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Multiculturalism: what is it food for?

Food-centric solidarity leaves a bad taste in Radha Wahyuwidayat’s mouth

Halal Snack Pack

The Halal Snack-pack Appreciation Society is a meme-turned-subculture through which Muslim and non-Muslim people come together to bond over a love for the titular dish. Sam Dastyari has deemed it “the modern equivalent of a peaceful rally”: it’s a political statement by White Australians that demonstrates their respect for Muslim cultures.

This characterisation is questionable.

Without discounting the need to laugh in the face of Pauline Hanson, HSPAS has otherwise been doomed to the corners of Facebook, eroded by an endless cycle of memes. At the height of its political influence, Dastyari invited Hanson to eat a snack-pack, to the amusement of his supporters. Yet, weeks later, Islamophobia and racism in society and government policy continues.

The concept of food-based solidarity has a curious history in Australia. Following widespread reports of violence against Indian students in 2009, the ‘Vindaloo Against Violence’ initiative urged punters to dine at Indian restaurants to demonstrate their appreciation of Indian culture.

Enter well-intentioned white folk at their local Indian restaurant, butter chicken and naan in knife and fork. Perhaps some even braved more migrant-heavy suburbs for an ‘authentic’ experience. Whatever the choice of eatery, the idea was the same: patrons would leave satisfied with their intake of Other culture that would serve to symbolise their political solidarity.

It’s the inverse equivalent of a sit-in. A display of privilege and literal indulgence for which to pat oneself on the back. The existence of such campaigns is unsurprising when we consider how, in mainstream political discourse, the crowning glory of multiculturalist policy is apparently a richer food culture.

Politicians pedal the high number of ethnic food establishments as a marker of Australia’s cultural tolerance and as a way to placate anti-immigrant sentiment. “Walk up and down (main street) and you will see the benefits of multiculturalism! I love dumplings!”

It is no coincidence that the favoured analogy for multiculturalism is the ‘melting pot’. Are politicians appealing to the lowest common denominator (the appetite) when trying to sway opponents to immigration? Or, can the benefits of multiculturalism in the Australian political imaginary be simply boiled down to food?

If we take the melting pot analogy of multiculturalism, the person donning the chef’s hat and holding the wooden spoon is White Australia. In the words of African American feminist scholar bell hooks, “Ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture.”

The amount of spice is, however, carefully controlled. Far from being ‘authentic’ or representative of entire nations, restaurant food has actually been processed through colonialism, immigration and globalisation. The reductive idea that migrant cultures, multi-faceted in themselves, can be captured by a plate of food is at the heart of food solidarity campaigns.

Despite the fact that food from migrant cultures is modified to suit the preferred tastes and methods of their new country, it continues to be branded Other along with the people it represents. Indians become curries, Asians are dog-eaters, and migrants in general smell like something fishy.

Even if restaurant food was culturally representative, ‘Eating the Other’ does not equate to learning, understanding or identifying with the Other. Instead, as Ghassan Hage posits, food becomes a symbol of the Other that is abstracted from marginalised people and their histories of colonialism.

The exchange of food occurs in an unequal dynamic, relegated to a professional setting in which migrants service higher class White people. What’s more, food is consumed only within White cultural norms. Take the halal snack-pack: accepted by the White mainstream largely within the norms of Australian drinking culture.

Participants in food solidarity campaigns argue that it benefits migrants economically, but this only occurs at an individual level. As a demographic, people of colour remain excluded from Australian mainstream media and political life. In fact, the most representation they find is on reality food programs like Masterchef, cementing their synonymity with food.

Food solidarity campaigns perpetuate the processes by which White Australia takes from Other cultures, as long as culture is restricted to food, and food to an act of service. Meanwhile, the cultural practices of migrants outside the culinary realm are shunned to the private sphere of the home; to be practised out of sight. They have no place in the national culture.

Food is an essential part of integration when it is exchanged between individuals in the home, neighbourhood and community. Eating ethnic food at a restaurant does not combat structural racism. It is part of the environment that ferments racial violence: a culture that takes from Other cultures but refuses to integrate them beyond strict parameters. These parameters look something like those of a styrofoam box.