The saying goes that you're never supposed to talk about politics or religion in polite conversation or mixed company, because they are topics that inherently cause conflict. I would like to humbly add one more to that mix: race.
If you needed convincing, I spoke this weekend with a source inside the Lay’s Potato Chip contest, and he frustratedly told me that the campaign has been receiving surprisingly racist feedback. Titled “Do Me a Flavor,” the contest will award a quarter of a million dollars to the creator of the winning chip, and the three competing flavors are Cheesy Garlic Bread, Sriracha and Chicken and Waffles. Full disclosure: I’ve been rooting for the latter flavor since the moment it was announced. As someone with a lot of family from the South, I was thrilled at the idea of Southern cultural specificity being spread to the American public. It was time for America’s palate to be challenged by down home goodness. Chicken and Waffles had finally arrived.
However, angry commenters are complaining about that exact out-of-the-boxness. This was to be expected. You don’t introduce Chicken and Waffles to Middle America without expecting them to be a little confused. Almost all of the angry comments on the Lay’s Facebook page are about the Chicken and Waffles flavor, which customers have described as “nasty” and “disgusting.” One person remarked it made them throw up, and another quipped that they wouldn’t eat another on a dare. Because you can only have so many smart comebacks at a chip company, one commenter summed up the rage with a Charlton Heston impression: “WHHHHYY?”
But this part isn’t what my friend was talking about. The Lay's Facebook page has been bombarded with alarming comments about its chip flavors, most of which have been removed, as the page is heavily moderated. However, a few telling comments remain—with one person writing that the only reason the Chicken and Waffles chips were included was because of “political correctness,” and another stating that the chips are only for “crack heads.”
For those who haven't put racism and racism together, I’m going to put that into my Racist Translation Robot and see what pops out. Dearest M4MM1, what say you?
Input: [Whining about being PC] + [equating Chicken and Waffles customers to crackheads] = ?
M4MM1: "Black people, Dave. They’re talking about black people."
But luckily for me, Lay’s doesn’t control Twitter, where people are more open about their bigotry and don’t have to use thinly veiled code. This is a place where stupidity is perfectly preserved in time like Han Solo or Joan Rivers’ face.
Here, we get a more voluptuous picture of the undertones of the Chicken and Waffles backlash. On the overtly awful side of things, Zack Dannii of Deltona, FL implores us to “celebrate black history month with some chicken and waffles.” Another kerfuffle involves folks getting into an argument about whether or not Chicken and Waffles constitutes “n***er food.” On the subject, @tmbbandie01 broadens our racist horizons: “A black person likes chicken and waffles? What’s next, Asians liking rice? Or Mexicans liking tacos?”
The logical fallacy of Internet journalism is to assume that when a couple of people on Twitter say something racist, the world is ending. This is why Reddit freaks out when people tweet Islamophobic things after Zero Dark Thirty, and we spend a great deal of time obsessing about what people think about Rue's race in The Hunger Games. It’s a way of preaching to the already converted. It allows us to get mad at people we will never meet and have our differences out on Twitter, engaging in dialogues about race that can go away when you and some 40-year-old dude in Scranton get too mad to keep arguing and he has to get off the interwebs because his mom says it’s lights out or you're cutting into his masturbation schedule with all of your thinking.
I'm not saying you shouldn't get upset about racism on the Internet. You should get angry about all racism and want to transform into a Hulk who smashes social injustice. But to do so, you have to look at the bigger picture.
The larger problem is the persistent negative racialization of food in our society, which a 2012 man-on-the-street video filmed at Brigham Young University further indicated. White BYU students were asked how they planned on honoring Black History Month, one couple quipped that they were going to go purchase “grape drank,” probably not realizing that video will last forever. Their grandchildren will be so proud to see Pops doing racial impressions on the Internet of the future.
Comedian Wanda Sykes once commented on this in one of her sketches. Sykes jokes that there are some things that black people are afraid to do around white people, which include eating fried chicken or watermelon. When she eats food racialized as black, Sykes feels like she’s playing into a stereotype and “setting her people back.” She wants to be a "dignified black person," and eating watermelon makes her feel like white people are watching her. She’s probably right. When Obama recently dined at Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles, a great deal of attention was given to the fact that he ate fried chicken, despite the fact that Reagan and Nixon were regulars at the iconic restaurant without anyone ever making a fuss.
Despite the fact that neither the creator of the Chicken and Waffles chip nor it's intended consumer base are black, many Twitter users are facepalming over the Chicken and Waffles chips existing at all. User @ElyasTweets writes that a “black guy can’t buy the new Chicken and Waffles flavor of Lays and still preserve his dignity,” and @raymundrocket threatens: “If you're black and I see you eating a bag of chicken and waffles Lays, I'ma Mutumbo those sh*ts outta your hand.” In response, @I_GO_BY_TY reminds us: “Where I was raised, chicken and waffles isn't a black thing, it's a southern thing. So why are people embarrassed by a chip? Get it together.”
Because of all the haterade being poured on Chicken and Waffles, early data on the Facebook page indicates they are being trounced in the standings—with the Cheesy Garlic Bread flavor ahead by a comfortable margin. Interestingly, the Garlic Bread flavor is the only one that’s being racialized as white, since Sriracha hot sauce originates from American interpretations of Thai cuisine. The New York Times describes Sriracha as a "polyglot puree," an interesting metaphor for our American culture of food. As a culture, we are what we eat, which is why it's important to talk about it. Food is identity.
But because the Internet is the best place, contest respondents have been complaining that it’s too hard to spell. This reminds me of when my friend Samidha was told by peers in her student government class that her name was "too hard to say." They insisted on just calling her "Sam." It's not racism in the twisty mustache, cackle-in-your-face way, but the subtle kind, like "flesh-colored" bandaids or your grandma who constantly praises Morgan Freeman for being "so well-spoken."
Of the three options, Cheesy Garlic Bread is by far the safest pick because it banks on an easily digestible culinary in-group: Italian food. Although Italians used to be racialized as non-white in America, they became part of the Caucasian mix over time, and Italian food gained the privilege of being accepted as "white people food." Italian food tends not to upset people because despite its ethnic specificity, it banks on the presumed whiteness in our culture, where white is the default setting for consumption. When we deviate from the white norm, that's where we see backlash.
Based on a recognizable staple of Italian cuisine, the Cheesy Garlic Bread chips resemble a lot of the brands they already have on the market, flavors that rely on reaching the widest consumer base possible by not pushing anyone’s cultural buttons. There’s nothing about Sour Cream and Onion or Sea Salt and Vinegar that’s going to provoke your palate or make anyone question what they’re eating. Barbecue chips won’t make anyone consider the politics behind them.
Congratulations, Cheesy Garlic Bread. You might just be harmless enough to win. Welcome to the world, baby girl.