White privilege, white media, and Alison Roman
A day may come when people like Roman truly do pay the price for their casual racism, a day may come when loose lips truly do sink ships, but today is not that day.
I’d never heard of Alison Roman. I had never read her work, attempted her recipes, or stalked her on Instagram. When I did eventually hear about her about ten days ago – and not under the best of circumstances – it was because she had targeted and dragged down two women of colour – two successful women of colour – in an interview. But let me start at the beginning.
Alison Roman is a cook and writer based in Brooklyn, New York. She wrote a NYT bestseller called Nothing Fancy and is a bi-weekly columnist with NYT Food. She’s a food influencer; her fans – mostly fawning white women – hang onto her every word, follow her on Twitter and Instagram, and try all her recipes. She has around 71K followers on Twitter or did when I last checked, and 564K followers on Instagram. She is verified on both sites, and her Instagram feed looks glorious; pictures of food, artsy pictures of Roman dressed mostly in pastels, and video shots of her cooking. Her signature style appears to be snarky and sassy, and I think that’s something that she cultivates deliberately, and that she wields like a Messermeister Meridian Elite Stealth Chef Knife. So far, so good.
In the aforementioned interview with The New Consumer, Alison Roman talked to Dan Frommer about her business, her brand, and her creative process. It would have been fine if she’d kept it about herself, but she didn’t. Alison Roman decided to target both Chrissy Teigen – the model wife of John Legend who is a food influencer herself, and who has written two extremely successful cookbooks – and puzzlingly, Marie Kondo, a Japanese organising consultant who is a bestselling author, and the host of a successful Netflix show.
Both women are women of colour, Asian women who have become hugely successful on their own terms, and who deserve their success. But not according to Roman.
Of Chrissy Teigen, she said, “Like, what Chrissy Teigen has done is so crazy to me. She had a successful cookbook. And then it was like: Boom, line at Target. Boom, now she has an Instagram page that has over a million followers where it’s just, like, people running a content farm for her. That horrifies me and it’s not something that I ever want to do. I don’t aspire to that. But like, who’s laughing now? Because she’s making a ton of fucking money.”
She also said that Teigen was a sell-out for having her own line of cookware at Target, which is something that she, Roman, would never do. I am amazed at the fact that she picked Teigen as an example of a ‘sell-out’ simply for selling pots and pans at Target. She could have picked Martha Stewart, Ree Drummond, or Rachael Ray. She could have gone after successful male chefs like Bobby Flay or Wolfgang Puck or Rick Bayless. But she didn't. She claimed later that the only reason she didn’t mention anyone else was because she couldn’t think of anyone else doing the same thing. That’s hilarious. Ree Drummond (who has a racist episode in her own past) has three aisles at Target devoted to her pots and pans.
As for Marie Kondo, Roman resorted to name-calling. Referring to Kondo as a bitch, she said, “Like the idea that when Marie Kondo decided to capitalize on her fame and make stuff that you can buy, that is completely antithetical to everything she’s ever taught you… I’m like, damn, bitch, you fucking just sold out immediately! Someone’s like “you should make stuff,” and she’s like, “okay, slap my name on it, I don’t give a shit!”
Curious, I went to take a look at Kondo’s website. The shop section features carefully curated items that resonate with her brand, namely home decor and organising. It’s a small selection of sustainable items that Kondo recommends because she herself uses them. Keeping in line with Kondo’s aesthetic, most of the items she sells are multi-purpose. Nothing about that shop screams selling out to me.
Funnily enough, Roman seems to have sold out herself. “I have a collaboration coming out with [the cookware startup] Material, a capsule collection. It’s limited edition, a few tools that I designed that are based on tools that I use that aren’t in production anywhere — vintage spoons and very specific things that are one-offs that I found at antique markets that they have made for me.” So she does have something coming out – limited edition, no less – based on things she found in antique markets and vintage shops. They’re not even something she designed from scratch; she’s ripping off the work of a long-dead designer. If that’s not at least a little laughable in the context of what we’re talking about, I don’t know what is.
I didn’t think Roman could sink any lower, but she did. She mimicked what sounds like an Asian accent speaking in broken English. In the interview, she said, “For the low, low price of $19.99, please to buy my cutting board!” Later, she claimed that the phrasing was based on an inside joke, a running gag that she had going with her friends based on the name of a cookbook she loved called ‘Please to the table’. This may or may not be true. But here’s the thing about inside jokes: people who aren’t on the inside don’t get it and you come off sounding truly racist. She even had The New Consumer delete the phrase temporarily, who then reinstated it ‘in the interests of transparency’.
this is a huge bummer and hit me hard. I have made her recipes for years now, bought the cookbooks, supported her on social and praised her in interviews. I even signed on to executive produce the very show she talks about doing in this article. https://t.co/9xrvQBInAp— chrissy teigen (@chrissyteigen) May 8, 2020
When this happened, and Teigen responded on her Twitter account, I finally heard about Alison Roman. I looked her up, and I didn’t like what I found. I read about The Stew, a chickpea ‘stew’ that Roman claims to have come up with when what she actually made was a curry. She refused to call it a curry, claiming it was a stew. I read the recipe. I’ve grown up on curry. It’s a curry. Roman angrily responded to people asking her to call it a curry by claiming she had no culture. While this is possibly true, and it’s possible that Roman has lived 34 years on the planet without ever having eaten a curry, and whilst it’s also possible that Roman has never looked at a recipe for a curry, it’s still a curry when it’s made like one. Eventually, in the face of all the backlash, The New York Times amended the headnote. It now reads: “Spiced chickpeas are crisped in olive oil, then simmered in a garlicky coconut milk for an insanely creamy, basically-good-for-you stew that evokes South Indian chana and some stews found in parts of the Caribbean.”
I’ve thought a lot this weekend about my interview and the things I said. I know this is a lengthy note (succinctness has never been my strong suit). I appreciate you taking the time to read. pic.twitter.com/3iGAyN3c9d— alison roman (@alisoneroman) May 11, 2020
I tweeted that Alison Roman had committed career suicide. But now that I’ve had a chance to think about it, this is simply not true. Like other successful racist white people before her (with Paula Deen being a notable exception after multiple incidents of racism, including using the 'n' word), her career trajectory will continue to grow. She issued a carefully worded apology where she asked to be educated about where she’s going wrong, providing her email address, and assuring people that she reads every email. It made me roll my eyes a little. Women of colour – myself included – have been ‘educating’ white people about racism and tokenism and discrimination for years. It’s an immense task, and it’s a lot of labour. Here we are, I thought to myself, being asked to labour once more. I wondered whether to send Roman a note about calling things by their proper names, about honouring the cultures whose ingredients she uses for her own cooking, and about why what she did was so very wrong, but I thought better of it. My efforts are better utilised elsewhere.
And, of course, both on Twitter and Instagram, several white women rushed to accept Roman’s apology, even though it wasn’t them she had offended. I looked for comments and tweets by people of colour, but they were few and far between, and almost all of them rejected Roman’s PR apology systematically. Roman is on overdrive to save her career, to save her cooking show which Teigen, incidentally, signed on to executive produce. But Teigen did accept Roman’s apology. She even started following her again on Twitter after unfollowing her when the incident first began to unfold.
I run a group for food writers on Facebook; at 3600+ people, we are legion. We discussed the Alison Roman incident at length, and some of us even considered writing a response piece to The New Consumer. But pitching a piece like that, especially for us women of colour, to media that is dominated by white people, to an industry that birthed and nourishes people like Roman, is a huge ask. A day may come when people like Roman truly do pay the price for their casual racism, a day may come when loose lips truly do sink ships, but today is not that day. White privilege continues to protect its own, white media continues to foster everything that it created, and there is no room anywhere for criticism, even when it’s fair and warranted. Alison Roman’s white privilege has enveloped her like a cloak, and it has saved her from a fall from grace.