I was a millennial diversity hire

How people of color in food media are still disposable, even in 2023.
The author, Izzy Johnson, leans their head on their hand, looking at the camera with a neutral expression. They have an afro and are wearing a strawberry necklace, a short-sleeve rainbow patchwork square button-up and a pale green shirt.
Photo by Ketterick Waddell.

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This piece is a part of our series “The Food Media Reckoning” — a collection of reporting, essays, and criticism about the holes that still exist in food media — and what its future could look like when we look to its past. Read more here.

I grew up on the early iterations of food media, with print issues of Cook’s Illustrated and shows like “No Reservations.” My very first job was at a bakery, where I learned the right way to cut an onion, the different types of buttercream, why mise en place is crucial, and the most effective way to drink vodka: out of a ramekin. 

There, I also learned that I had neither the physical nor mental fortitude to become a chef.

In college, I worked as a server in a tiny pizzeria. I cleaned up piss and vomit, was harassed by men both drunk and sober, and my boss often massaged my back, asking me why I was so tense. As one of a few servers of color, I became acutely aware that I was serving people by tailoring my mannerisms and appearance to be the most palatable, white-passing version of myself. 

This worked so well that one of my coworkers told me that she didn’t really think I was Black. That made me feel sick. By the end of my nearly five years there, I felt like a part of me had shriveled.           

Still, cooking has been my passion for years, my most consistent creative outlet. In the earliest days of the pandemic, during lockdown, I threw myself into cooking projects, making batches of pesto and granola just to have something to do. 

But at the same time, I was working ten-hour shifts as a nanny. Children, as they say, change everything. From the screaming tantrums over dinner to the staggering amount of food waste I witnessed daily, my relationship to food shifted, maybe even soured.

Food had been reduced to fuel. I snacked on fancy kid food and ate the same expensive takeout as the families I worked for. 

Then, last fall, I was hired as a content writer for a food media company. After working in childcare for the better part of two years, I was itching to do something different. 

It wasn’t until I became enchanted by the Bon Appétit YouTube channel that I was able to imagine a place for myself in food media. While they were still in the minority, the test kitchen featured several women of color cooking and telling their stories on camera. 

That all felt a little too good to be true, and of course it was.

In the wake of the pay discrepancies and overall toxic culture coming to light, more contributors of color began popping up all over the site. To me, it rang decidedly hollow — tokenizing diverse voices and capitalizing off of a moment when the demand to do better could no longer be ignored. And yet I myself became a “diversity hire” not long after.

At the time, I wasn’t thinking of it that way. The new content writer job offered me the promise of ingredient deep dives and chef interviews. Plus, it was remote, so I would have the time and energy to cook again. I pictured myself typing on a new computer in my tiny kitchen, while fresh bread baked in the oven, filling my dark apartment with warmth and light. After the holidays, I quit my childcare jobs and threw myself into my new life — one that showed me food media’s “commitment to diversity” might not be as deep as they would like to hope.

Diversity deprioritized and deferred

Things started less than auspiciously. In the first week of the new year, I got so sick that I missed my start day. I lost my sense of taste and smell and sat propped up in my bed eating saltines and sipping Gatorade. When I had a meeting to attend, I dragged myself into my open closet so that my Zoom background wouldn’t be pillows and a headboard. On the first day I worked, I had a meltdown over an issue with Photoshop. Even once it had been resolved, I felt shaken, sure that this was proof I was in over my head. 

I didn’t belong here, and soon, I was going to be found out. This is not an unfamiliar experience for women of color. Long before I learned what imposter syndrome was, I had felt it in college classrooms and in almost every job I’d held before this one.  

I had been able to push these fears aside during the application process, but now that I was interacting with people in an office setting, albeit separated by a screen and several time zones, I felt cornered, filled with self-doubt and shame.

By the end of that first week, however, my worst fears had not come true. Instead, I’d written three articles. I was editing, getting ready to pitch ideas, and learning more about the technical aspects of the work. Despite my lingering anxieties, I felt as if maybe I’d finally found the place in the food world I’d been searching for. 

The first few months were smooth, but I began to feel uneasy. Although my boss told me he welcomed my diverse perspective in a room full of white copywriters, my interviews with fellow chefs of color never materialized. I was also the only member of our team without prior experience in digital media, so at first I attributed interviews falling through to that, but then it became a pattern.

When I finally secured an interview with a chef focused on Juneteenth, my article was altered. Mentions of colonialism were removed for fear that they would not “fit with our tone” or would “alienate our audience.” I pushed back, but my boss told me it was out of his hands. When crafting a menu for Fourth of July, I described the holiday and its legacy as “complex.” Again, this was omitted, this time for being “too political.”

Writing for a brand means that you can’t be precious about your copy. Many elements are tweaked, re-worked, and scrapped all the time, and I’ve learned taking such things personally will leave you perpetually disappointed. However, it also doesn’t do a brand any good to lean into white fragility. If someone reading a story specifically about Juneteenth needs to have that history glossed over, then what’s the point of telling that story at all?

It felt like the same thing I’d been doing at the pizza shop when I was in college — making myself palatable for a larger audience, only highlighting my “diverse perspective” when the company felt it was in its best interest. 

“They want diversity, but only in the way they see it,” a former coworker, who asked to be kept anonymous, told me. “For example, when you’re acting the same way as they are, you’re celebrated. It leads to a lot of code-switching.”   

As time went on, the other Black and brown faces in my Zoom screen dwindled. My role changed, shifting away from interviews and towards how-to’s. I stopped telling chef stories and instead started writing mind-numbing articles about how to break down a chicken or all the things you could do with a Dutch oven. My voice became flattened, and I became just another cog in the corporate machine until they determined it could run without me. 

In a way, my worst fears came true — the special place I felt had been carved out just for me wasn’t what it seemed. Being laid off felt like it underscored the fact that my perspective wasn’t actually unique or even wanted after all. Now, I find myself wondering what lessons food media has learned since 2020. What is the point of so-called diversity hires or touting inclusive storytelling? Who is it for?

The best food media doesn’t flatten people or histories

When I asked my former coworker what they wished they could change about where we worked, they said this: “I would love to see authentic dishes made, not variations adjusted to Western cuisine.” This is yet another example of flattening. In order to be “palatable” for the average American cook, many dishes often become reduced to some sort of muddy fusion, stripping them of their integrity and what makes them delicious in the first place.

This can take several different forms. One example is telling home cooks they can make dan dan noodles with spaghetti, when a Chinese wheat noodle would in fact make for a more authentic (and tastier) dish. Though I often tried to include links to products, or mention in the headnote where one could find these ingredients, by the end of my time at the company, we had all but stopped publishing recipes that detailed how to make your own curry in favor of multiple recipes for mac and cheese.

Another, slightly more complicated example is “The Stew,” a spiced coconut and chickpea dish that features turmeric and ginger. The recipe clearly takes elements and ingredients from south Indian curries and Caribbean coconut-based stews. 

However, the author, who coyly described herself as “vaguely European,” refused to acknowledge that. This leads to a dish that’s placeless. It’s made by a white woman and is devoid of any cultural context, giving the impression — whether intended or not — that she came up with the pairing of coconut, chickpeas, turmeric, and ginger in this “revolutionary” recipe.

Food, like art, isn’t created in a vacuum. It has political implications as well as cultural ones. Some food should be challenging. It should be difficult to make and introduce you to new flavors, with ingredient sourcing taking you to different areas of your city. 

Some stories should be challenging, too. I love deep dives on ingredients, but I also want pieces that discuss the histories of sugar and spices, where our food comes from, and who ensures it arrives at our tables. While reviews that go through a restaurant dish by dish can be fun to read, I’d also like to see more stories that explore the “less glamorous” aspects of the restaurant world, such as who creates the recipes, who prepares the food, and who gets to eat it.

Too many cooks may spoil the broth in the kitchen, but not so when it comes to the stories we tell about our food. This is not to say that there aren’t individuals already out there doing great work. Illyana Maisonet, for example, has a fantastic newsletter where she chronicles everything from her spice journey with Burlap & Barrel to where to find the best burger in Northern California. Bettina Makalintal does some great reporting for Eater, discussing techniques, trends, and food in literature and TV. 

Legacy media, food or otherwise, is always slower to catch on, and perhaps those aren’t the sources we should be looking to for a well-rounded perspective when there are creators we can support more directly. While it’s great to support them individually, there’s certainly both a prestige — warranted or not — and a financial advantage to being associated with larger food media outlets, so I hope those outlets understand the role they play in providing jobs and “setting trends.”

Now more than ever, there should be room at the table for all sorts of experiences, and hopefully someday soon, people of color, no matter what platform we use, won’t have to flatten ourselves to tell them.

Izzy Johnson has been a baker’s apprentice, an unpaid intern (more than once), a server, an artist’s assistant, a museum docent, a part-time union organizer, a substitute teacher, a nanny, and an unemployed photographer. Currently, they are a freelance writer. They live and work in Los Angeles with two cats and a very organized pantry.

This piece was edited by Janelle Salanga. Copy editing by Marlee Baldridge.

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