Posted on October 2, 2019

To David Chang, the ‘Ethnic’ Food Aisle Is Racist. Others Say It’s Convenient.

Tim Carman, Washington Post, September 30, 2019

To millions of shoppers, the supermarket is just a place to stock up on produce and pantry staples to keep the family fed. But to others, especially children of immigrants who may already feel pushed to the margins of the American mainstream, the supermarket can be just another place to experience the sting of their outsider status.

The sting occurs whenever they walk down the “ethnic” food aisle, the section of the supermarket that, to some, plays out like a remnant of the Jim Crow era, when laws established separate facilities for African Americans in the post-Reconstruction South. Sometimes known as the “international” food aisle, or even “Asian” and “Latino” aisles, these rows can come across to the shoppers they seemingly target as de facto segregation, another kind of “separate but equal” policy that marginalized African Americans for generations.

“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,” David Chang, the man at the helm of the Momofuku empire, said on his podcast this summer. “It is something that’s got to go.”

In a telephone interview, Chang says there is an “invisible ceiling” on some supermarket items: Italian products that were once marginalized, such as olive oils and vinegars, are now routinely integrated into grocery store aisles, while Chinese, Japanese and Latino foods remain stuck in their own sections. The ongoing segregation of these foods, Chang says, isn’t about acceptance among the mainstream. Asian and Latino cuisines have long been embraced by Americans of every stripe, he says. {snip}

Yet in supermarkets there are still aisles dedicated to soy sauce, duck sauce, oyster sauce, rice vinegar, coconut milk, rice crackers, stir-fry sauces, yum yum sauce, curry paste, corn flours, adobo seasoning, bagged tortillas, refried beans, salsas and hundreds of other products connected, sometimes tenuously, to Asian and Latin American countries.

“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.”


Those who own and operate grocery stores, or used to, say that international food aisles have nothing to do with segregation — and everything to do with sales and convenience.

Jay Rosengarten, co-founder of the Food Emporium chain, the first grocery stores to mix regular and specialty items on the same shelves, says that supermarkets in predominantly white neighborhoods operate more efficiently when they offer international products all in the same area. The rationale is simple, he notes: Customers don’t want to search all over the supermarket — a massive space that can hold upward of 42,000 items — just for the handful of ingredients they might need to prepare, for example, Mexican enchiladas. They can pick up the tortillas, the seasoning blend and the salsa all in the same aisle.

These aisles don’t have “anything to do with racism,” Rosengarten says. “It has everything to do with the way people buy food. That’s the way stores are organized.”


International aisles are “extremely profitable,” adds Perez. “It generates more dollars per food [product] by having it consolidated.”


An aisle that, to David Chang, looks like an ugly remnant of segregation is, in fact, something else altogether, Perez says. It’s a destination.