Are the Fojol Bros. Racist?
The Fojol Bros. food truck business is, er, in a sous vide bath after the publication of an open letter accusing the Indian/Ethiopian/Thai food purveyors of being "hipster racist," presumably for the "technicolor kitsch" that includes mustaches and turbans and fake ethnic names for the operators of the trucks like "Dingo" and "Ababa Du." In it, Drew Franklin writes:
Do understand that by accusing you of hipster racism, I'm giving you the benefit of the doubt. I'm taking for granted that you're just well-meaning (if woefully misguided) white boys with a contemptible sense of humor. See, if I were the pessimistic type, I'd say instead that you're a bunch of callous opportunists banking off the ever profitable enterprise that is Western Orientalism, exploiting DC's growing vanilla consumer base–after all, with the recent influx of smirking, entitled young bohemians around these parts, there's certainly no shortage of monied ignoramuses eager to drop cash on any mediocre product if it's quirky or exotic enough. But I don't believe you're that clever.
The letter was quickly followed by a Change.org petition. In it, the authors write of the Fojol Bros. owner:
Justin Vitarello doesn't want to listen when we say his business's gimmick is hurtful and offensive. He denies that white people wearing turbans and fake mustaches and playing Punjabi music while serving Indian food is stereotype and mockery, and justifies it by saying "no more than five" people have complained that it's racist. Fojol employees also sport rastacaps and go by stage names like "Dingo" and "Ababa Du", hailing from "the magical lands" of "Merlindia" and "Benethiopia".
As of now, 289 have signed the petition. So is the truck racist?
The first analog that comes to my mind here is the fictional African nation of Zamunda, created by Eddie Murphy in his classic film Coming to America. It's kind of questionable for two Americans to make up an African country. But Coming to America plays with stereotypes that weren't (and still aren't) seen very often in mainstream media—rich, well-connected black people are just as funny and interesting and worth watching as the pathologically poor—and it found a beloved place in the movie pantheon because of it.
Not to get all critical race theory on you, but this is definitely a case of intent vs. impact. It's pretty clear that Vitarello didn't intend to be offensive, but he's also downplaying the impact of what his company is doing. Ultimately, it seems like one of those situations where there's nothing to be gained by fighting for the right to have fake mustaches and turbans—and plenty to lose.
On the spectrum of racism running from "Can I touch your hair? It's so nappy-looking!" to deep historical and structural racial inequities, this isn't necessarily the highest priority. But the made-up ethnicities are clearly drawn from Asian and East African stereotypes—and it's unsettling and offensive and lazy all at once. Let this one go, bros.
Photo by a loves dc via Flickr/Creative Commons Attribution Generic 2.0 License