I need a break from all the trademark cases, and the latest Jeremy Lin controversy caught my eye. Why not indulge ourselves in a fun, contentious, yet ultimately meaningless debate, kicked off by a post title that includes an invented word?
A local [Cambridge, Massachusetts] branch of Ben & Jerry’s has apologized for briefly offering a frozen yogurt flavor inspired by professional basketball’s sudden sensation Jeremy Lin that included fortune cookie pieces, in an acknowledgment that the dish could be seen as playing on Asian stereotypes.
Ben & Jerry’s whipped out the old apology mighty quick after receiving some complaints. It does sound as though they may have first tried a surreptitious change to the offending ingredient. See if you buy this explanation:
[The yogurt] originally contained lychee honey swirls and crumbled fortune cookies — until the company substituted a waffle cookie for crumbling or dipping.
“There seemed to be a bit of an initial backlash about it,” Ryan Midden, Ben & Jerry’s general manager for Boston and Cambridge, told Boston.com, “but we obviously weren’t looking to offend anybody and the majority of the feedback about it has been positive.”
According to Midden, the main reason for changing the cookie was that “a couple of [containers] got returned because the cookies got so soggy.”
Yeah, maybe. Seems to me that the replacement, pieces of waffle cone, are kind of the same thing. But that’s a minor point.
My first reaction to the controversy was to think about my own ethnicity and wonder what the analog stereotype food would be if Ben & Jerry’s rolled out a flavor in tribute to a famous Jewish athlete. This assumes, of course, that they could even find a Jewish athlete who was enjoying Jeremy Lin-style success — is Sandy Koufax still alive?
As to the food . . . God knows. In all honesty, a Jewish ice cream flavor would probably taste like crap. But if they did throw in some bagel pieces or something, would that bother me? I wouldn’t eat it, but it wouldn’t offend my sensibilities either. Then again, bagels are not really part of any negative stereotype about Jews.
I suspect this fortune cookie fiasco will die down fairly quickly. After all, fortune cookies are synonymous with Chinese restaurants in the U.S., not Chinese-Americans. Or is that part of the stereotype too? That’s rather confusing.
While I’m not going to scream “racist” here, I am left with one question: why is it that other celebrity-inspired flavors like Cherry Garcia, Stephen Colbert’s Americone Dream, Phish Food, and Late Night Snack don’t use ethnic stereotypes, but Jeremy Lin’s flavor did? Lack of imagination? They couldn’t find some sort of basketball or sports-related ingredients?
In any event, there’s a bigger issue here. After I read this story, I mentioned it to my wife, who said something to the effect of “WTF? That’s not racist.” But that’s the thing. It isn’t racist to your average Chinese person because fortune cookies aren’t Chinese. My wife had no idea what fortune cookies were until she saw a reference to them in a movie several years ago.
If there’s no cultural/historical underpinning here, then the stereotype makes no sense.
But of course, this is not a story about China, but rather about the U.S. and its history, and why Americans are so sensitive about stereotypes. During our conversation on this, I tried to explain to her that if Ben & Jerry’s had come out with an ice cream flavor inspired by an African-American B-ball player and had used ingredients associated with past stereotypes (watermelon is the obvious choice here), the uproar would be tremendous, and rightly so. That’s not just a stereotype, but a negative one.
After explaining this, I was again met with a blank stare. She didn’t get it, did not know the history and therefore was extremely confused at how reference to this particular fruit would cause so much trouble. And then she said something that I found really interesting (and I paraphrase): Americans have too much history.
Huh. This was coming from someone whose country’s history can be traced back thousands of years. I’m from LA, a city whose residents (most of them, anyway) usually trace back municipal history only a few decades, so I understandably found her comment bizarre. But when I queried further, she said that her conception of China, in some ways, only dates back to 1949.
Convenient, that! And maybe useful, too, assuming that offending portions of the past can really be ignored or glossed over. But then again, if anyone could control that sort of messaging, it would be modern China.
Think of the historical turmoil that the U.S. is still dealing with. It’s been over 150 years since the Civil War and about 50 years since the end of Jim Crow (not to mention 130 years since the Chinese Exclusion Act), and we’re still mired in our history, seemingly unable to get that whole “equality” thing right after so many bumbles and stumbles along the way. And in our attempts to get it right, in recent years we’ve become afraid to even have an open dialog about the issue, which is sad. Instead, we usually just call each other names.
Given the relative youth of the U.S., it’s seems incredible to even consider that America has too much history, but I think there is a point to be made there.
This story tells us a lot more about the history of the U.S. and its inability to move beyond race than anything else. The question is when that will pass, and what will it look like when it’s over. Would we be living in a post-racial environment if Ben & Jerry’s never considered fortune cookies to begin with, or if they did and no one cared? (In my book, the former, but some folks disagree.) Racism and stereotyping is learned, it’s part of history. Sometimes I think it would be nice to do a hard reset and sweep all that away.