City Desk

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

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  • Ward 1 Voter

    I've tentatively penciled in giving a damn about this for next Thursday, from 3:16 to 3:18 p.m.

  • Potowmack

    Drew Franklin comes off as just another Millennial educated beyond his native intelligence. Listen, kid, get back behind the counter, make me a latte and shut the hell up. Nobody cares about what you have to say.

  • Tom

    The sad part is half the people who sign these petitions accusing the Fojol Bros of racism probably will go see the latest Sasha Baron Cohen movie and laugh their heads off. In the scheme of things, the Fojol Bros, some of whom are "brown people" themselves, are not racist. They wear hats and have mustaches. We live in a country that is currently occupying another country. US soldiers, paid for by our taxes and bearing our flag, shoot random civilians and one of out three probably harbors actual racism (as well as a machine gun) towards innocent civilians. If you look Hispanic in Arizona, you could get separated from your family and beaten to death in private border prisons.

    There are bigger problems than some people on a Food Truck, none of whom are racist, trying to sell and celebrate food in a colorful way.

    People like Drew Franklin and Arturo J. Viscarra need to stop wasting everyone's time with this witch hunt.

  • Matt

    I feel that it's racist whenever I see a non-white person wearing a beret or a striped shirt on Bastille Day, or getting drunk on St. Patrick's Day. I also hate when I see a non-white person selling crepes or beer. Who are they to approximate our culture?

    If only South Asians can sell South Asian food, then South Asians cannot sell European food or dress in European clothing.

  • will

    Lawrence of Arabia = Huge Racist

  • https://twitter.com/#!/TMIMeeg TMIMeeg

    The fojol brothers serve good food. Good vegetarian options. It might not be the most "authentic" but you don't have to be Indian or Thai to enjoy (and cook) Indian/Thai food.

    I think the whole silly (obviously) fake-Indian carnival thing is like a throwback to old circuses that would feature performers falsely claiming exotic origins.

    Today everyone knows Indians don't all wear turbans. I've also noticed that they've branched out from the turbans and fake moustaches into wearing other silly costumes. Let's not take everything so seriously

  • TC

    Using fake characters based on ethnic/racial stereotypes as a marketing gimmick for food products? What a clever, creative and original idea! Oh, wait, I forgot: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:New-York_tribune.,_November_07,_1909,_Page_20,_Image_44_Aunt_Jemima.jpg

  • http://lastgoodcountry.com Dave Stroup

    I think the headline of this piece is inaccurate. The question, at least for now, isn't so much whether the "Fojol Bros." are racist, but whether their gimmick is racist. There's a difference. There are plenty of ways lots of people unintentionally say or do things that sound or seem racist. Most of these people are not racist.

    While there are certainly other problems in the world, it's not a bad thing for people to point out things that they find racist or offensive. In many cases, the person doing whatever it is might not have had any clue. It's how they respond that's important and more telling about their character.

    But what could be argued as more important than judging whether someone is or is not a racist is that they stop doing or saying things that are racist. I don't exactly care what the Fojol Bros. people feel deep in the heart -- I just think they should knock off the dumb gimmick.

  • Lucy Choi

    Join my movement! Hipsters against Hipsters!

    Our power is the Hipster Eye of Sauron. Our motto is wait til I turn my hipster eye on you.

    Look, I don't necessarily like their questionable shtick either, but Fojol brothers did pave the way for DC food trucks, and I live those. And I like their food and blankets.

    What's more destructive are these annoying hipsters. A white hipster coins a hipster term like hipster racism, and another white hipster writes some facebook hipster open letter, and enough hipsters sign a petition, you throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    I feel that "Hipsterism" is a more dangerous force than "Racism" and is starting a lynch mob against a small food truck. I'm anti-hipsterism! Join my movement!

  • Lucy Choi
  • SD

    I'm originally from India, I think the food prepared by the Fojol Bros is very good, the guys that work there are fun, well-intentioned folks just trying to bring some humor into an otherwise average city. It never crossed my mind that their gig could be offensive to some. Gosh, I guess this city has a lot of sad humorless types. Drew said that his 'Indian' friend complained that their 'naan' wasn't authentic. My complaint is that Drew and his 'Indian' friend are liars because the bros have never sold naan.

  • Matt

    If we are to accuse the Fojol Brothers of racism, then Tom Hanks' movie "Big" should be accused of the same kind of racism. Remember "Zoltar", the turbaned character in the carnival machine that makes him big? Of the racism!

    http://fogsmoviereviews.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/zoltar-speaks.png

    But it's not racist. Get your fabular narratives straight!

  • DuUrbanTurban

    Blah Blah Blah...First off these dudes don't cook the food. It's contracted out. Second of all it's not racism. It's just the basis of a gimmick. A gimmick that some may find offensive. If you understand the history behind the Sikh/Punjabi culture you could see why some might feel that their gimmick is not cool. Me personally I laugh it off when I see them. They are just a joke to me. If I felt that they were doing this intentionally to be disrespectful my culture I would have just pinched any and all of them in the mouth. I even have a few "Vanilla" friends who feel the same way that I feel.

  • DuUrbanTurban

    Pinched lol..punched..Go IPhone!

  • R

    "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"

    I'm sorry, which stereotype am I supposed to be getting mad at again?"

    BOOM. Thanks HipsterCritical -- you are absolutely correct. This turkey is writing a letter against Fojol being offensive and stereotyping people whilst doing that exactly in his letter.

  • Abuji Daji

    this article is retarded. who cares? the food is good, get over it and find the time to do something else. you annoying twats!!

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