Eating food from another culture has become a common example of cultural appreciation. Unsurprisingly, however, when we consider bell hooks’ writing on “Eating the Other,” it isn’t so simple.
Marie Cambe takes us through hooks' theoretical concept in one of her YouTube blogs.
“Can desire for the other ever be innocent without the insinuation of race?” she asks. “Nevertheless, the looming fear will always be a commodification of the Other. That the Other is viewed as a meal, to be eaten, consumed and forgotten.”
In other words, because we live in a white supremacist colonial context, power dynamics have a role to play in everything. Desire – whether for food, romance or sex – has racial implications.
Mizna, a journal of Arab-American literature, published a special issue with the theme of “Eating the Other” in summer 2014. In the foreword, guest co-editor Khaldoun Samman explains how eating “exotic foods” or “ethnic foods” exists within systemic oppression.
It is not enough for a white person to indulge in the food of the Other and see that as racial acceptance, he says. Racism is perpetuated through imperialism and colonization, so taking this kind of individualistic approach wrongly focuses on the attitudes of a person rather than the barriers within systems.
Often when white people access ethnic food, this act is associated with gained sophistication and social capital, Samman adds. However, this class distinction is also something that Arab people fall into when they judge poor white people – labeled “rednecks” or “white trash” – for being uncultured.
“Arab immigrants themselves often use their hybridity as social capital against working-class folks and other minorities. Their liberal identity politics permit them to forego any sense of the politics of class, so trashing the white poor is seen as ‘progressive,’” Samman says.
Eating the foods of the Other is to be expected, but often it is done so with little regard for the origins or politics of the food itself and its peoples. This slippage of meaning then can easily shift into commodification and appropriation – two manifestations of settler-colonialism.
In the context of Israel and Palestine, Samman explains how food is stolen from Palestine and labelled as “Israeli,” thereby contributing to the disenfranchisement of Palestinians. Samman likens this to hooks’s concept of – literally – “Eating the Other” by appropriating and renaming both food and land. The goal of this, Samman explains, is for the colonizer “to remove any trace of its original cultures.”
While being aware of the framework of “Eating the Other,” how do chefs and artists use food and social engagement to autonomously tell their stories, affirm their communities and work towards liberation?
Randa Jarrar, a contributor to Mizna’s “Eating the Other” writes about how Arab Americans “need to be human, not palatable.” This highlights the need for People of Colour to represent themselves wholly.
On the next iteration of Feeding Diaspora, I will draw upon recent examples of strategies for resistance. Through intentional place-making, diasporic chefs and artists construct an opportunity to be seen, to raise consciousness and to disrupt the status quo.
Christina Hajjar is a first-generation Lebanese-Canadian pisces dyke ghanouj with a splash of tender-loving rose water and a spritz of existential lemon, served on ice, baby. Catch her art, writing and organizing at christinahajjar.com or @garbagebagprincess.