Sara Kay, a cooking and nutrition educator in New York City, has been studying reviews on Yelp and uncovered some trends that trouble her. It would seem that many white users are calling ethnic foods “authentic” in their reviews, a term that she says equates to “white supremacy in action.”
I have read and studied 20,000 Yelp reviews — part of my thesis as a master’s student at New York University in the Food Studies program. I can tell you a lot about what I concluded about the depths of the internet, but I’ll start with this one: The word “authentic” in food reviews supports white supremacism, and Yelp reviews prove it.
I narrowed my data collection to reviews from New York, and focused my field even further by picking from Zagat’s top ten most popular cuisines in New York City: Mexican, Thai, Japanese, Chinese, French, Italian, Korean, and Indian, adding Mediterranean and Soul food based on recent dining trends.
She read 100 reviews for the top Mexican restaurants in New York City, then kept reading for nine other popular cuisines. Seven percent of those reviews contained authenticity language.
According to my data, the average Yelp reviewer connotes “authentic” with characteristics such as dirt floors, plastic stools, and other patrons who are non-white when reviewing non-European restaurants.
This quote from a reviewer commenting on popular Korean barbecue restaurant Jongro illustrates the bias: “we went for this authentic spot with its kitschy hut decor much like those found in Korea” (Celine N. 2016). Even though it’s possible Celine N. liked the decor at the restaurant, “kitschy” is not a descriptor generally used in reviews serving modern Western cuisine.
The distinction in tone extends to restaurant staff, too. Tamar G. writes about French restaurant Pardon My French in 2016: “The waiters are so good looking and so cute with their French accents!” In stark contrast, Kenny C. writes about his experience at Chinese restaurant 88 Lan Zhou Handmade Noodles: “One of the [servers] asked a lady (quite rudely in Chinese… as if there’s any other way) to move.” Not only do Yelp reviewers talk about non-Western workers differently, but the difference is racist, rude, and frightfully mimicking of other supremacist trends on the internet and in American life.
Kay thinks this kind of language is damaging to the restaurants, racist in nature and a stereotype that ethnic cuisines can’t shake off.
While it might seem good to label restaurants as authentic, the usage of the term builds an authenticity trap where reviews reinforce harmful stereotypes that then become nearly impossible for restaurateurs to shake off. Negative traits like “gaudy signs” and decor, as well as price, end up becoming necessary to maintain positive reviews for being “authentic.”
The response to the piece was about what you’d expect, but one person claims Kay used his Yelp review to prove white people are racist against Chinese but he’s actually Chinese, not white.
The only thing on that page that deserves a read pic.twitter.com/GK7CeJIOue
— Hourai Elixir on the rocks (@KickintheI) January 18, 2019
"Opinion writer spends 6 months looking for boogeyman in restaurant reviews and BY GOD DOES SHE FIND IT"
— ビチズ ドノウ (@Shade4k) January 18, 2019
Is Yelp a peer reviewed journal now?
— Nicholas Pearce (@WarDamnGunners) January 18, 2019
At what point do we as a society implode over this politically correct culture war?