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Illustration: Frankie Huang
Last month, a small business owner named Karen Taylor made national headlines for all the wrong reasons. After a viral tweet unmasking the racist and orientalist language used to market Taylor’s company, which specializes in pre-packaged congee kits for $ 15 and is called Breakfast Cure, critics were quick to tear the self-proclaimed „Congee Queen” to pieces. Taylor, who is white, eventually apologized, and an essay on her company’s website, originally titled „How I Discovered and Improved the Miracle of Congee,” was quickly edited (although the original title is still slightly in the Metadata of the page can be found).
For a week, my Twitter timeline was filled with Asians and our allies, expressing their sincere anger, sharing touching personal testimonials about what Congee meant to them, and ridiculing Karen’s “white lady” ingredients like how Blueberries, ples and cinnamon. Several POC creators have uploaded to TikTok Videos by themselves attempt – and choke on – breakfast cure congee.
When the mainstream media picked up the story, the narrative was quickly reduced to a familiar tug-of-war between „offended POCs” and „forgotten whites” over cultural property, a gatekeeping story at the center. On the one hand, viral angry tweets, paired with cultural experts who explained the harmful power dynamic of white colonialist practices. On the other hand, the white offender’s remorse preserved and a wish that critics would be less hostile.
A few days after the story first emerged, I was interviewed by USA today. For almost an hour, I answered questions about the history and cultural significance of Congee and why Breakfast Cure caused such a strong response from Asians. Drawing on my experience as a former Consumer Insight researcher based in China, I spoke in depth about how Taylor’s Chinese medicine-centric brand positioning is very widespread in China and the popularity and versatility of Congee available to Chinese consumers. I emphasized that there is nothing special holy about the dish that anyone can make, but that it is not okay for a white woman to anoint herself to be Queen of Congee.
I didn’t expect all of my quotes to make it into that itemsbut as it ran I found that the piece made no mention of the many modern congee iterations across China and instead focused on the dish’s status as a centuries-old stle, an angle that was followed by outlets like that Washington post Office and insider. As far as I know, no retail outlet has informed their readers that blueberries, ples, cinnamon, while untraditional, are all ingredients found in Chinese congee recipes and even on the menus of congee restaurants, or that Taylor’s sin is not in them insisted sticking blueberries in it – she’s not even the first to do so – instead claimed that her version, which she said had been modernized for the Western palate, was somehow superior to the traditional Chinese congee.
In fact, the media coverage is based on the same reductive orientalist cliché sold by the Congee Queen: this Congee, like Chinese culture itself, is strictly traditional, exotic and alien to America; that it is steeped in history; and that any change or adjustment should be viewed as blasphemy. By spreading the narrative that slow-cooked rice and water are considered sacred by Asians while leaving out the more colorful and trendy aspects of Congee’s culinary identity, media coverage is doing readers a disservice by failing to shed light on the Inaccuracy of Karen Taylor’s portrayal of throwing the Chinese congee really does, but also fails to explain the more insidious nature of cultural appropriation.
Viewed another way, the flattened story enabled Taylor’s defenders to portray their critics as an „Asian mob” kicking out a white entrepreneur in a case of excessive cultural gatekeeping.
„Boil your rice and you have culturally appropriate congee” wrote a Twitter user derogatory.
„By the way, everyone has the right to prepare anything they want” wrote anotherto produce a familiar refrain that cannot be understood the existing power dynamic who dictate who is allowed to produce and sell what food and at what price.
It’s not that Asians are offended by whites who cook and sell slow-cooked rice, as many articles suggest. While the idea of culture theft is at the heart of these stories, the real problem is disrespect: the way this appropriation combines westernization and whites with sophistication and value, while non-whites are seen as less sophisticated. It perpetuates the caustic idea of ”exotic” foods that must be tamed for American consumption. And in the case of Taylor’s story, the coverage ignored the playfulness and ingenuity that are an integral part of Chinese food culture, which Congee is very much a part of.
Unless an effort is made to explain the deeper root problem or create understanding by painting a broader picture, nothing prevents people from taking sides while no one is learning. Instead of making any progress, we end up in a recurring cycle of cultural appropriation that turns rounds of indignation and insincere setbacks into clickbait. Our anger ends up being monetized, just like the tired old racist tropes that white entrepreneurs continue to instill while those who aren’t the wiser wonder why we are so „sensitive” all the time.