Racial Bias in Food Culture – A Chat w/ Baker’s For Change Co-Founder Sophia Chang

A huge part of my inspiration as a chef is nature. Growing up on a ranch and producing food at a young age gave me a different appreciation for it as I got older. The second, and most important part, was learning about food from other cultures. What really put me on my educational path was trying to understand how people felt the way they did about food. As a personal chef in LA I was constantly hearing people tell me “facts” about food and the food industry that were really just personal bias-turned-fact. 

@sopheating Instagram

The first big one that come to mind is the old MSG tale. Ever since I was a kid I remember hearing that MSG was bad, and that somehow it was only ever found in Chinese food. During my undergrad this came up again and I stumbled on a few articles stating that the demonization of MSG is a reflection of racist and an Anti-Chinese agenda dating back to the 60’s and 70’s. Whenever I bring this up to people they don’t seem too shocked, but generally unaware of how much of an effect this information has on how we view Chinese food to this day.

Ive been following Sophia on Instagram for a bit now, a Chinese-American foodie-activist who is the the co-founder of Bakers for Change. Last week she posted something that brought up this exact issue.

I couldn’t agree more. Food isn’t just food, but its also culture and identity.

So I reached out to Sophia and asked her a few questions on the subject as a whole.

Can you tell me a bit about your relationship with Chinese food?

My parents are immigrants from Taiwan, and although my mom’s side of the family has been in Taiwan for ten or so generations, we are still ethnically Han Chinese. My grandfather on my father’s side immigrated to Taiwan from China after the communist party took over China. He passed away when I was quite young, so I consider my motherland Taiwan. My relationship with Chinese food has been complex throughout my childhood, and I’ve just recently (over the last year) begun to cook Chinese/Taiwanese dishes for myself. 

What is your perspective on American interpretation of Chinese food?

I personally don’t harbor any negative feelings about Americanized Chinese food– as long as the restaurant is owned by Chinese people. The history of Chinese people in America and thus, American-Chinese food, is very complex. I don’t think that anyone should be a judge of “authenticity”; however, what I personally believe we can judge are the white folks that are claiming to make Chinese food “better” or “cleaner”.

I’m not okay with white people who erase our history, culture, and voices, while they profit when Asians in America suffer due to the perpetual foreigner trope, model minority myth, and now COVID-19 racism.

What do you think about picking and choosing foods from a culture to glamorize vs demonize? 

As a kid, I vividly remember being told that my potstickers that I packed from home smelled like farts, that the sushi my mom packed looked disgusting, and that the food that I brought from home was gross. I told my parents that I only wanted sandwiches moving forward. 

Now, a lot of the dishes that I didn’t want to eat as a kid are trendy. It’s been really odd to see the same people mocking Chinese food in my youth or young adult life, that now love dimsum, boba, salted eggs, and more. 

“I have gotten ‘oh I hope I’m not eating cats and dogs’ comments constantly, but as an adult, I’m much more equipped to deal with racism. That’s why I’m so thankful to have a platform, regardless of how small it is. I appreciate the opportunity to educate and teach.” 

Do you have any specific examples of this that have left a lasting impact?

I moved away from the Bay Area to attend university in Pennsylvania. It wasn’t until I couldn’t have my mom’s cooking or easily access a ton of amazing Asian restaurants, that I really began to realize that I had taken my cultural background for granted. I grew up in an area that was 70% Asian American, and no longer having my community was a huge culture shock, especially once I entered the working world. 

People continued to make fun of my food at the first few companies I worked for after graduation. I have gotten “oh I hope I’m not eating cats and dogs” comments constantly, but as an adult, I’m much more equipped to deal with racism. That’s why I’m so thankful to have a platform, regardless of how small it is. I appreciate the opportunity to educate and teach. 

To see more from Sophia on Instagram click here!

The next time you’re looking at recipes online for Chinese food, or any cultures’s cuisine for that matter, look at the author. Are they crediting the culture from which the recipe is influenced? Is their interpretation of it come with a negative connotation? There are simple ways as food consumers to combat these destructive stereotypes and support these cultures and communities that have made food in America what it is today.

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