Bon Appetit failed Sohla El-Waylly, and its implosion exposed the insidious inequality in the industry.
Late last month, Bon Appetit editor in chief Adam Rapoport wrote a column about George Floyd’s killing, his magazine’s editorial mission, and the intersection of justice, inequality, and its discontents.
“In recent years, we at BA have been reckoning with our blind spots when it comes to race,” he wrote. “We still have work to do.”
Now, less than two weeks later, Bon Appetit is still working to address its blind spots — just not with Rapoport.
After 10 years on the job, Rapoport resigned as Bon Appetit’s top editor on June 8, after a 2013 photo of Rapoport in brownface surfaced. Simone Shubuck, Rapoport’s wife, originally posted the photo with the caption “me and my papi” and used the hashtag “boricua”, a term for a person from Puerto Rico. But as offensive and embarrassing as that mistake of a photo is, it’s not the entire reason Rapoport resigned.
The photo, and Rapoport’s behaviors, were symptoms of bigger, unaddressed toxic work culture at the food magazine, according to staffers — one that many say extends to the food world at large, which has slowly become more diverse in recent years but is bedeviled by white gatekeepers.
Assistant food editor Sohla El-Waylly posted in her Instagram stories that she has been used in Bon Appetit’s popular videos “as a display of diversity,” but, unlike its star cast of white employees, El-Waylly said her on-camera appearances were unpaid. Several other staffers corroborated, some saying they would refuse to appear in any future videos until El-Waylly and other staffers of color were fairly compensated.
Ryan Walker-Hartshorn, Rapoport’s assistant, told Business Insider she was paid a base salary of $35,300 with no increases over the course of two and a half years. Walker-Hartshorn, who is black, said she was not given a raise despite going beyond her editorial duties and taking care of Rapoport’s personal chores like cleaning golf clubs, and teaching his wife how to set up a Google Calendar.
In going public with these stories, staffers across the branches of Conde Nast, Bon Appetit’s parent media company, talked about salary discrepancies, instances of racism and sexism, and a lack of accountability that were exhibited at Bon Appetit but existed in Conde Nast as a whole.
On Wednesday night, Business Insider reported that Conde Nast vice president Matt Duckor, head of video for Bon Appétit, had left the company. Duckor came under fire after homophobic and racist tweets surfaced in recent days.
Rapoport’s downfall wasn’t as simple as an embarrassing photo coming to light. It’s the stuff below the surface that we didn’t see: The system he instituted, a toxic culture he promoted, and the way his kind of gatekeeping exists not just in the world of food but other media companies and other industries. The rare thing about his resignation is now we get to talk about it.
Rapoport’s resignation is part of a bigger conversation about race, ethnicity, and food
A dramatic part of Rapoport’s resignation was watching the wall tumble between what he was presenting to the outside world — socially conscious, thoughtful, empathetic — and his real-life actions, which included microaggressions, underpaying staff, taking advantage of his assistant. The ousting of a man who wrote about the killing of George Floyd and standing solidarity with immigrants and minorities while he was, at the same time, treating his black and brown staffers inequitably, feels a lot like justice.
Rapoport losing his job comes as food media has acknowledged its need to diversify the voices it amplifies. In the past few years, the food industry has just begun to reckon with deep-rooted issues of race, ethnicity, and culture. In Bon Appetit’s case, and in food media as a whole, food is often seen through the lens of predominantly white writers and video stars and presented to readers who are presumed to be white.
There’s also a trend of white chefs and cooks getting very successful making food traditionally cooked by brown and black people, or food being otherwise marginalized — as “ethnic” or “cheap” — under the guise of celebration. And critics, whose job it is to celebrate these restaurants and exalt this food, tend to be white.
“In the culinary industry we are so often judged for our African, Caribbean, African American, and Latin food by people who have little to no emotional or cultural connection to it,” Chef Kwame Onwuachi wrote in Food and Wine in 2019. “I can count the number of Black food writers who have interviewed me for major publications on two fingers.”
In the same vein, food deemed in American culture as gross or weird because it wasn’t made by white people has become trendy only once white food media championed it. A personal example: I had people telling me about how “exciting” and “trendy” Filipino food has become, but I remember my grade school classmates shaming me out of bringing adobo leftovers for lunch.
The curious, racist wrinkle in all of this is that people reading these stories and trying out these recipes seem to like them better when white writers deem them acceptable.
“I have been told so many times that my Indian food isn’t click-y, that it won’t get page views,” Priya Krishna, a contributor and Bon Appetit host, told Eater in a recent interview. “And then I see white cooks and chefs making dishes that are rooted in Indian techniques and flavors, calling it something different, and getting a lot of attention.”
While white writers and chefs can be celebrated for writing about and cooking adobo or phở and using ingredients like garam masala, turmeric, coconut milk, harissa, and everything in between; writers and chefs of color aren’t afforded the same kind of privilege, people of color in the food world say.
“[White chefs] can be inspired by [a country], having gone there once or twice, maybe three times, learn its repertoire, and bring it back and be inspired,” Krishnendu Ray, a professor of food studies at NYU told GQ when interviewed about racial inequality in food media and the food industry. “Chefs of color do not have bodies that look like people with confidence and power who can go and, within a few weeks, nail down all that culture and then bring it back to here.”
Nik Sharma, a writer, photographer, and cookbook author echoed that sentiment on Twitter:
The emotional toll this takes on BIPOC and queer folk is exhausting. After my first book came out, behind the scenes I dealt with a lot of commentary about my being too vocal about my identity in my cookbook, a few even said this is why I didn’t deserve anything. https://t.co/ijIXCEjoHV
— Nik Sharma (@abrowntable) June 8, 2020
The perceived cultural barrier that can hinder people of color is often a selling point when utilized by white chefs, editors, video stars, critics, and writers. And the people that thrive in this mode are the predominantly white core stars of Bon Appetit, food columnists like Alison Roman, and chefs like Rick Bayless (who made an empire cooking Mexican food), Ed Schoenfeld (who owns dim sum restaurants), and Andy Ricker, a restaurateur who’s considered an expert in Thai cuisine.
This doesn’t mean those people aren’t talented, but rather, that people of color who are of equal talent don’t get the same shot.
Prior to the Bon Appetit fallout, Roman, a New York Times columnist and former Bon Appetit editor came under fire for making fun of Chrissy Teigen and Marie Kondo, two women of Asian descent, for selling out. Critics pointed out that not only had she made fun of Teigen and Kondo, she also failed to realize how much she and her recipes benefitted from white privilege.
“I’m a white woman who has and will continue to benefit from white privilege and I recognize that makes what I said even more inexcusable and hurtful.” Roman wrote in her apology, acknowledging that valid criticism. “I also want to acknowledge that this is part of a broader related discourse about cultural appropriation in the food world, and who gets to be successful in this space.”
Going off of what staffers have said, the problem with Bon Appetit is that Rapoport never acknowledged the “who gets to be successful in this space” argument. As the editor in chief of arguably the most popular food tome in the US, he had the power to elevate the people he so passionately wrote about in his May 31 letter about George Floyd. Instead, he created an environment not just like all the places in the food world where it’s difficult to be a person of color, but maybe even worse.
Bon Appetit’s gatekeepers fostered inequality — especially around payment
Rapoport’s “papi” photo unlocked a torrent of stories from the magazine that paint a toxic portrait. The most striking account came from El-Waylly who said that she wasn’t paid as much as her white colleagues — the stars of the Bon Appetit Test Kitchen.
The Test Kitchen, an offshoot of the 54-year-old magazine, has over 6 million subscribers on YouTube and a fervent following. The assumption was that because its YouTube brand is so popular and its stars frequently have paid partnerships, that all of the Test Kitchen staffers were doing pretty well for themselves. El-Waylly’s account shatters that expectation, as she explained on her Instagram posts that her presence is more or less a prop for diversity. El-Waylly said she was not paid for her on-camera appearances while her white coworkers were.
the fact that sohla was hired at bon appetit for $50K/year and doesn’t get paid for video appearances like her white colleagues is digusting. anyways here’s a montage of her cooking circles around everyone at ba pic.twitter.com/uzZsRMGIwf
— sarah (@s_whip_) June 11, 2020
After El-Waylly came forward, other staffers began recounting their experiences at the magazine and a pattern of journalists of color being under-compensated and under-appreciated emerged. Bon Appetit research director Joseph Hernandez tweeted about the Rapoport’s brownface photo, and how it undercut the push for diverse voices at the brand:
It also feels like an erasure of the hard work done by those on staff who are doing the behind-the-scenes, silent labor of educating and advocating for progressive change.
— Joseph Hernandez (@joeybear85) June 8, 2020
And Jesse Sparks, an editor at Bon Appetit, tweeted about how people of color behind the scenes at the magazine and Test Kitchen struggled to achieve the same kind of recognition their coworkers got:
I am NOT saying that I am perfect or that I don’t have my own work to do. I do! There have been times where I was not as vocal as I needed to be. I’ve been ghost-edited to the point where a writer I was working with didn’t even want their name on a piece. I had to find my voice.
— Jesse Sparks (@JesseASparks) June 8, 2020
Rapoport cited Sparks in February in a newsletter about how Bon Appetit was going to become more inclusive. His assistant, Walker-Hartshorn, said in her Business Insider interview that she was the only black woman on his staff.
The most extensive account of Bon Appetit’s inner workings is from Business Insider, which spoke to 14 current and former contributors who are all people of color. In it, are stories about the two-tiered system of pay that El-Waylly described, stories about Rapoport seemingly underpaying his assistant, and the overall bummer of a work environment that the place seems to be for people of color. Business Insider writes:
These employees told Business Insider that the problem runs to the core of the institution, contending that Bon Appétit does not provide nonwhite employees the same opportunities on the brand’s video side that white employees enjoy, that it excludes nonwhite employees from social and professional groups, and that it regularly misrepresents or does not represent stories from nonwhite backgrounds.
Staffers at other Conde Nast publications and its business branches have also come forward with accounts about how they were mistreated, underpaid, and not given the same opportunities as their white coworkers, and across media — from Refinery29 to the Vogue — writers, editors, and other content creator are telling similar stories.
“The public doesn’t truly understand how ruthless it actually is for BIPOC and JOCs in these newsrooms,” BA Snyder, the communications director for the National Association of Hispanic Journalists told me. “This is not a new conversation; this is years of pent up of anguish, hurt, and isolation, striving to co-exist in an environment set up to deter and diminish journalists of color.”
When the decision makers in the food and food media world — editors in chief, restaurateurs, awards committees — all look the same, it doesn’t matter how diverse the food is. That lens of whiteness, and the blindspots it obscures, is reinforced, and substantive change is put on hold. Questions about how food is discussed and presented, about who gets to represent a cuisine and how those people are compensated, are too often kicked down the road or ignored outright.
In an apology that bears strikingly close resemblance to blaming the victim, Conde Nast CEO said on June 9 that the company would had fixed its problems had it known sooner:
And Bon Appetit, on its Instagram account, posted a promise to be better about inclusivity and to treat its staff fairly:
As nice as these promises are, the ugly question remains of whether this reckoning would have ever happened had Rapoport’s wife never posted a picture of them pretending to be Puerto Rican. He was at the magazine for ten years, and fostered what appeared to be, save for the last week, a place whose success everyone in the media business and the food world wanted to emulate.
His firing won’t fix the institutional inequality that’s happening at other places but maybe, hopefully, it’s a start of a broader conversation. One that’s about who’s doing work, who’s being recognized, and who gets credit for the things so many millions of people enjoy. And maybe there’s a slim chance, in a roundabout way, that he’ll be responsible for a little bit of the inclusivity, equality, and diversity he wrote about but failed to act on.
Author: Alex Abad-Santos