Are Yelp reviewers pushing white supremacist norms by their usage of “authenticity” in food and restaurant reviews? It’s an interesting, provocative question, considering that Yelp has amassed 17 million restaurant reviews from more than 30 different countries. Writer and researcher Sara Kay’s Eater article, Yelp Reviewers’ Authenticity Fetish Is White Supremacy in Action, draws startling, if dubious, conclusions.

Kay clarified her position with regard to Yelp’s 17 million reviews. She wrote, “Of course, not all of these reviews support white supremacy, or even mention authenticity.”

To reach her findings, Kay narrowed the scope of her study. She read and studied 20,000 Yelp reviews as part of her thesis as a master’s student at New York University in the Food Studies program. 

Kay wrote: “I narrowed my data collection to reviews from New York, and focused my field even further by picking from Zagat’s top ten most popular cuisines in New York City: Mexican, Thai, Japanese, Chinese, French, Italian, Korean, and Indian, adding Mediterranean and Soul food based on recent dining trends.”

To summarize, Kay’s study focused on 20,000 Yelp reviews based on ten cuisines confined to one city.

That’s a far cry from the generalization implied by the article’s clickbait title. Without reading further, the inference is that there’s notable white supremacy in play among Yelp reviewers in New York. 

A second critique of the article, based on questionable research, is tethered to this admission.

“While I don’t know anything about the specific demographics of the reviewers I studied, trends in the reviews I read reflect some of the more troubling themes seen on the internet these days,” Kay wrote.

As such, Kay cannot reasonably conclude that reviewers’ comments are coming from white people or from any racial group in particular. Regardless of who the reviewers may be, she suggests that the reviews push white supremacist norms – a broad claim. Again, the author loosely extrapolates findings from a geo-specific study, based on Yelpers who are unidentified demographically.

Kay also asserts that her findings echo “themes” seen on the internet that are “frightfully mimicking of other supremacist trends on the internet and in American life.” Her cherry-picked link somehow conflates her assertions as similar to radical extremism on social media. Oh me, oh my. Who knew that writing a Yelp review was a gateway to white supremacy and echoed the tendencies of radical extremism?

Let’s dig deeper into Kay’s points.

She asserts that Yelp reviewers judge restaurants by “authenticity” and tend to put non-white restaurant owners in a trap. Either the owners keep their non-European food (i.e. Mexican, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese) cheap and therefore “authentic,” as deemed by the reviewer, or face the consequences of lower ratings and being decried as “inauthentic.”

Others have made similar observations in more eloquent, astute terms.

In Maria Goody’s article, Why Hunting Down ‘Authentic Ethnic Food’ Is A Loaded Proposition, published by NPR’s The Salt in 2016, she turns to Krishnendu Ray, the chair of the food studies program at New York University.

Krishnendu Ray notes, “When we seek authenticity from a star chef — say, Thomas Keller of the Michelin-starred restaurants The French Laundry and Per Se — what we really want is his signature, his individual creativity evinced through food, and we’re willing to shell out big bucks to get it.”

Ray elaborates that when diners demand authenticity from “ethnic” cuisine, what they really seek is a replica. In other words, “a true copy of our expectations––some platonic ideal of what a dish should taste like,” Ray says. “It’s a definition of authenticity that can trap the immigrant cook in very narrow expectations.”

Ray’s view certainly has merit; however, she approaches authenticity from a different angle from Kay’s position. Ray asserts that the economic value of authenticity is tethered to a star chef’s status and skill. We pay more because of the chef’s brand name and reputation. What’s unstated in Ray’s second quote is what value is assigned by diners to the “replica” of ethnic cuisine and what people are willing to pay for it.

Regarding Ray’s point, there’s false equivalency in the comparison between fine dining vs. “ethnic” cuisine. If the chef is producing top-level cuisine, regardless of its origins ethnic or otherwise, then diners bring a higher level of expectations to the table and are willing to pay for it.

It’s important to acknowledge the vast hierarchy between star chef, chef, and cook. The skill, creativity, and wow factor of a star chef’s work and reputation foster quite high expectations. No one realistically expects the same standards from a cook at a run-of-the-mill family or independent restaurant, whether the venue serves burgers, regional fare, or Chinese. Accordingly, it’s natural that the food and venue are evaluated by different standards than a fine-dining establishment and its star chef.

Circling back to Kay, she writes in her study of Yelp reviews:

“…when reviewers use ‘authentic,’ they put unfair expectations on restaurateurs to maintain a low set of standards for their establishment — much lower than any restaurant serving Western cuisines. The language directly supports a hierarchy where white, Western cuisine is allowed more creative latitude to expand, explore, and generate profits than its non-Western counterparts.


Eater

This conclusion begs examination of what is authentic, is there a consensus on authenticity, and who decides that standard with regard to food tied to a culture or tradition. From there, it also seems slippery to apply the term “authentic” and vague standards comparatively to “white, Western cuisine” that may or may not have any discernible ties to a culture or tradition. It also begs the question: What is considered white, Western cuisine? Does it make sense to compare a Yelper’s review of foods in this vague, broad category to foods from Mexico, China, and Vietnam, for example. with a more defined taste, appearance, tradition, and history?

Kay’s study and conclusions are problematic in its methodology, sample size, broad assumptions about the nature of authenticity, and how/why online reviewers use the term. Bandying about the term “white supremacy” in this study based on flimsy evidence in a poorly-constructed context is troublesome. Addressing white supremacy is absolutely worthy of examination to generate discussion and solutions. Making broad claims based on a bucket’s worth of reviews drawn from an online ocean of information is ludicrous.

Image: By Larry Miller – Flickr: Tinos Tacos, Roseburg, Ore., CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32052457