Is it racist for grocers to have an “ethnic food” aisle?

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“If you go to the ethnic food aisle, that is sort of the last bastion of racism that you can see in full daylight in retail America,” the chef David Chang said on his Ringer podcast back in July. “It is something that’s got to go.”

Tim Carman of the Washington Post decided to look into this assertion further, and his findings are interesting.

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To Chang, the child of immigrants, the segregation of Asian and Latino food in one separate area of the supermarket that’s labeled as “ethnic” is just another reminder that he’s “other” and “different” and not a “real” American—even though Americans of all ethnicities love tacos and ramen as much as they love pasta.

“All the foods in the ethnic food aisle are already accepted. So why do we even have them?” Chang asks. The aisles, he adds, are an echo of “1950s America, which was not a particularly good place to be, especially if you were Asian.”

Joseph Perez, senior vice president of Goya Foods, confirms Chang’s suspicions: when Goya first began expanding beyond bodegas, he told Carman, supermarkets in mostly white neighborhoods would stock its products, intended for Latino customers, in the back. “They didn’t want the clientele in their stores,” he said.

Carman attempted to get in touch with some of the larger grocery chains for the retail perspective, but spokespeople either declined to comment or refused to return phone calls. But consultants and spokespeople from smaller chains said they discovered that it’s more profitable for both the groceries and the manufacturers to stock Mexican or Asian food in their own sections: customers (especially customers who may not be used to cooking that kind of food) can grab what they need without looking all over the store.

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Perez confirms that, too: the international aisle has been “extremely profitable” for Goya and similar companies.

It’s an interesting conundrum: supermarkets are still essentially operating under a system that was developed in the 1950s, although both America and its supermarkets are far more diverse than they were back then, and “ethnic” foods have expanded beyond a few shelves to entire aisles.

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Would children of immigrants feel less excluded if mainstream groceries followed the model of international supermarkets by grouping ingredients by their country of origin instead of just “ethnic” altogether? Would shoppers be amenable to an aisle devoted, for instance, to “noodles” that includes both spaghetti and rice noodles? Or would they rather have the convenience of having spaghetti next to tomato sauce and rice noodles next to fish sauce? It would require a definite shift in thinking about how to navigate a supermarket, one that the supermarkets themselves might not appreciate if it means selling less food. Either way, Carman’s piece is worth a look.

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About the author

Aimee Levitt

Aimee Levitt is associate editor of The Takeout.