Racist Food Stereotypes and the "Obama Fried Chicken" Incident

The state of the universe.
Nov. 1 2011 1:38 PM

Culinary Racism

Trying to explain the "Obama Fried Chicken" incident and others like it.

Obama Fried Chicken in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Obama Fried Chicken in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Photo by Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

President Obama has found himself embroiled in one fried-chicken row after another. First there was the “Obama Fried Chicken” incident of 2009, in which a Bangladeshi immigrant who claimed to be naïve to the racist stereotype of African-Americans’ consumption of fried chicken decided to rebrand his poultry restaurant in homage to our nation’s commander in chief. He couldn’t have asked for a more effective advertising campaign, once the media caught wind of this fowl scandal. Even the Rev. Al Sharpton got involved in the street protests outside the Brooklyn eatery, pressuring for a return to the restaurant's original name, Royal Fried Chicken. The owner refused to budge, and Obama Fried Chicken is still serving (apparently mediocre) hot wings and biscuits in Remsen Village today.

Then, this year, Kentucky Fried Chicken, that fulsome, ubiquitous goliath of fast-food chains, took considerable heat when its Chinese subsidiary aired a television commercial in Hong Kong featuring an Obama look-alike. The ad showed the Obama doppelgänger campaigning that “change is good” for the KFC menu. (He then gets inexplicably flattened on the podium by a gigantic fish sandwich.) In the face of racism allegations, the company yanked the ad and said that it wasn’t meant to offend anyone.

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And just last month, a 21-year-old Chinese student opened his own carryout on the outskirts of Beijing, christened it “OFC” (short for “Obama Fried Chicken”), and above the door proudly erected a sign identical to the red-and-white KFC logo, except with Colonel Sanders’ iconic face replaced by that of a grinning Obama. “It’s insulting, offensive, and plays to racist stereotypes,” Al Sharpton told the New York Post. Much like his Brooklyn Bangladeshi compatriot, the young Beijing owner alleged that he was just a harmless Obama fan unfamiliar with the fried-chicken racist stereotype. Yet fearing a legal injunction by KFC—which failed to see any Obama chicken-related humor this time around—he eventually caved, removing the image and renaming the restaurant to “UFO.” (I’m not sure where the “chicken” part fits into this abbreviation, but presumably it’s a more innocent nod to yet another quirky Americanism.)

In any event, all this suggests that informed citizens of our own country may be the only ones who understand that mentioning “fried chicken” in the same sentence as “black people” is a major no-no. Yet I’m guessing that the issue of why, exactly, the juxtaposition is so verboten isn’t entirely clear, even to most of us. The most obvious explanation derives from the historical fact that fried chicken dishes were popular in slave homes on Southern plantations. In many cases, chickens were the only livestock animals that slaves were permitted to raise on their own, and—given that Scots founded much of the American South—there’s speculation that African-Americans tweaked and perfected their masters’ imported tradition of frying birds. (That centuries-old habit was one way the Scots distinguished themselves from their staid English neighbors.) So given fried chicken's powerful symbolic association with oppression, it’s entirely reasonable for African-Americans to be suspicious of any efforts to pair a black president and a classic slave dish for commercial purposes.

There’s more to the story, however. The consumption of “fast foods” tends to elicit a host of negative reactions from those around us, since our eating habits broadcast our social identity. That’s according to the “impression-management theory” of food consumption, as summarized by Cornell University’s Lenny Vartanian and his colleagues in a 2007 issue of the journal Appetite. Although social psychologists haven’t explored people’s perceptions of those who scarf down heavily battered drumsticks, per se, data in this area imply that people who shrug off dietary concerns by eating fried chicken are tarred with the unattractive attributes of the product itself. A bucket of fried chicken may suggest nasty racial stereotypes by virtue of its unwholesome image (one that is entirely unbecoming of our country's leader) as much as by its particular history as a plantation staple. “Food choice is a means by which one expresses one’s philosophy of life,” argue Vartarian and his co-authors. “What one eats has important consequences for social judgements.”

Experiments suggest that we react very differently to other people on the basis of the type and amount of food that they consume. In one study, a few hundred undergrads were told of a fictional character named "Pat." In some cases, she was described as eating "oatmeal with fresh fruit and nuts on top for breakfast;" in others, the researchers said she eats "pie for breakfast." Then the students were asked to describe Pat's character. The pie-eating version of Pat was deemed more likely to be aggressive, lazy, selfish, and immoral than the oatmeal-eating version. In another experiment, participants who were shown images or video clips of someone eating fast food tended to judge that person as being less physically attractive, less intelligent, less moral, and less conscientious than participants who saw the very same individual eating healthier food. There are some perks to eating poorly, though. Studies also show that those who consume high-fat diets are perceived by onlookers as being significantly more fun-loving, happy, and sociable than their more high-strung, healthy-eating peers. That may be why Bill Clinton’s notorious McDonald’s diet helped him to get elected in two presidential campaigns, even as it threatened his health.

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