The subliminal racism of instagram food videos

By Alison Saldanha
Medill Reports

Scrolling through Instagram, it’s not uncommon to slip into a rabbit hole of food videos. In under a minute, slender hands work through a short list of ingredients: chopping onions, breaking eggs, grating cheese to finally present an appetizing meal you make a mental note to try out later. If unmuted, uptempo electronic music entraps your aural senses as the platform’s algorithm registers your preference and dispatches another recipe to your watch stream.

These seemingly addictive videos have grown in popularity since the COVID-19 pandemic as stay-at-home orders led to global home-cooking trends like whipped dalgona coffee, banana bread and sourdough. But a closer look at the skin tone of the hands preparing these meals reveals an enduring racism in the food media industry that many businesses are now trying to reverse.

We analyzed 100 such commercial food videos of five popular Instagram accounts, each with over a million followers including, Buzzfeed’s Tasty and Goodful handles, the women-centric First Media’s So Yummy, Tastemade, Inc. ‘s Tastemade, and Ciaopeople’s Media Group’s Cookist Wow. Our dataset includes 20 non-verbal videos lasting under a minute from each account between May 12 to June 8. To standardize this set, we did not include IGTV videos or posts of personalities or chefs talking and cooking. For similar reasons we also excluded personality-driven food accounts such as Bon Appétit and The New York Times’ @nytcooking handle. Thus we focused our study on the videos that are more likely to be viewed on mute, the way much of social media is consumed today.

Overwhelmingly, a majority or 94 of the 100 videos analyzed, featured anonymous light-skinned hands. Of the six that featured hands of a different color, four were on Tasty. Of these, discernibly Black hands featured in two.
These five accounts have a following ranging from over 1 million to nearly 38 million. Together, they have 60 million followers, roughly equivalent to the population of Italy, or California and Florida combined. Each video has registered anywhere between 30,000 to 2 million views.

The “mainstream” consumer

The extreme lack of diversity in food videos is unsurprising to Adriana Waterston, senior vice president of Horowitz Research, a consumer insights and market research agency specializing in multicultural, media and millennial research. Horowitz has worked with Comcast, HBO, Hulu and Comedy Central, among others, to expand diversity and inclusion in their offices.

“This has been a conversation about the gatekeepers in the media industry — who decides what content is suitable for ‘mainstream’ consumption and what is not. It’s unsurprising that the majority of people making these decisions are not people of color so they are literally blind to the issue at hand,” she said.

The lack of diversity in the instagram food videos parallels the lack of diversity in institutions that provide more traditional media content. More than three quarters of newsroom employees – those who work as reporters, editors, photographers and videographers in the newspaper, broadcasting and internet publishing industries – are non-Hispanic white and male, according to a 2018 Pew Research report.

The tide is likely to change with younger, more diverse operations, the report’s author added. Further, newsrooms across the country are facing a reckoning led by Black journalists in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests across the country.

Waterston pointed out that often the conversation is framed as a matter of pragmatism: the majority population in the U.S. is non-Hispanic white, and these different groups, be it Hispanic or Black or Asian audiences or any sub-group within, are considered “niche” audiences.

“When we start with the problem of that premise, then you start asking the questions that need to be asked — Why is the ‘mainstream audience’ called white? Why isn’t it called the ‘white audience?’ And what is the mindset that thinks a Black person only influences Black people but a white influencer influences everyone?”

Of the 94 videos featuring light-skinned hands in the dataset, several are racially ambiguous. In other words, it is difficult to identify if the hands belong to a white person or someone of another race or ethnicity who is fair-skinned

Business decisions to use racially ambiguous hands come down to “efficiency,” or using the ‘lowest common denominator’ or an element all races have in common to solve a complex problem of representation, according to Waterston.

For example, Waterston, who is Latina, has a skin color she describes as “light café con leche” — it could pass as the skin tone of a white, Hispanic, South Asian or a light-skinned Black person depending on the lighting. This makes her skin the “efficient” choice in commercial media, though she said the result can be perceived as pandering.

“It’s not a problem if you do it once or twice, but if that’s consistently how you represent people of color — people are going to notice you don’t put darker skin hands. So this ‘efficiency’ is problematic because it smacks of tokenism or trying to be politically correct without going the distance,” she said.

“At the end of the day, what colorism effectively says is I’m going to include you as long as you don’t make me uncomfortable. So the lighter skin your skin is if you are a Black person, the less threatening you are going to be to a white person.”

Othering the “niche” audience

The lack of diversity in instagram food videos is not limited to race, said journalist Zahir Janmohammed, host of The Racist Sandwich, a podcast that focuses on race, gender and class within the food industry.

“Look at the videos of hands working with knives or meat, they almost always tend to be masculine,” he said.

Janmohammed pointed to the excessive stylizing of food with the use of props and special music in videos presenting certain cultural foods — for instance, the use of “signifiers” like a Chinese gong for Chinese food or playing Bob Marley when serving Jamaican food. In treating foods from non-white cultures with performance, he said it exoticizes those communities.

“When I eat Indian food, it’s because that’s what I ate growing up in California. Indian food doesn’t only exist in India, it’s also something Americans here eat without all the performance and I think that’s a conversation we also need to have, because it’s essentially caricaturing or othering,” Janmohammed said.

When ethnically diverse meals are brought into the mainstream, more often than not, it is done so with a white interpretation or spin on it, for example, the oversimplification of ethnic foods, he pointed out. For example when a curry is casually rebranded as a stew or haldi doodh rechristened turmeric latté to invoke aspirational desire or, it erases the complex histories and lived experiences of the native communities. “White people need to remember people of color have suffered generations of pain at the hands of white people telling them what to do,” Janmohammed said.

In the food industry specifically, underrepresentation of people of color in magazines, television cooking shows and Instagram posts stereotypes them as lacking resources or the desire for an aspirational lifestyle, Waterston said.

“The underpinning assumptions for choosing white people over people of color has a lot to do with stereotypes about people of color,” she said. “There is the subtle racism in the assumption that people of color are less cultured perhaps, or not worthy targets because your advertisers or media company promises to deliver a more affluent suburban household.”

Janmohammed added that recently he has noticed personality-driven food accounts are more likely to be diverse than those run by media companies.

“I think there has been some change with celebrity chefs on Bon Appétit where you have Black and Brown hands, and that’s a beautiful change. So from creators themselves I am seeing more diversity. Where I’m still not seeing the diversity, is with products and companies that still use white hands,” he said.

A lost opportunity

Despite signs of progress, on June 8, Adam Rapoport, editor-in-chief of Bon Appétit, a magazine that has over 4 million followers on Instagram, stepped down after an old photograph surfaced of him dressed in a brownface costume. The controversy led to current and former employees sharing stories of discrimination and enduring systemic racism at the company.

In an Instagram post, Sohla El-Waylly, an assistant editor at the magazine, wrote that she has been pushed to create videos as “a display of diversity” but “currently, only white editors are paid for their video appearances. None of the people of color have been compensated for their appearances.” Condé Nast, the parent of Bon Appétit, said it was untrue. El-Waylly has demanded Black, indigenous people of color be given fair titles, fair salaries and compensation for video appearances.

In fact, companies are likely to benefit more from investing well in diversity as younger platforms like Instagram draw younger and more diverse audiences, Waterston said.

“The population of America becomes increasingly diverse as you look at younger and younger generations. If media companies reflect on the sheer size of the multiculturally diverse audience in the U.S. and globally, who spend the most on entertainment and content, the most time with new technologies and are among the most active social media users — it’s a lost opportunity,” she said.

Change at these companies may be imminent as protests over George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer and conversations on systemic racism and white privilege permeate news cycles for weeks.

On May 31, Buzzfeed’s Tasty, So Yummy, Tastemade and Goodful joined celebrities and other companies posting black tiles on Instagram in the #BlackoutTuesday social media movement as a show of support for the Black Lives Matter movement. While the posts may have been well-intentioned, several activists pointed out companies like Amazon and McDonalds need to do more to prove their solidarity to the Black community.

In the new wave of protests, Waterston thinks people are finally starting to recognize the system is a problem and see their own role in perpetuating racism. To recognize that “I as a white person can’t just be silent or just rely on my non-racism but actually have to participate in dismantling these systems of privilege that I am party to.”

Everyday manifestations of culture like Instagram cooking videos play a role in changing the paradigm. “Our research clearly shows people want to see themselves reflected — and reflected accurately — they want to see their stories told, they want to see their faces, their hands, they want to see their cultures celebrated and they want the media to reflect the reality of their lifestyle, their points of view, their perspectives,” she said.

Photo at top: Between May 12 and June 8, we analyzed 100 commercial food videos on Instagram produced by five popular accounts, each with over a million followers. We found 94 of the 100 videos featured anonymous light-skinned hands. (Database grid graphic created by Alison Saldanha/MEDILL)