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How to Make Food Media More Equitable for Writers of Color

Mayukh Sen

September 26, 2018

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Mayukh Sen Photo: Jason Favreau
Photo: Jason Favreau

Something was different at the 2018 James Beard Awards. More women, more people of color, and more diverse voices were recognized than ever before. But the question of whether this was evidence of more profound change taking place in our industry remained unanswered. As a leading organization of the food movement in the U.S., we wanted to do more to support equity in the industry and access to its highest honors.

For advice, we reached out to some of the most thoughtful, vocal members of our community to share their opinions about how the Beard Foundation could improve. This piece continues the series of four op-eds that resulted from this outreach, which will be posted throughout the week.  

As we digest the writers’ suggestions, we intend to operationalize several changes which we believe will have a substantive impact on the Awards and the industry. We will share changes to the policies and procedures for the 2019 James Beard Awards ahead of the “Open Call for Entry” on Monday, October 15, 2018. This is the beginning of a process, not the end, and we know there is much more work we can all do to ensure everyone has an equal opportunity to thrive.

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I started working at Food52 two months before Trump’s election, an event that seemed to send many food media companies into an existential tailspin.

In the wake of his win, some publications began to embrace anodyne narratives of how food can bring us together in division, papering over the racial fissures that will likely always exist in our country. Others, promised to cover marginalized communities in food with more diligence, patronizingly insisting these were “stories that need to be told,” ones that were “more important than ever” in a time of political emergency.

These pushes felt a tad disingenuous to me in November 2016, so it’s thoroughly unsurprising to see where those same publications have landed in September 2018, now that the dust of Trump’s election has settled. A few have quietly shifted their editorial strategies back to places that are safe—a pivot to milquetoast, I like to call it—populating their editorial calendars with cake recipes and little else. These publications read as if they exist in vacuums, siloed from the relentless whiplash of the current news cycle. Their aversion to risk makes sense: the current murderous media climate, in which editorial teams are being cannibalized at a breakneck pace, encourages food media companies to be utterly toothless in their editorial stances. I can’t imagine many sites are willing to run articles that even touch on power disparities in food when they’re positioning themselves to sell to much larger corporations.

What remains clear is that food media, as it stands in 2018, is woefully unequipped to cover the tremendous change brewing across the food industry.

As a full-time staffer at Food52, I was in a position where I had a small degree of power to fix the broken machine that is food media (or at least make a few necessary repairs). For me, this resulted in writing about my own relationship to food as someone who exists at the nexus of a few marginalized identities (I’m a queer person of color, if you haven’t heard me scream about it constantly), and the stories of women of color who I felt were overlooked in some gravely unfair way, from Princess Pamela to Irene Kuo. These were stories I gravitated towards: stories of outsiders who carved a space for themselves within a suffocatingly white industry.

It paid off: winning a James Beard Award for that story on Princess Pamela this early in my career has, frankly, been the most thrilling experience of my life.

Ultimately, I decided to leave that job after a year. I repeatedly found myself at the receiving end of awful comments from readers for daring to poison their precious recipe-saving website with the stain of politics, or what they perceived politics to be (calling Joyce Chen a “woman of color” is “race-baiting,” I learned from a stranger). Getting toxic comments is too often dismissed as a condition of being a public person online, in a way that’s divorced from the racialized ways these transactions manifest in 2018. A white woman named Abigail won’t get the same comments as a brown Mayukh. In my experience, it’s impossible to produce your best work when you’re in a constant state of anxiety, writing in anticipation of some nameless person mauling you. (Here’s a wild idea, food media: get rid of your comments sections.)

It is easy to Stockholm Syndrome yourself, as I did, into thinking that being cognizant of your audience makes you a better writer because it asks you to leave your assumptions about your audience at the door. This is false. Self-censoring bludgeons creativity.

These aren’t conditions through which writers of color should have to wade to produce work that will win James Beard Awards. Companies may pay lip service to how deeply they care about diversity, sure. But what are these companies doing to support, nurture, and retain the talent of color? That talent who they treat like mascots for diversity, pushing them into photoshoots as decorative props, but turning the other way the second those same writers get pilloried in the comments section by beloved community members. In my experience, quite little.

I’d encourage the Beard Foundation to create a support network for writers of color who are left to fend for themselves, ones like myself who so often get hired with enthusiasm, only for that support to dissolve the second they produce vaguely challenging work. A simple start would be to allocate capital for grants that support writers of color in reporting on underrepresented communities in food. Give writers the material resources and mentorship to produce the rigorous stories that media companies are too timid to give them. (I’d stress that I see this as a first step; look at the model created by Jack Jones Literary Arts and the work it’s doing to support women of color in a thoughtful way.) Abolish the entry fees for journalism awards while you’re at it. Too often, these barriers to access restrict writers without the financial backing of publications from entering the fray at all.

I’d also like to see the Beard Foundation start to think of itself as more of an ombudsman for food media. How closely are those media companies that put out press releases about how they deeply care about diversity aligning with their stated missions of varying the stories they publish? Are they reducing the work of writers of color to bullet points? Keep these companies in check. Don’t fall for the optics of a few brown hands shilling an expensive pie plate and see it as progress; be more discerning and skeptical. Food media has a kindness problem wherein everyone’s too hesitant to criticize, but civility very rarely produces shifts in power.

The Beard Awards have the influence to nudge editorial strategies in more productive directions. I hope that last year’s awards will prod those in charge on editorial teams to think a bit harder about what kind of storytelling is worth investing in, if only for the patina of prestige that a James Beard Award can offer a publication.

This is what I imagine a functional food media looks like: one that thoughtfully covers members of communities to whom it has historically given short shrift. I’d like to be operating within a food media ecosystem that does not exist to reinforce a white, liberal audience’s preconceived belief system, but to challenge those beliefs in service of a more just, equitable world. This cannot happen without giving writers the tools to succeed. The Beard Foundation determines what excellence looks like in this small universe. You are at a precipice; please keep your finger on the pulse. Prove to me that this year was just the start.

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Do you have thoughts about how the culinary industry and/or the James Beard Foundation can be more inclusive? Please share your feedback with us at awards@jamesbeard.org.

Mayukh Sen is a food and culture writer based in New York. He won a 2018 James Beard Foundation Award for his Food52 profile of Princess Pamela.