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On Authenticity


All “authenticity” actually means is white people feeling like they having a proper experience looking at other people. That this desire for authenticity–whether in food, music, clothing, language, or whatever–gets normalized and then used as an oppressive force against people who do not conform to those norms created from the outside is another agent of neocolonialism. This is a good discussion of the issue:

Maybe that’s why I hate the word “authentic.” I hate how it intrudes on my memories, looking for things it can use. As a kid I ate at a taco chain, Taco Bueno, every other day with my abuelos, who had little money and carried their dollar bills in a plastic sandwich bag. We’d pillage the salsa bar. We’d eat at a table in front of a heinous mural of a corpulent iguana wearing sunglasses and a sombrero. We would scarf down cheesy quesadillas and bean burritos in a corporate caricature of an old hacienda, then return home with our bounty of dips and sauces in little white cups covered with napkins. “Authenticity” has no interest in these things. It tosses them aside.

Like many queer writers and nonwhite writers, I have become an expert in trolling the seabed of my memories for trauma I can turn into content. For those of us who didn’t go to a fancy college and who weren’t born into family connections, it’s just what’s most readily available. Anyone can be an expert in themselves. Even me. I’ve learned to identify which of my painful memories — and there are so many — would do well as a written piece. I’ve grown skilled at accounting for the foreign gaze of those who I can only call tourists: white people, straight people, whoever. And tourists want authenticity.

A recent study of Yelp reviews for New York City restaurants that serve nonwhite cuisines illustrates this clearly: reviewers tend to give Mexican and Chinese restaurants, in particular, lower ratings if they don’t perceive them as authentic. What makes something “authentic”? Much like with writing, most of the hallmarks seem to be about pain: dirty floors, plastic chairs, anything that aesthetically connotes struggle. The cooks and waiters ought to have accents. There should probably be a framed photo of someone’s dead grandpa.

Paradoxically, many of these traits are also ones that America actively punishes, which is why immigrants are often desperate to sieve them out of their families. But the pain is the point. Pain is what makes things real, from the sweat on the kitchen staff’s brow down to the spiciness of the cuisine that scorches the tongue. If the joint has no air conditioning, if it’s off the beaten path, if the voyeur into struggle has to “work” to find it, then the experience is supposedly richer for it. It makes the voyeur better, more worldly for having brushed up against it.

On the flip side, “authenticity” is restrictive. It limits the imagination of nonwhite people. According to a beautiful, sad story in Eater, the demand for “authentic” Mexican food is threatening to wipe out a unique kind of taco in Kansas City. The taco, found at restaurants throughout the area, is blanketed in Parmesan cheese and then fried. David Lopez, who runs one of the establishments that features it, said his grandmother had embraced Parmesan because it was “cheap and around,” thanks in part to the proximity of Italian communities.

“My grandmother made tacos with peas and with potatoes,” Lopez said, and added it was because she couldn’t always afford ground beef. For some Mexican Americans, this gets at the essence of the way we eat. Pretending otherwise means suppressing our lived realities and histories. I can’t think of a better example of the fraud of authenticity, which is more interested in the aesthetics of poverty than in poverty itself, more invested in the feeling of realness than in any kind of truth.

In other words, quit engaging in a colonialist project by demanding that whatever you are eating meets up with certain set of values you have placed upon the people making it. Food and everything else should be evaluated on its quality, not on other arbitrary standards that provide you fulfillment in your life by using it as a medicine against your own boring existence.

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