Forgiveness and Food

I spilled red wine on a grey and white carpet last night. I did my best to clean it; my best was inadequate, as ample evidence of the spill remains. My faux pas bothered me, but it didn’t send me into the atmosphere. I hope we can get the stain out; if not, I will not commit suicide. At least not for that reason. Accidents happen. Such is life. My mistake was clumsy, stupid, and avoidable. I forgave myself for being human. In this instance. In considering my bumbling mistake, it occurred to me that my willingness to forgive myself for making it is a rarity. I don’t forgive myself for much.

I may have made a mistake, pointed out to me by a woman with whom I’ve been friends on Facebook for several years, when I used the word “ethnic” to describe food. I wonder whether, if indeed I made a mistake, I am eligible for forgiveness? Here is part of the exchange between us (responding to a post in which I said was I buying ethnic food):

Elle (my friend): Isn’t the word “ethnic” to describe food politically incorrect? (this is a serious question).

Me: I have read some pieces that suggest “ethnic” applied to food is derogatory. I think whether it is derogatory depends on the ear and the audience. From my perspective, Mexican food, Indian food, Arabic food, French food, Moroccan food, etc. are ethnic foods. From the perspective of a Moroccan or a Mexican, American food or Canadian food or Caribbean food might be called ethnic food. And in each case, country-specific or region-specific foods might be called ethnic. If language is changing AND if the majority of people from regions where food I call ethnic consider the term offensive, I would gladly adjust. I remember a time when “Oriental food” was a perfectly acceptable term, but it came to be considered offensive…so the term is now (perhaps temporarily) “Asian food.” Sometimes, I think political correctness is dictated by fear of offending where offense would not be taken, except for the fear articulated by the fearful. If I have simply missed the cultural shift and should change my behavior, I will. But I would want to feel sure the issue is real. Long, long answer to a short question. 😉 What are your thoughts?

Elle: The word “ethnic” feels odd to me, and I found it offensive. To me, the use of “ethnic” denotes a lack of sensibility as if the foods are considered all the same and somehow of lower quality. Doesn’t each food deserve an attribute of its own, like French food, Japanese food, Iranian food OR European food, Southeast Asian food, Middle Eastern (which at least narrows it down to a limited geographical area)? “Ethnic” sounds colonialistic to me.

Me: Your response to the word is new to me and very different from mine. Rather than a label of inferior quality or “sameness,” my sense of the word elevates the subjects to which they are applied. Each food does deserve its own attribute, as you say, but collectively they require a label that, in my mind, says they are “different from my native culture,” (and therefore exotic in some way). Again, I use the word in appreciation, not in disparagement. But your response makes me want to explore further whether my definition and usage is mistakenly negative. I do not want to be mistaken for a colonialist!

I then added: Elle, I have posted the following on my FB page: “Serious questions: In your view, is use of the word “ethnic” to describe food derogatory? That is, does it suggest the foods are of lower quality or that the cultures from which they come are somehow inferior? What terms would you use, instead, to be more sensitive?” I would really like to know how others in my sphere perceive the word. Perhaps you might ask the same question of those among your FB followers?

My immediate gut reaction was to think the very idea that use of the word “ethnic” to describe food might be politically incorrect was absurd. But I tried to put aside my reaction and think rationally about it. My intent in using the word is not the issue. The issue is how the word is perceived by people who might be offended because the word applies to their native foods. Attempting to put myself in a position in which I might be offended by a term used to describe “American” food, I try to examine my emotions if I heard someone describe the foods of my culture and some others as “bland.” The person using the description might not intend it to be derogatory; she might intend only to suggest the foods do not use much spice. But I might view the term in another way; I might think “bland” means uninteresting, dull, boring, tedious, etc. The only way the person using the term in an innocuous (to them) way is to let them know how their usage is perceived. That may be precisely what Elle was telling me. But I’m not yet convinced. I’m awaiting the responses from FB friends, both mine and hers.  Thus far, though, the one response I’ve received suggests I may need to rethink my choice of terms to describe foods from other cultures.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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