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Sunday, May 20, 2012

On the Alleged Cultural Insensitivity of the Fojol Bros.

The Fojol Bros. is one of the most popular food trucks in Washington, DC and is partly responsible for the popularity of food trucks in the nation's capital more generally.  It is also at the heart of a recent and growing controversy about race and culture.  The Fojol Bros. -- a self-described "traveling culinary carnival" that offers Indian, Ethiopian, and Thai food -- has come under fire for the manner in which they sell their food.  In particular, the food truck purveyors, who are all said to be white, wear turbans and fake novelty mustaches, and play Indian music  in the background (see this Travel Channel spotlight of the food truck).

This led DC local Drew Franklin to issue an "Open Letter to the 'Fojol' Bro-dawgs" on Facebook, in which he charged that those behind the food truck are "brazenly insulting of others' cultures," "over-the-top racist," "worthy ambassadors of poor taste," "faux-mustachioed goons," and "well-meaning (if woefully misguided) white boys with a contemptible sense of humor."  Franklin determines that the Fojol Bros. approach is "not cool," "decidedly uncool," "unacceptable," and "an embarrassment to my city."  An online petition subsequently emerged, declaring that the purveyors' presentation amounts to a "stereotype and mockery," and imploring visitors to make clear that they "are not OK with their Orientalist and racist appropriation of South Asian and East African cultures." As of today, the petition has been signed by over 1,000 people -- a not insignificant number.  A writer with the Washington City Paper -- which I read regularly when I lived in DC -- agrees with the critics, calling the ethnic aesthetic of the Fojol Bros. "unsettling and offensive and lazy all at once."

As a Sikh of Indian descent whose members of my immediate and extended family wear turbans and have beards, as someone whose civil rights work and entry into academia was triggered by post-9/11 discrimination against Muslims, Sikhs and South Asians, and as someone who has written about the post-9/11 experiences of Sikhs in book, journal, and essay formats, I believe I am within the zone of those who are implicated by and can speak to the Fojol Bros. tactics.   My preliminary verdict: as with Johnny Carson's Carnac and ESPN's Tony Kornheiser (who both predated the "hipster" fad), I find the Fojol Bros.' schtick tacky, but not offensive or racist.  

First, there is the argument, as a Columbia sociology professor told The Washington Post, that the Fojol Bros. "'harken[s] back to a colonial period when it was okay to exoticize' other cultures."  Put more directly, angry asian man, a popular blog that provides sharp commentary on racial issues involving Asian-Americans, opines that the Fojol Bros. are "totally colorblind -- and I mean that in the worst way -- of the privilege that makes [them] think this is okay."  It seems to me that intent is a relevant, if not important, consideration in weighing the propriety of this food truck's schtick.  Whereas colonialists and some whites may have appropriated certain cultural elements in the course of subjugating other people, or based such appropriation on feelings of entitlement or superiority, I do not see any evidence that this is taking place here.  Justin Vitarello, one of the food truck's owners, for example, says of turbans: "They're beautiful. They're comfortable. They're colorful."  The Fojol Bros. appear to be engaged in an attempt to be whimsical and light, rather than one to belittle or marginalize. 

For the same reason, the highly-charged criticism that the Fojol Bros. is participating in a "minstrel act" fails to persuade.  Minstrel shows generally portrayed African-Americans in a negative light as slow, lazy, dumb, and incompetent, etc.  As far as I can tell, there are no such characterizations by the Fojol Bros. -- there is no "brown-face," "[t]here's no accents" as Vitarello notes, and there are no negative behavioral or mental traits that are stereotyped or caricatured.  (These qualities make the food truck distinct from Ashton Kutcher's "brown-face" depiction of "Raj," a generic Bollywood producer).  It seems, rather, that the Fojol Bros. act and speak as they normally do, though they happen to wear turbans and fake mustaches, while listening to Indian music. 

To be sure, in some instances the wearing of some cultural or ethnic elements may, by itself, give rise to reasonable charges of racism -- even if the wearer does not intend any harm, even if there is no accent, and even if there is no skin alteration or manipulation of facial features.  That does not mean, though, that any wearing of certain items automatically supports a charge of racism.  In other words, even eschewing an inquiry into the purveyors' subjective intent, it has not been clearly demonstrated that the wearing of the colorful turbans and fake mustaches is objectively racist or improper.

As far as turbans are concerned, I acknowledge that turbans, for some, are sacred pieces of attire that are effectively extensions of one's self.  But turbans are not categorically sacred or significant.  The religious do not have a monopoly on the use of turbans or their meaning.  In fact, turbans are worn by different people (e.g., the religious and non-religious, Sikhs, Muslims, Afghans, Indians, Iranians, Persians, and North Africans) for different reasons (e.g., "to signify their class, caste, profession or religious affiliation," or "to demonstrate their wealth and power").  Indeed, I have attended a number of weddings where white men, who are usually part of the groom's party, wear turbans of the same exact sort worn by the Fojol Bros.  Not once did I hear or witness an objection to these individuals' wearing of a turban as part of the wedding events.  These individuals, it seems to me, wore the turbans to be festive, and the Fojol Bros. appear to be doing so as well.  The only difference, then, is that the individuals at weddings effectively had "our" permission and approval, whereas the Fojol Bros. don't.  That difference does not, in my view, justify the view that one is offensive and racist, while the other not.  (It is true that the Fojol Bros. are engaged in a commercial enterprise rather than a wedding -- but the underlying festive motivation may be comparable if not identical.  Others, such as artists Andre 3000 and Snoop Dogg, have worn turbans as part of their commercial persona, the latter of which was largely celebrated by Indians and Sikhs.  The commercial nature of wearing turbans, therefore, does not transform the wearing into something "wrong.")

Thus, it is difficult to contend that the Fojol Bros. are extending colonialist attitudes or ambitions, or are taking advantage of some dominant or exceptionalist mindset that enables them to poke fun at the other with impunity.  Moreover, their schtick seems to be qualitatively different than minstrel shows.  Nor does the wearing of turbans, on its own, objectively signify disrespect.

Let me be so bold as to suggest that Fojol Bros. may be doing a favor to targeted communities.  After 9/11, turbans became equated with terrorism, due to the fact that Osama bin Laden and his cronies wore turbans and their images were broadcast regularly on television.  Some Sikh civil rights activists and I used to remark that we have been unable to offer the American public an alternative to the turban-means-terrorism reflex.  Perhaps the Fojol Bros. can help diminish the turban's terrorist connotation, if not normalize the turban, such that people will see it as something other than a marker or cue for hatred, anger, and violence. 

At bottom, it seems to me that the fuss over the Fojol Bros. amounts to purely subjective instincts or judgments as to what is "offensive," "wrong," or "not cool."  As the Supreme Court has said, “[c]onduct that annoys some people does not annoy others.” Coates v. Cincinnati, 402 U.S. 611, 614 (1971), and relatedly “what is contemptuous to one man may be a work of art to another,” Smith v. Goguen, 415 U.S. 566, 573 (1974).  Such subjective viewpoints hardly constitute a sound reason to compel the Fojol Bros. to change their ways.

A final note: while I conferred with multiple turbaned Sikhs in writing this post, I do not claim to speak for other Sikhs, Indians, or South Asians on the subject.  Of course, individuals within and outside of these groups are free to weigh in on the controversy as they see fit.  And whether the Fojol Bros. schtick is a wise business move is beyond the scope of this post.  This is to only note that, for my purposes, I do not find the schtick offensive or racist.  I honestly commend the critics for expressing themselves in word and in action by refusing to do business with this food truck.  The Fojol Bros. may very well go on without the turbans and mustaches -- but I suspect it will be due to the prospect of lost profits, not the force of any critics' advanced principles.

Posted by Dawinder "Dave" S. Sidhu on May 20, 2012 at 03:56 PM in Culture, Food and Drink, Religion | Permalink


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