On That Whole Yellow Fever Thing…

Controversy and news erupted this week over a tweet sent by Whole Foods promoting their new partnership with a new, independent restaurant chain called “Yellow Fever.” It’s an Asian themed restaurant that operates with the tagline “Asian bowls for your soul” and run by a Korean American restauranteur. Understandably, the name gave many people pause – and many of those people started tagging me/my band (The Slants) to ask us what we thought. Several social media posts were also using our band’s name both as an example of what to do instead (acting with thoughtful intention) as well as a way to chastise those that they felt were being too politically correct:

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While the owner herself has stated that  “it’s re-appropriating a term — taking ownership of something and defining it in our own way,” social media backlash has not been kind. This just highlights the complexities of anyone engaging in the work of reappropriation and how people might respond.

For example, Asian Americans generally loved the Wong Fu Productions’ short film “Yellow Fever.” Kat Moon directed a full length movie with the same name starring Jenna Ushkowitz that was also well received. It was also the name of a blues album from the band Hot Tuna, released without controversy.  In fact, Yellow Fever the restaurant has steadily enjoyed over four years of business without a ruckus…until a tweet from Whole Foods started raising eyebrows.

It was the pairing of the two – Whole Foods, a food juggernaut associated with wealthy white culture, and a restaurant with a racy name – that brought discomfort and doubt over the name. For several of the most vocal opponents, the context and social meaning (despite the best of intentions) is completely changed when inside of a Whole Foods rather than working as an independent institution. It definitely feels different. Yet, we didn’t see the same backlash when “Fresh Off the Boat” was aired on a network dominated by whites. Is this different?

Unlike music, film, and comedy (I could easily see “Yellow Fever” being the name of an Ali Wong piece), people traditionally haven’t seen reappropriation common in the world of food. In recent years, discussions of food and identity have usually revolved around how dominant cultures have been appropriating and profiting from the foods of ethnic minorities, not people of color reclaiming formerly stigmatizing labels for self-empowerment. It’s a new, relatively unexplored territory that has left many wondering where those lines actually are.

“I don’t think we’re a safe brand,” the owner said when asked about their bold branding decisions. “One of our taglines is ‘be yellow’. This is because we want people to be comfortable in their own skin.”

One thing is clear: the name is (now) divisive and doesn’t entirely make everyone feel comfortable in their own skin, yellow or not.

We do know that reappropriation is an effective method for creating social change. Studies have demonstrated that it shifts power from dominant groups to marginalized ones, it disrupts normal social conventions, and in many cases, forces people outside of the group to pause and ask, “Is this OK?” We see that happening here…and for once, Asian Americans are in the spotlight discussing our own experiences around race and identity.

If nothing else, that’s something that helps feed my soul.

Bottom line: I believe that as people of color, we should be able to reappropriate formerly stigmatizing labels, stereotypes, symbols, and ideas. We should also be able to criticize attempts to do so as well. From that discussion, we’ll be able to extract nuance, a variety of perspectives and experiences, and hopefully, develop some more understanding of how we can use every tactic to dismantle systemic oppression together…while enjoying some great music, film, comedy, and food.


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