As protests over racist policing in America continue to play out in the nation’s streets, a concurrent reckoning with race and inequality is taking shape inside the country’s notoriously white media companies, signaled in part by the sudden departures of high-profile executives. The most notable exit so far is James Bennet, whose tenure as the editorial page editor of the New York Times ended after a furor over an op-ed by Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton that called for deploying the military against peaceful protesters. But in recent days we’ve also seen Christene Barberich step aside as editor in chief of Refinery29, after accounts of the discrimination faced by black women and other women of color went viral under the hashtag #blackatR29, and Stan Wischnowski resign from his post at the Philadelphia Inquirer after dozens of journalists in the newsroom walked out following the publication of a piece with the headline “Buildings Matter, Too.”
Now the media Hunger Games cannon has come for Bon Appétit editor-in-chief Adam Rapoport, whose resignation was announced on Monday hours after a photo of him and his wife dressed up as Puerto Rican caricatures for a 2004 Halloween party resurfaced on Twitter. In a statement posted on Instagram, Rapoport said he was stepping down to “reflect on the work that I need to do as a human being and to allow Bon Appétit to get to a better place.” The incident set off a painful discussion about the Condé Nast culinary title’s history of alleged pay inequity and tokenization among staffers, contributors, and fans alike. (Full disclosure: I have a roommate who works at Bon Appétit.)
For some, the Bon Appétit firestorm came out of nowhere. But for close observers, there were always hints of trouble simmering beneath the idyllic surface of the hugely popular food media brand, which manifests these days in hit YouTube series like “Gourmet Makes” and spinoff web verticals like “Healthyish” more than in the classic glossy magazine. Last year, food critic Soleil Ho wrote about “the Bon Appetit test kitchen’s race problem” for the San Francisco Chronicle, noting the lack of diversity in videos that had earned the magazine more than 6 million YouTube subscribers. And much of the criticism recently leveraged at food writer Alison Roman about who gets paid to be the public face of “exotic” ingredients and techniques from what writer Navneet Alang calls the “global pantry” could also be leveled at the publication where Roman got her start.
That exact tension was clear on Monday when freelance Puerto Rican food columnist Illyanna Maisonet posted screenshots of a conversation she had with Rapoport on Instagram concerning why one of her pitches was rejected. In the conversation, Rapoport admitted that Bon Appétit doesn’t have enough stories about Puerto Rican cuisine and wonders about how Maisonet can find “a way in” to the magazine. Food critic and wine professional Tammie Teclemariam then reposted Rapaport’s heinous costume, tweeting, “I do not know why Adam Rapoport simply doesn’t write about Puerto Rican food for @bonappetit himself!!!” In the caption for the photo, which has now been taken down, Rapaport’s wife calls him “papi” and includes the hashtag #boricua, which NPR defines as “a local name for a Puerto Rican that derives from the indigenous name of the island.” The disgust over the photo then surfaced long-standing complaints about the way the brand handles diversity and equity.
In an Instagram post, assistant editor—and one of the few constant nonwhite personalities in the test kitchen videos—Sohla El-Waylly wrote that she was “angry and disgusted” at the photo of Rapoport and called for his immediate resignation. She then went on to describe some of the magazine’s other practices, writing that “only white editors are paid for their video appearances. None of the people of color have been compensated for their appearances.” In an interview with BuzzFeed, El-Waylly recounted how soon after she was hired at $50,000 a year, the magazine expanded her role without additional compensation. “They were asking me to stand in the background of photo shoots and video shoots, which made me super uncomfortable,” El-Waylly told reporter Stephanie K. Baer. “I was brought on to do this one job, and I’ve kind of taken on the role of a senior editor, contributing to all of the verticals in print and video.” El-Waylly went on to describe a particularly galling experience:
Last August, she was sent on assignment to Philadelphia, for a feature with three Black chefs, but because the publication “doesn’t have a great history of working with Black chefs,” the chefs asked to work with all Black staff, El-Waylly said.
“There was no one on the food team that was Black, so they sent me instead because I’m the darkest one,” she said, adding that neither she nor the chefs were given a heads up about the situation. “I arrived and I wasn’t Black, and it was very strange for everyone involved.”
After El-Waylly’s Instagram post, many of her test kitchen colleagues and fans rallied behind her, and on Monday afternoon “Sohla” trended on Twitter. Many called for Bon Appétit to address its pay discrepancy issues, including senior food editor Molly Baz and food director Carla Lalli Music, who vowed not to appear in any additional videos until El-Waylly and their colleagues of color received equal pay and adequate additional compensation for their video appearances. Other well-known Bon Appétit staff joined them, including senior food editor Andy Baraghani, test kitchen director Chris Morocco, and chef Brad Leone. In response, Matt Duckor, the head of programming for lifestyle and style for Bon Appétit’s parent company Condé Nast, wrote that “the way that we determine who should and shouldn’t be incrementally compensated for video beyond their salaries is flawed and it needs to change.”
Shortly thereafter, old offensive tweets of Duckor’s surfaced and calls for him to resign began to circulate. Just Monday night, Condé Nast had tweeted, “As a global media company, Condé Nast is dedicated to creating a diverse, inclusive and equitable workplace. We have a zero-tolerance policy toward discrimination and harassment in any forms.” [Update, June 11, 2020, at 2:14 p.m.: On Wednesday, Business Insider reported that Duckor has also stepped down.]
The statement, along with one from Condé CEO Roger Lynch suggesting that concerns around pay and equity would have been “dealt with sooner” if they “had been brought up earlier,” was rather predictably met with widespread outrage from former employees, many of them from marginalized communities.
It seems clear at this point that Rapoport’s and Duckor’s resignations and the subsequent naming of Amanda Shapiro as interim editor isn’t the end of this saga. Not least because on Tuesday, photos surfaced from drinks editor Alex Delany’s old Tumblr page that suggest he once baked a cake for a friend bearing the Confederate flag in icing. (His Twitter account has now been deactivated, and his Instagram made private.) [Update, June 10, 2020, at 11:30 a.m.: Delany has issued a statement regarding the photo, writing that he was 17 at the time and that “it goes without saying that this is a despicable symbol. … It does not reflect the values I hold now … I cannot apologize intensely enough.” He also pledged to donate his next paycheck to the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.] And according to a Jezebel report, “a small group of senior staffers and people of color working inside BA are currently working on a draft of demands requiring more transparency and compensation for employees of color at the company.”
Some will, predictably, declare that this recent raft of resignations and reckonings is nothing but cancel culture gone wild. But for the journalists of color who have either suffered in silence or whose concerns have been ignored, this moment is nothing if not long overdue.
I’m happy for them, but at the same time, I can’t help feeling the furor at Bon Appétit and the larger media reckoning is all too little, too late. As the Times’ Jenna Wortham pointed out on Twitter, consequences have only arrived after generations of black journalists and journalists of color burned themselves out trying to foment change or simply chose their sanity and left. What would the Washington Post’s George Floyd coverage look like if Wesley Lowery hadn’t been censured and censored for the very perspective that earned the Post a Pulitzer? What will the Times’ climate change coverage lose now that Kendra Pierre-Louis has left partially because she was disciplined for pointing out the racism that underpins traditional journalistic notions of objectivity? And what of those whose names we don’t know, who have stayed silent out of fear of retribution in a rapidly shrinking industry where pointing out racism earns you more condemnation than actually being racist? What about the aspiring journalists who, after seeing the decimation of local and digital jobs, turn and see what Lowery and Pierre-Louis and El-Waylly have gone through in the most prestigious newsrooms and think that there is no viable way forward?
It’s clear that what has been lost by stifling and gaslighting nonwhite journalists cannot be fixed by a few high-level departures. It’s less clear where exactly we go from here. But if the protests that have rocked the nation in the past two weeks have demonstrated anything, it is that that the responsibility to fix this cannot and does not rest solely on the shoulders of those who are already burdened by a double consciousness. This problem now rests where it always should have been: at the feet of the safe and the secure and the privileged.
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