers are usually white, affluent and from very similar backgrounds, which result in them holding too-similar worldviews and emphasizing certain traits over others.
2. Share information that is usually reserved to the few on pertinent social groups (e.g the FB Food Writers Binder, Real Media Salaries, #PublishingPaidMe), such as pitching contacts and payment rates.
Democratizing knowledge and making transparent decision-making/selection processes of institutions is the key to redistributing power and understanding how the system works.
3. Offer 15 - 30 min calls with emerging non-white professionals who may have been historically shut out of conversations with gatekeepers.
It is unrealistic to offer time to everyone who asks, but even having 1 call per month or offering a short template linked with information and resources (like this one, or to your past interviews or relevant pieces of work inner industry know-how) can point others in the right direction. Especially if you can shed light on how the chain of command works at your company, that is invaluable knowledge for those seeking to understand how these systems work.
4. To editors, ask yourself: What do you want from this story? Consider that if someone is adamant about ideas, framing, phrases, or even words (e.g. genocide, racism), those “small” pieces are the story, and when they are cut, you are compromising the fundamental essence of it, rather than “slightly editing”.
As one panelist shared, it felt very tokenizing to be assigned a story that is culturally relevant and interesting to them, but not extended the autonomy to take the story in the direction they want, or even title it the way they expected. As they said, "It's not just semantics."
Ask yourself: Who are you assigning this story to, and why? It is naturally easier to assign stories to those you’re familiar with, but is their PoV the right one for the story? Is there someone you may need to take a chance on, but can offer a different, more relevant, or more interesting perspective?
You Have More Power Than You Realize
Even if you do not consider yourself a ‘gatekeeper’, you likely have more power than you realize. For anyone who is working in the world of food media, we urge you to consider scenarios and relationships where you have leverage and better use those instances to push for equity:
1. Uncenter yourself: Are you the best person to cover this? Instead of acting from a place of scarcity, think of others who may be a better fit for certain positions. Take to heart that it is regenerative to the industry if the best person for the piece writes/edits/produces/or hosts it. Think from a community perspective—how can we leave food media better than we found it?
2. Advocate for people of color doing great work when they’re not in the room.
3. If your coworkers, colleagues, and peers have expressed feeling tokenized, don’t let them fight alone. Take up some of the emotional labor, put your name behind what they’re saying, endorse/advocate for equitable approaches, both when they are in the room and when they are not. Consider how to take responsibility to shift the culture of your organization and get to a critical mass of advocates. Being a “good ally” is not about scoring easy brownie points; it means you are willing to put your neck on the line on topics that you are privileged to be sheltered from otherwise.
4. Ask yourself: When putting out food media content to an audience, should we be pandering to the lowest common denominator? If the outlet you are working with takes this approach, do you want to go along with it?
5. During conversations/interviews with people of color about their work, start from the assumption that you do not know. Rather than theorizing, assuming, or filling in the blanks for them, ask them open-ended questions such as, “How do you like to describe your work?” or “How would you describe your cuisine?”
For New Food Media Professionals
For those new and starting out in the world of food media, you are the next generation at the forefront of the new normal! Things you can do include:
1. Challenge the status quo: Do not compromise for editors and publications that don’t respect your experiences.
2. Seek out stories that will expand your worldview: diversify your newsfeed to incorporate perspectives you don’t normally have in your direct circle. Read these stories without centering yourself. Read with a critical eye for bias, even in publications you respect.
3. Believe in yourself and your feelings, even if they require you to take a more difficult or uncomfortable path forward.
For example: if you receive an assignment from an outlet that you have a “gut reaction” to, be empowered to say no; if an editor pushes back on your piece in a way you believe compromises it, stand up for your work the way you wanted it to be written and published!
Who Is Getting It Right?
One of the best ways to improve our understanding of equitable representation is learning from others. Here is a (non-exhaustive) list of people, organizations, and publications we believe are great examples of those leading the charge for a more inclusive food media industry. If you have other great sources you would like to share with us, please reach out and let us know! We are also actively seeking media outlets with a history of championing PoC voices and PoC editors to include below.
Read: L.A. Taco
About: L.A. TACO is a platform for the city of Los Angeles. We are a source of news and information related to food, culture, and community for the metropolitan area. We are independently owned and operated, by and for L.A., which means we really love this city! We aim to reach readers, journalists, artists, and partners who love Los Angeles, too.
L.A. TACO was founded in late 2006, by its founders’ simple desire to document the things they loved about the city: mostly tacos and street art. Over the years, the site has built a passionate community of readers and contributors who keep the site and its spirit alive, covering music, the food scene, galleries, festivals, and just stuff we like — despite constant downsizing in the local news market. We also put on special events like Taco Madness.
As the former editor of L.A. TACO Daniel Hernandez puts it, “We look at everything with a kind of a brown lens...We operate from a baseline point of view and standpoint that the city is half brown, you know, half Latin, half Latinx, it is a brown place. And it’s not a question of whether you like it or not, it’s more of a question of it just is, and how can we have an alternate news media at all, that more honestly reflects that?”
Follow: Across Our Kitchen Tables
About: We are a culinary hub and event series centering self-identified women and gender-non-conforming people of color both in person and over social media platforms. We provide a safe space for knowledge exchange on business development, cultural practices, food centered organizations, and food ecosystems. Our community generates and supports thriving and socially responsible food-based work.
Listen: Racist Sandwich Podcast
About: Racist Sandwich serves up a perspective that you don’t hear often: that both food and the ways we consume, create, and interpret it can be political. From discussions about racism in food photography to interviews with chefs of color about their experiences in the restaurant world.
Racist Sandwich Episode: Los Angeles is Brown with Daniel Hernandez
Racist Sandwich Episode: Erasing Black Barbecue with Johnny Walker, Adrian Miller, Daniel Vaughn And Brent & Juan Reaves
People: Equity At The Table Directory
About: Equity At The Table is very much inspired by the aphorism that it’s better to “build a longer table, not a higher fence.” EATT is a practical and proactive response to the blatant gender and racial discrimination that plagues the food industry. EATT is an easy-to-navigate database for food industry professionals featuring only women/gender non-conforming individuals and focusing primarily on POC and the LGBTQ community.
Follow: Writers of Color Twitter
About: Don’t you hate when editors use “I don’t know enough writers of color” as an excuse to back up the homogeneity of their publications? We do too. [...] We aim to create more visibility for writers of color, ease their access to publications, and build a platform that is both easy for editors to use and accurately represents the writers.
Follow: La Cocina
About: The mission of La Cocina is to cultivate low-income food entrepreneurs as they formalize and grow their businesses. La Cocina was born out of a belief that a community of talented natural entrepreneurs, given the right resources, can create self-sufficient businesses that benefit themselves, their families, their community, and the whole city. The food that has come out of our kitchen since 2005 reflects that aspiration and, quite simply, tastes amazing.