One truck isn't the only problem with how white Austin views "Asian" food
It doesn't seem particularly elegant to build one's brand on the concept of whiteness, but according to White Girl Asian Food's owner Bobbi Jo Rice, it was a matter of truth in advertising. Her previous truck, Com Bún Yêu, was failing because "the food was far from authentic and [the] business was not meeting people's expectations for traditional Vietnamese fare," according to a Facebook post.
Why anyone would think a trailer using a menu with a vaguely calligraphic font and decorated with both a silver Buddha and tiny Hello Kitty was purely Vietnamese is beyond me. But Vice.com certainly wasn't interviewing Rice about the cultural appropriation of that truck.
I won't make apologies for the name White Girl Asian Food. It's certainly culturally insensitive, but in a way it corrects the course. And I find it far more problematic that so many Austinites fetishize a diverse group of people under the rubric of authenticity.
Many Chronicle readers have no doubt had a place recommended to them based on the perceived ethnicity of the patrons. "I was the only white person there," they say, smugly humblebragging about their sophistication. Never mind the othering inherent in those statements, the amount of melanin in a customer's skin tells you absolutely nothing about the quality of the food. It may come as a surprise to people who see diversity as a buffet, but people of color choose restaurants for the same reasons Caucasians do – sometimes for taste, sure, but also sometimes for price or convenience.
Encouraging a more diverse array of culinary traditions is a good thing, but too often the notion of culinary authenticity asserts the cultural supremacy of whiteness. It freezes the food of various peoples in amber. Bánh mì gets a pass, even though it is relatively new as a product of colonialism. As long as the name has a few accents and is suitably cheap, it's authentic. Austinites almost never use that word when they consider a restaurant "fine dining." Olamaie's cooking may not be recognizable to Edna Lewis, but no one argues on whether or not it's authentic.
Rice may have made it obvious, but make no mistake: Austin is still judging "Asian" food under the lens of being white. Too bad that often it blinds us.
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