The Key to the Heart is Food: the Intersection Between Food and Race

Words by Zaide O'Rourke


Racial tensions are at an all-time high. Within 12 months we have witnessed a re-surge in the Black Lives Matter movement following the murder of George Floyd, a rise in anti-Asian hate crimes in response to the coronavirus pandemic, and now an insight into the mental health impacts of a “colonial” British press for Meghan Markle and Prince Harry. Simple race theory including concepts such as white privilege and institutional racism have gone global. Partly exacerbated by social media, the narratives of ordinary Black and brown folks’ lived experiences have gained traction.


Black twitter campaign and protect their women who are being prevented from selling patties, a common Caribbean snack food, on for example university campuses. Meanwhile, the brown Gen Z’s of Tik Tok share heart wrenching tales of lonesome lunchtimes in toilet cubicles, this felt like an easier option than withstanding the gawking eyes on their traditional food. Social media has allowed racial minorities to connect on a shared experience of being ridiculed for their native cuisine - as ironically ethnic food is in fashion.


Generations of migrants and native British people of colour have significantly contributed to the independent food scene up and down this country, creating a melting pot of world food and exotic flavour. From markets stalls selling Middle Eastern falafel and hummus to food trucks serving Korean fried chicken and kimchi, inner city eateries have long been serving up unfamiliar menu items. This diversity has encouraged the evolution of fusion cuisine. Large restaurant chains grew exponentially by offering a far-away dining experience, the likes of Wagamama and Nando’s have become British high street staples in over 500 locations. Despite the enormous appetite Brits have for foreign grub, society at large and the current government have shown time and time again that the food-bearer is less welcome.


Traditional Korean BBQ. Getty Images


Immigration was the final straw for a lot of Brexit voters who had been convinced that people from overseas were coming to steal their jobs. After taking into account the proportion of immigrants entering the country for formal study and balancing off the emigrants leaving the UK for a better life abroad, net migration stands at zero. This fact stood true for the decade leading up to the EU referendum. Although not published on the side of a bus, these data can be found in the Migration Statistics report in the UK Parliament House of Commons library, accessible to all. It is now obvious that racial minorities, particularly immigrants, were used xenophobically and blamed by the Vote Leave campaign for the years of chronic underfunding that resulted in under-resourced and undervalued regions in this great nation.


Demographics left behind, here the white working class, are being targeted by sophisticated marketing and pitted against their non-white counterparts. Happy though they are to ritually indulge in their Friday Chinese takeout, ordering using numbers running parallel to the apparently unpronounceable dish names, these quintessentially British traditions would not exist if not for the diverse people offering the tasty goods. People from an ethnic minority background disproportionately work in hospitality, making up 18.8% of the national workforce, higher than the 14% of the population identifying as BAME. Aside from waiting on tables, Black and brown folk with ownership in the industry tend to sell food that is accessible and affordable to the communities they serve which often includes the white working class.


Food vendor in Camden Market. Getty Images


The current royal scandal further proves that racism transcends class, something that should have been pretty obvious by the lack of representation in the food and media industry; less than 6% of senior roles at the BBC and ITV are occupied by people of colour. A vast array of white middle-upper class celebrity chefs dominate the screen, from Nigella Lawson and Mary Berry to Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith. Macho rivals Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver have net worth’s reaching $300 million. There is enough pie for everyone. More work needs to be done by the industry to pay racial minorities who have the skills, experience and desire to share the cuisines they grew up on, with a nation that enjoys experimenting in the kitchen.

White superiority prevails when the discussion turns to common foodstuffs eaten across the globe such as insects in South East Asia and guinea pigs in the Andes regions. Only the animals eaten by white western society are deemed acceptable and palatable with disregard to nutritional and environmental status. Unfamiliar foods may be daunting and personal preference will dictate what one enjoys putting in their mouth, but morality and nobility cannot be determined by one animal eater over another. Racial minorities existing in predominantly white spaces face constant food related micro-aggressions; sniggers and hackles about food choice may play out in the school yard but even well-intentioned quizzing in the staffroom can contribute to racist othering. Unlearning and learning is a good first step to being a better ally.


Colourful communities up and down the nation alongside the globalised tool of social media are opening eyes to a never-ending cookbook. Whether spending all day in the kitchen re-creating the Mexican birria taco or ordering an Indian tikka masala from an app that conveniently sends a person on a bike to your front door, let’s also celebrate the individuals behind the dish. Food brings people together. Bonding over a potluck dinner party will not eradicate the endemic racism that exists within the UK today, but it will remind you of how dull and tasteless Britain would be without your immigrant neighbour.