Is The Ethnic Food Aisle Racist?

Business Insider has just published a video on its YouTube channel that asks if the ethnic food aisle is racist. They claim “aisles labelled as ethnic, Asian, Mexican, or international are frequently found in supermarket chains across the US. With America becoming more and more accepting of their individual flavours and differences, what is keeping the ethnic aisle in existence?”

My answer to their question is — the structure.

Grocery stores started devoting shelf space to international products in the 1950s. The push came from independent distributors who specialized in foods then considered outside the American mainstream — Chinese, Jewish, Italian or of another origin. Early on, these distributors were responsible for their specific sections of a store, where they would stock the shelf, maintain its appearance and restock it as necessary.

Supermarkets are, first of all, a business. Any business needs a strategy and justification. Imagine coming to a supermarket with no structure. Imagine a supermarket that makes you confused about what the things they sell are. Imagine a supermarket where you need to go and search for items.

Most of us shop for staples, and we want our staples to be accessible and quickly found. When it comes to ethnic food, it’s often not perceived as staple or known to the general public. Ask an average non-Asian what fish sauce or oyster sauce is used for, and you’ll be surprised. 

In fact, it should be in the supermarket’s interest to sell these items asap, because they occupy space in the store. Everything you can find there should bring fast profit. Therefore, some supermarkets run consumer tests to see where items should be positioned to sell them faster.

When it comes to ethnic foods, having them in one place might actually be helpful.

So, is the Internal aisle racist?

The video shows Kim Pham, a co-founder of Omsom — a brand that “brings real Asian flavours” through its sauces. Kim recalls how embarrassing she felt as a child to go to international aisles in the supermarkets as they were deemed to be shameful. 

While I understand her frustration, I believe that segregation is nothing to do with racism. It is purely a business strategy and marketing. We all know that the space on the shelves is critical. The positioning, whether it is eye-level, top or bottom shelf, matters and food companies even pay money to be placed in more accessible aisles. 

When I lived in the UK, I often craved my home food. I remember going to the Eastern European shop to get some staples from home. Yes, I also felt anxious, because 1) Eastern Europeans are perceived very negatively in England, 2) I wasn’t from Eastern Europe but was associated with all the negative stigma about it. Should I have expected to have my favourite rye bread, herring or fermented cabbage in a traditional British supermarket (Tesco or Sainsbury’s)? No. 

Now I live in Malaysia and can only dream about food that’s close to my home. Me not being represented in the supermarket aisle can also be deemed racist. Do I believe it is racist? Definitely not. There is no demand, and even if such products existed, I’d be the only one buying them. 

Today, most European countries, Australia, the USA or Canada are full of ethnic shops/marts, where shoppers can purchase specific produce — Asian, Arabic, East European, etc. Is this segregation also perceived as racist then? Such shops segregate themselves from mainstream products, as the minority population opens shops to cater to their communities.

Some people will say that international aisles can make minority groups believe that they will never be accepted in the country where they live. They may feel the segregation between “normal” and their food emphasizes their difference. Is it really true, or is it just insecurity in their heads? Food has been something that united people for years; I doubt it divides us now.

At times where everyone gets offended by everything, I think that even if the international products were put in regular aisles, there would be a group of people calling it cultural appropriation. Everyone won’t be happy. So what’s right in this situation?

What is shameful to me is that most of the privileged white race wouldn’t explore other cultures, by stepping out of their comfort zone and actually trying some of the unconventional products or learning about them. It isn’t racist, though. It is ignorance at its best, and the white race is known for it. 

What is the point of this video on Business Insider? To create an issue or to promote Omson brand?

One question for thought.

Would the levels of racism reduce if the supermarkets got rid of ethnic/international food sections? I doubt it. What’s your take?

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