The Violent Rise of Curry

What comes to mind when you think of curry? Vindaloo, korma, tikka masala? Or maybe coconut milk scented with lemongrass, ginger and makrut lime from your favorite Thai restaurant? Do the flavors you imagine come from red-capped jars of curry powder you use to enhance your chicken salad? Or from the umami-filled golden blocks of paste you might find at a Japanese market? There’s a reason there are so many interpretations of curry, and today’s Daily Dose dives into the curious history, marked by misunderstandings and colonialism, that make up this continuously controversial dish.

a colonized history

The World’s Oldest Food. Long before they were in your overpriced, appropriative latte, spices like turmeric and ginger were essential to the Indian diet. The Indus Civilization boomed from 2500 to 1700 B.C. with unmatched sophistication of urban centers and water systems, but we know little about it compared to the Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures to its west due to a yet untranslatable writing system. But a recent breakthrough in understanding the culture came with discovered traces of turmeric, ginger, and garlic on old cookery and human teeth, dating back 4,500 years. Given its nebulous definition, this finding makes curry the longest continuously eaten food in the world. But how did we get from baingan bharta and rogan josh and biryani to this odd, anglicized word?

Kari and Carel. While Kari and Carel sounds like a ’70s sitcom about roommates who work at a chocolate factory and the mischief they get into, it’s actually the first step in understanding where “curry” comes from. When the Portuguese arrived on the southern coast of India in 1498 in search of spices, they probably heard the word “kari” used around food. Depending on the pronunciation in the local Tamil, it could mean something similar to “biting into food” or “to blacken or season.” The colonizers spun this through their clumsy tongues and came up with “carel” as a sweeping term for all the food the Indigenous people ate.

The Empire Strikes. In the early 1600s, the British East India Company arrived and you already know what the next several hundred violent years looked like. Part of this colonization, of course, was through food. They took “carel” and spat out the word “curry” as a catchall for the food their local cooks would make for them. And the British Empire did with curry what they do best: take it over and make it bland. They packaged their interpretation into a spice mix, curry powder, which they sent home and to colonial subjects around the world.

The Empire Continues Striking. By the mid-1800s, curry was a staple in the British diet. Nearly every cookbook of the time featured a recipe, like Isabella Beeton’s 1861 bestseller, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, whose shoddy interpretation of the complex cuisine was a roux- and cream-thickened stew featuring apples and meat and flavored with the prepared powder. And this curry takeover worked to abet colonization in its own way: The Brits slapping their own seal onto curry stripped India of one of its most valued assets. “By virtue of their own domesticity, Victorian women could neutralize the threat of the Other by naturalizing the products of foreign lands,” Vassar’s Susan Zlotnick writes.

How Spicy Do You Want It? The range of spiciness in curry has its own history that nods to the spread of chilies. When the Portuguese first arrived in India, they brought chiles from the New World with them, and they were an instant hit in the south. To this day, South Indian foods tend to be significantly more spicy than those in the north, where the sweeter and milder Kashmiri chile was native. When the British arrived, local cooks adapted the food to their meeker palates, leading to the milder spice levels in curry powder. Today, curry spice varies widely depending on whether there were native chiles present to add an extra kick (see: Caribbean) or inspiration was from the British with no added spice (see: Japan).

the sun never sets on curry

curry

First, Story Time. My grandmother tells the story of hosting my grandfather’s boss for dinner as a recent immigrant in the late 1960s. He had expressed his eagerness to try curry, so, only slightly surprised, she made kadhi, a thick yogurt and chickpea-flour stew that she’d specially dot with deep-fried pakoras. This is, of course, not what the boss man had in mind: He expected America’s definition of an Indian curry, like butter chicken, and she made a niche Indian farmer’s dish. While news of India’s curry had made its way across the globe, it hadn’t made it back to her.

The Caribbean. In 1833, the British Empire abolished slavery, freeing more than 800,000 enslaved Africans and quickly finding themselves with a labor shortage at plantations across the globe. Their solution: their melanin-rich subjects to the east. Between 1834 and the early 1900s, more than 1.5 million South Asians were shipped to work as indentured servants in Fiji, Mauritius, South Africa, and notably Guyana and across the Caribbean. With this influx of people, a unique blended culture formed. Today, dishes like curry goat with rice and peas or roti (the flatbread, which has its own booming history mirroring that of curry) are a mainstay of Caribbean culture — its curry blends the coriander and ginger you might find in an Indian dish with West African scotch bonnets and Jamaican allspice.

Thailand and Singapore. As the buzz of spices faded, the empire looked for something more potent: opium. This led to trade posts along the Straits of Malacca for easy access to China, notably in Penang and Singapore. With the Thai, curry was an easy label for kaeng, the local spiced stews. Why try to learn a new word when you already have something you call an “Oriental ragout”? In the already politically complex Singapore, the addition of curry powder to a Cantonese noodle dish gave the city-state its namesake dish: Singapore noodles.

Japan. In Japan, curry rice, or kare raisu — often served with a pounded-out pork katsu — has quickly become a national dish. While the myth is that a shipwrecked British sailor brought the awe-inducing powder to their shores, a more likely scenario is that the 1868 opening of trade brought a desire for Western products, of which the Brits’ appropriative powder was now a mainstay. This explains the rich and sweet, roux-thickened curry of Japan seeming much more similar to that in Beeton’s book, for example, than to its South Asian counterpart. The dish, which Curry: A Global History author Colleen Sen calls “the antithesis of” Japan’s typically elegant cuisine, first gained popularity in the military and school cafeterias as an easy way of serving meat. The Japanese curry blocks even found their way into North Korea, where they became a unique currency of foreign mystery.

The U.S. Before the Immigration Act of 1965 brought immigrants from across Asia to the U.S. — and with them their curry traditions — America had its own curry, one that was even included in Irma Rombauer’s The Joy of Cooking and was the favorite dish of Gen. George Patton. Called Country Captain (“country” supposedly being nod to its Indian roots), this brown stew of chicken, curry powder and raisins is rumored to have come to the land of the “free” from a British soldier. First written about in Miss Leslie’s New Cookery Book in 1857 Philadelphia, The New York Times’ Cecily Brownstone is credited with revitalizing it 100 years later and has the standard recipe if you’re looking to try it.

Where Curry Isn’t. The addictive nature of curry and the far reach of the empire’s bony fingers made it so that curry conquered most of the world, from South Africa’s bunny chow to Scandinavia’s curry herring. While the line is fine now given immigration, certain cultures didn’t fall under the spell of curry. Spain avoided the spread for the most part, and as a result, its colonies in South and Central America don’t have significant curry traditions, though indigenous traditions like mole feel similar. France, too, pooh-poohed the Brits’ curry powder in favor of its own development, vadouvan, from the country’s brief colonial stint in Pondicherry.

curry controversies

Grandmother and granddaughter preparing meal in the kitchen

The Curry Protests (Singapore). In 2011, a Singapore paper reported on a mediation court case, brought forward by a Chinese family frustrated by the smells created when their Indian neighbors cooked curry. The Community Mediation Centre ruled the Indian family could only cook aromatic foods when the Chinese family was not home. This sparked outrage in the multicultural city-state rife with racial, ethnic and class-based tensions. In response, a “Cook and Share a Pot of Curry” protest was held, garnering 57,600 participants including the presidential candidates at the time.

Alison Roman’s Stew (U.S.). If you’ve been following the niche world of cancellations in food media, it’s been a busy year. If you’re just catching up, start with Roman. Considered by some an inspirational everywoman — known for easy but elegant recipes you might throw together for your Williamsburg dinner party featuring wine served in mismatched vintage jars — Roman first found herself in hot water for sanctimonious criticism of Marie Kondo and Chrissy Teigen. Less investigated but equally problematic is Roman’s mononymous “Stew.” The recipe, with more than 16,000 five-star reviews, played a role in vaulting her into stardom. It’s chickpeas and greens simmered in coconut milk with ginger and turmeric. Sound something like the curries of 2500 B.C.? Roman’s insistence that it isn’t a curry continues the colonial stripping of food from its culture and highlights how only certain faces can profit from appropriation.

‘Curry & Chips’ (U.K.). And in a win for canceling racists: Curry & Chips was a six-episode-long U.K. sitcom in 1969. It featured beloved actor Spike Milligan in brownface playing Paki-Paddy, a Pakistani Irishman. The U.K.’s Independent Television Authority canceled the show, citing racism, while the creator insisted he was criticizing British racism in a way the authorities couldn’t handle.

curries to try

Khichdi, Gatte Ki Kadhi with Begun Bhaja

Kadhi. Why not start at the root with the only Indian dish that sounds remotely like curry? This dish, like most on the subcontinent, varies between regions and families. The one my maternal grandmother made was thick and featured chickpea-flour fritters, while on my dad’s side, it would be thinner, blond and slightly sweet, studded with mustard seeds. While you likely won’t find kadhi at many restaurants, ask a friend for their recipe, or try this one from acclaimed writer Priya Krishna, which Bon Appetit horrifyingly calls “Creamy Indian Soup.”

Currywurst. This German concoction has a fascinating history of its own, featuring a badass woman, postwar optimism and a mysterious rendezvous with a British soldier, but curry found its way to Germany and quickly imprinted itself into German culture in the form of currywurst. This dish of a bratwurst cut into chunks, served with fries and smothered in a curry ketchup, has become an iconic late-night food of Berlin and is the noted favorite of former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. If you’re in Berlin, visit one of the currywurst stands that claims to be as populous as Starbucks in New York City, or try making it yourself with a recipe like this one.

Hat Yai. If you find yourself in Portland, Oregon, do yourself a favor by visiting Hat Yai. Named after the city in southern Thailand, near the border of Malaysia, this casual restaurant honors the blended curry cultures of the region. Its fried chicken is flecked with aromatic mustard and cumin seeds and served with a sweet and coconut-y Malay-style curry and flaky, fresh-made rotis.

This Revolutionary Chef Wants to Topple the Table

  • Asheville, North Carolina, chef Ashleigh Shanti is crafting the “Afro-lachian” food of the future by drawing on Black culinary history.
  • As she gains local buzz, she’s eager to take back a toxic kitchen culture, defeat cultural appropriation and revolutionize your plate.

Ashleigh Shanti listens to the music of old souls. Voices like Nina Simone’s might be ringing through her halls while greens and ham hock slowly simmer in a large pot. And this music taste makes sense, because while Shanti is a chef of the future, her food is rooted in the past. 

After graduating from Hampton University, Shanti knew she wanted to work in kitchens but didn’t know what that might look like. “I didn’t see my reflection in what I wanted to do, so I think that’s what made it seem impossible,” she says of the lack of visible Black women in the culinary world. “I wanted to cook food that was reflective of me, and I couldn’t really find that.” That search led Shanti down several paths, from serving and bartending, to getting certified as a sommelier, to staging in several of the country’s top kitchens. 

As Shanti, 31, found herself reflecting on the food of her childhood in Virginia — the stewed beans and greens, rice and okra of the Black Appalachian foodway her mother and maternal grandmother would make — she was approached by acclaimed chef John Fleer with a unique opportunity. 

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Source Tim Robison

Eagle Street in Asheville, North Carolina, had been a booming Black business district before it was destroyed by urban renewal in the ’70s. “It’s been an open wound in our social scene ever since,” says Stu Helm, Asheville’s most prominent food writer. As the neighborhood has grown in recent years, many have pushed for a more historically conscious growth, including Fleer. He recruited Shanti to launch a restaurant that paid respect to Eagle Street’s history. 

For so long, I thought, “I want a seat at the table,” but now I have this urge to knock over the table.

Ashleigh Shanti

Shanti took the opportunity to develop a menu reflective of those long-neglected Black foodways. Her “Afro-lachian menu” tries to “tell the story of the Black women who made [Eagle Street] successful.” She cherishes a cookbook written in the 1860s by a Black woman from the Tennessee mountains named Miranda Russell. (It was a gift from legendary Appalachian food authority Ronni Lundy.) Shanti took it on as her responsibility to preserve these recipes and techniques — such as foraging and seed-to-stem cooking — and to highlight the influence of African ingredients on Southern food

As she honed this approach, Shanti’s food took off at Benne on Eagle, garnering the praise of Asheville locals, critics and fellow chefs. One of these chefs was Lexington, Kentucky’s Lawrence Weeks, who became a friend. “Her food is super nuanced, and either visually or in taste creates such a flavor memory. It’s like, ‘Oh I’m having my mom’s black-eyed peas.’ But it looks so beautiful and modern that obviously, it’s white tablecloth food,” Weeks says. 

Helm was also impressed by Shanti’s style — which “straddles that line of fine dining and home cooking,” he says — as well as her humility. He recalls a liver pudding that left him in awe. “It was seared on the outside, and it came with house-made crackers and house-made pickles, and it was so good.” The dish speaks to how Black families had to make the most of offal meats and other unwanted ingredients — and their ability to coax greatness from such ingredients. This liver pudding won Shanti one of the many awards she’s received from Helm’s publication, Stu Helm The Food Fan. Shanti was named a finalist for Rising Star Chef of the Year James Beard Award in 2020 before the ceremony was canceled due to the pandemic.

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Liver Pudding

Source Stu Helm

The popularity and prominence that Shanti’s cooking chops gave her also helped white Ashevillians face a moment of reckoning, given how few Black chefs receive such recognition. “We’ve had to confront the fact that we’re not as liberal as we thought we were, or as open-minded as we thought we were,” Helm says. 

But this issue reaches far beyond Asheville, as conversations happen throughout the country around appropriation and recognition in the world of food. Black chefs, Weeks says, often go unrecognized, while their talents and ingredients help white chefs cash in and gain prominence. But Shanti is changing the game. “She is going to be one of the pioneers when it comes to — and I hate this term — the new Southern cuisine,” Weeks says. “Because Southern cuisine has always been Black. I guess it’ll be the revitalization of owning Southern cuisine.”

While agreeing that appropriation is a concern, Shanti adds that what happens in the kitchen is only one dimension of a chef’s power, and chefs must look to lift up communities they are in and from which they draw inspiration.

“For so long, I thought, ‘I want a seat at the table,’ but now I have this urge to knock over the table. … We’ve been trying to fix it, but it has been broken for so long; what are we fixing?” From appropriation to serving food stripped of its Black history and context, to ignoring community-building to toxic workplaces rampant in the industry, Shanti’s generation has ample grievances. “The future of restaurants can’t look anything like what it has looked like,” she says.

As Shanti moves on from leading the kitchen at Benne on Eagle — with an eye on developing recipes and perhaps some pop-up offerings — she looks forward to her own restaurants that shift these practices and tell her food stories. Still, with some 17 percent of all U.S. restaurants closed for good as of Dec. 1 amid the pandemic, the industry is in upheaval, and it’s unclear what opportunities may lie ahead. “Somebody needs to approach her and give her her own thing,” Weeks says. “The nation should know that she’s important. They need to give her her flowers right now. Recognize a revolutionary while they’re young and watch them grow.”

Like Simone sang of being “young, gifted and Black,” Shanti’s desires reach far beyond her craft. She’s looking to develop not just great flavors on the plate, but real justice in the kitchen.

Indian Americans: The New Voices Bringing Diversity to Food Writing

  • The food writing industry is in the middle of a reckoning over race and ethnic identity.
  • Amid that upheaval, Indian American food writers are rising to positions of influence and working to create more space for diverse voices in a predominantly white industry.

In 1993, New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl published a now-iconic review of twin experiences at one of Manhattan’s finest French establishments, Le Cirque: one when she dined in the guise of an unpolished tourist, the other when she dined as herself, one of the country’s most revered restaurant critics. The disparities in treatment were an impetus for a heated debate on hyper-opulent fine dining and contributed to the downfall of Le Cirque. But they also told another story: Identity shapes our food experiences

It’s a reality at the center of fresh tumult in the food media world. Bon Appétit faced a moment of reckoning last year after a photo emerged of its then editor-in-chief in brownface, along with allegations of racially problematic practices at the magazine. Popular columnist and cookbook author Alison Roman and several other prominent food figures have faced accusations of appropriating ingredients from different cultures, thus divorcing them from their historical significance. Within that churn, several Indian American food writers have risen to positions of prominence in the industry, offering diverse voices and fresh perspectives previously unavailable to most Americans.

In August, Sonia Chopra took over as executive editor at Bon Appétit. Khushbu Shah is the restaurant editor at Food & Wine magazine. New York Times California restaurant critic Tejal Rao is the winner of multiple James Beard awards — the most prestigious recognition for food writers in the U.S. Priya Krishna, Nik Sharma and Mayukh Sen are also among the most powerful and critically acclaimed writers in the food world, where Madhur Jaffrey — widely credited with bringing Indian cuisine to the West’s attention — was once a lonely figure. 

I feel an extraordinary responsibility not only to rep South Asians in that room but to also rep every other person that’s not in that room.

Khushbu Shah, restaurant editor, Food & Wine

For Indian Americans, among the most influential yet diverse ethnic communities in the U.S., food often serves as a unique bond. “When you’re part of a diaspora, food becomes a central force of culture,” says Shah. You can be “fluent in the food” of your heritage, even if you’re not fluent in the language. Sen, who has won several awards, including a James Beard, for his food coverage, agrees: “Of the many subcultures that exist within India and the diaspora, food means a lot to all of them. That may be why these narratives are important for us to share.” 

With their recent gain in influence, though, Indian American writers find themselves in precarious positions: hoping to bring much-needed authenticity to coverage of South Asian food without pigeonholing themselves as “Indian food writers” and also trying to represent the voices of all minorities while still bringing nuance to their coverage. To make matters even more complicated, this beef Wellington of complex representation is wrapped in the puff pastry of an industry that continues to be centered on the white gaze.  

“No matter how much establishment recognition I get … there’s always a part of me that feels like an outsider in the industry, someone who does not belong,” says Sen, who approaches the difficult questions of representation by shifting his narrative focus to people who might have felt the same way throughout their careers in the industry. “I look for people who may have felt as though they are on the fringes of this dominant food culture. This very white, very straight, very male industry,” he explains. 

Indeed, Shah cautions against misconstruing the rise in influence of Indian American writers as a sharp uptick in numbers. “When you compare that to the number of white food writers, it’s nothing,” she says. “The reason we stand out is because we’re really the only people in the rooms,” she adds, explaining that at many of the publications where she has worked, she was often the only writer of color. 

As an editorial leader, Shah wants to change that. “I feel an extraordinary responsibility not only to rep South Asians in that room but also to rep every other person that’s not in that room,” she says. “I want to make sure that we’re doing enough Latinx stories, that we’re doing enough Japanese stories, Chinese stories, Thai stories.” 

And there’s now room for all of those voices, say experts. “People want new and diverse stories,” says Emily Contois, an assistant professor at the University of Tulsa who studies identity in food media. “There is innovation and creativity that we haven’t seen yet because we haven’t nurtured and cultivated it.”

In editorial meetings, Shah has frequently had to oppose the argument that when one Indian food story is published, another can’t be for several months. “The scarcity mentality is the ultimate form of white supremacy,” she says. “People are so starved for representation right now and there’s so much work to get done.”

While representation “absolutely matters,” it is only a part of the solution, Contois says. “It’s really about shifting … access to means of production, to actually be able to produce these stories, to have the power to make these decisions with equal pay, with equal authority.” 

Shah agrees. “Until gatekeepers change, the reality of this is that whiteness is always going to be centered,” she says. “Representation is just the first step. It isn’t the end-all, be-all … but it’s a powerful first step, and it’s a step that needs to be taken to then get to the place that we want to get to.”

Despite the hoops they’ve had to jump through to gain recognition in the industry, Shah and Sen see a path forward. “If this year’s shifts are any indication, perhaps we will get to see longer-lasting changes,” says Sen. 

And Shah is clear about the road map needed for that change. “Creating more space for more stories and showing those stories can be successful and worth investing in, I think that’s how we can change food writing and the faces within it.”

The Greatest Threat to Democracy Might Not Be What You Expect

When news broke of Donald Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Twitter released a statement banning “tweets that wish for death, serious bodily harm, or fatal disease against anyone.” While this may seem like a reasonable statement for the sake of digital civility, it raised the eyebrows of many women, especially women of color, who have consistently been on the receiving end of Twitter death threats and worse for years.

Acclaimed filmmaker Ava DuVernay asked, “Does this also go for Black and Brown women who have long been and continue to be harassed and threatened with assault and death on this platform or nah?” Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wondered, “So … you mean to tell us you could’ve done this the whole time?” And words evaded a shocked Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, the reported recipient of hundreds of regular threats, who could simply respond with a meme. 

Twitter later responded saying, “We hear the voices who feel we are enforcing some policy inconsistently. We agree we must do better.” 

“It’s a slap in the face to women,” says Soraya Chemaly, activist, writer and director of Women’s Media Center. In 2014, when a campaign that Chemaly co-founded approached Twitter about helping create pathways for targeted women, “Twitter shut it down. Roundly rejected it. They were condescending and aggressive,” she says. Facebook only made limited concessions (like removing pages that fantasized about raping women or named the “bitches they would like to shoot”) after Chemaly and company went directly to advertisers and got them to pull $20 million in advertiser dollars. 

While this particular “inconsistency” may be particularly egregious, women in politics are no strangers to inequitable treatment. From acts as seemingly “harmless” as Mike Pence’s heavily interrupting performance at the vice presidential debate to the recently thwarted, horrifying plan to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, we see the ways women in politics are often undermined, harassed or at risk of worse. But this inequity exists — and is even heightened under the relative guise of anonymity — in the digital sphere. 

Sarah Sobieraj is a sociologist at Tufts University and a preeminent scholar in the rising field of digital hate. She and I conducted original research published earlier this year that examined nearly 2,500 tweets directed toward politicians across race, gender and party lines, analyzing for attempts to discredit, intimidate or shame. Each of these categories saw women facing significantly more hate than men, most of the time with women of color seeing the most.

Almost 60 percent of tweets directed toward female legislators were attempts to discredit their authority.

An eye-opening 83 percent of tweets directed toward Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for example, fell into this category during our study. Female legislators were three and a half times more likely to receive tweets that threatened physical or reputational harm.

Tweets directed toward the female legislators were also almost three times more likely to mention gender or the body than those directed at their male counterparts, those themes were twice as likely to be mentioned to women of color than white women. 

Of course, from angry constituent calls to campaign mudslinging, politicians are no strangers to criticism. A 1991 study, “Threatening and Otherwise Inappropriate Letters to Members of the United States Congress,” analyzed letters to legislators, over 20 percent of which were threatening. But the intimacy and immediacy of the internet make these threats feel different.

In her book, Credible Threat: Attacks Against Women Online and the Future of Democracy, Sobieraj explains that this online abuse is more than interpersonal bullying. It is a visceral response to the threat of equality in digital conversations and arenas that men would prefer to control. The Venn diagram below illustrates her research, showing what might make women more vulnerable to online harassment. Falling under multiple axes of marginalization (LGBTQ, overweight, disabled, being a person of color), being feminist or noncompliant (hoping to change the status quo), or working/being vocal in a typically male-dominated space each adds a layer that makes one a greater target. 

From Sarah Sobieraj’s Credible Threat

The impact of this digital harassment is significant and not only makes the digital sphere — where so much of today’s discourse lives — an unpleasant or even uninhabitable space for women, but it can also creep its way into public life and systematically silence female voices. “It’s not just an embarrassment, it’s a threat to our democracy,” says Chemaly, who got into this work after being targeted herself for her writing. “A fundamental requirement for democracy that we don’t talk about that much is physical security,” she adds, and women “don’t have the luxury of a distinction” between the digital world and the “real” world. 

Chemaly recalls the Facebook groups that popped up during the 2016 election so that women could have a safe place to discuss politics. “As a society, we did not care that women were not safe enough to participate in robust political debate.” A search of Kamala Harris’ name after the recent debate shows the vile language used against a candidate, who falls in the center of the Venn diagram.

While those not on the receiving end can be blind to this hate, its threat to discourse and democracy is startling. It can be the “ghost that hovers over the keyboard” for prominent women online, describes one interviewee in Sobieraj’s book.

Solutions are neither quick nor easy. This is “part of the fabric of societal norms that tolerate high levels of violence against women. The platforms are never going to solve that on their own,” Chemaly explains. But as we do the long-term work to shift societal behavior, we can also educate ourselves, hold social platforms accountable and shift the frame through which we as individuals and institutions — political parties, media, academia — see this, from embarrassing cyberbullying to a significant threat to our democratic system.

Reclaiming My Gen Z Identity

I always wanted to be a millennial. Despite my 1997 birthday making me the earliest of Gen Zers, I had convinced myself that generational divide should instead be determined by “those who had Instagram in middle school,” a distinction I conflated with superficiality and image-based self-importance. As a slow adopter and minimal user of social media, I found it easy to frame it as a conversation-ending, narcissism-feeding mechanism. 

In many ways, I am a millennial. I remember the thrill of falling asleep to a VHS from Blockbuster and the horror of waking up to the news of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I’m older than Google and Billie Eilish, and am a sucker for millennial pink

But as Gen Z is taking form beyond petulant middle schoolers — and who isn’t horrible in middle school? — I find myself hoping to embrace that Gen Z identity I once avoided. Gen Z is a generation not letting itself be defined by events — from school shootings to leaders with authoritarian tendencies to our current catastrophic cocktail of global pandemic, economic recession and racial strife — but instead by their response to those events.

The answer isn’t more selfies, but instead to be more inspired to speak up.

From the high schoolers in Parkland and beyond, this generation has been the most outspoken about the need for gun control. Teens across the country have been at the forefront of today’s civil rights movement, organizing and demanding change. OZY has reported that 70 percent of Gen Zers believe their lives need to make a difference in the world and 65 percent say it’s important for companies to take a stand on social issues. This is a generation that won’t settle for the status quo and is willing to fight for what they believe — that’s a generation I want to be identified with. 

Now I can see those Gen Z qualities shining through: my optimism that we can change the problems of our societal status quo to work for a better future. My millennial-defining qualities won’t disappear, so perhaps in ultimate young-person fashion, I reject the notion of one definitive label. I realize the answer isn’t more selfies, but instead to be more inspired to speak up.

Recent data from Pew Research Center shows Gen Z to be the most diverse, educated and forward-thinking generation, as well as the most tech-savvy. Social media has made our generation informed and connected. It’s a tool, not only to bring people together but also to highlight inequities in our system. While I was busy scoffing at duck-faced selfies, my peers were busy figuring out how to change the world. 

The Teenagers Who Organized a 10,000-Person Protest

The six teenage girls first connected on Twitter, responding to a call to action in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd. They didn’t know one another, but each knew she wanted to be a part of the movement. Soon the group chat led the Nashville, Tennessee, high schoolers — ages 14 to 16 — to decide to organize a protest. They started asking around for support and donations.

The local chapter of Black Lives Matter asked which organization they were a part of. “We were like, ‘Organization? We don’t have one of those.’ So we just made one up,” says Emma Rose Smith, explaining the creation of Teens4Equality, the organization and Instagram page that she launched with Kennedy Green, Jade Fuller, Nya Collins, Zee Thomas and Mikayla Smith.

The protest turned out to be one of the biggest in the country since the death of Floyd, with at least 10,000 people filling the streets of Nashville — far beyond the teens’ wildest expectations.

Just as the Parkland, Florida, high school shooting led to the emergence of young gun control activists, teenagers across the country have been taking the reins at the mass protests against police brutality and racism, from Nashville to O’Fallon, Missouri, to Washington, D.C., where 19-year-old Parkland survivor Aalayah Eastmond is bringing her organizing experience to the fight. After the shooting, she says, “I recognized the imbalance between Black voices and white voices of my classmates, so it felt like my duty to speak out … for all the Black youth who look like me.” Today, that focus is essential as she works to organize activists and push legislation centered around the voices of young Black people.

“Although [youth activists] may not always have the resources to do certain things, we find a way to make it happen,” Eastmond says.

The Nashville teenagers took that improvisational spirit to heart. Even with the help of Black Lives Matter and other organizations getting the word out, they expected a smaller turnout, roughly 800 to 1,000 people, Fuller says. But as the June 4 protest got underway, “more people were just winding down the street. It was crazy,” she says. Fortunately, the teens were prepared with volunteers, legal help and medics. 

Among the masses was Elizabeth Dossett, a Boston-based immigration activist. “It was super well-organized,” Dossett says. “Communication was very clear, people [were] giving out water.” She felt the community spirit and was struck by how many kids and families were there. “Nashville is a really segregated city, and it was powerful to see communities coming together in this moment,” she adds. 

We need to fix the system right now so that [our kids] don’t have to protest for this.

Jade Fuller

While the teens don’t condemn violence at certain demonstrations, the community feel of the protest they organized meant they were careful to avoid skirmishes with officers. So, again, they adapted smartly to what was happening on the ground. “Anytime we would see the riot police, we just rerouted,” Green explains. “We think it’s kind of funny they called the National Guard on 14- and 15-year-olds,” Smith says with a laugh, noting that several police officers kneeled, but “only when the news showed up.”

With this insight and humor, the teens also brought energy. In a Zoom call, they project commitment and outrage, often interrupting one another with historical information and pertinent statistics. They debate their schedule as they jump from “podcast to TV spot, interview to photo shoot — not to sound cocky,” Fuller says. “Not to sound cocky,” the others chime in.

At times, the girls reminisce about simpler days. “I like a quiet life.… It’s been two weeks since I’ve played Fortnite!” laments Green. But the desire for a better future outweighs the time lost scrolling through TikTok curled up in bed. 

They each brought a different perspective to the table, but they all have a personal connection with the fight for racial justice. “I have a [younger] brother and it really worries me that next year I’m gonna have to talk to him about what to do when you encounter a police officer,” Green says. “I don’t want to think about that. I don’t want to think about losing him to some people that say they’re supposed to protect and serve all people of America.”

“We’re all fed up,” says Smith. Adds Fuller, “We need to fix the system right now so that [our kids] don’t have to protest for this.” Eastmond agrees: “We hold no tolerance for BS and we’re just really tired of the foolishness that’s happening in the world. If nobody else is going to do it, it’s our turn to take the baton and have these uncomfortable conversations and hold people accountable and vote people out. That’s what this generation is really about.”

The members of Teens4Equality have taken the baton and are running. On their Instagram page, which has more than 25,000 followers, they share resources and information, calling attention to local, national and international issues. And their next event is already in the works: a red, black and blue protest on July 4, complete with Black-owned barbecue vendors and a voter registration drive.

The 30-Day Justice Plan

Eight minutes and 46 seconds: That’s how long it took an officer of the Minneapolis Police Department to take the life of George Floyd, a cheerful father of two who was a great athlete and loved to dance. What can you do with that amount of time?

As the reset of America is underway, understanding the role you can play in a system of change can be difficult, but we encourage you to listen, learn and be active — as we are also trying to.

While this is not a comprehensive list, we encourage our readers, especially non-Black ones, to use the time you have to take steps toward justice. To start, spend more than eight minutes and 46 seconds a day to be part of this change.

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

  • Watch Megan Ming Francis’ “Let’s Get to the Root of Racial Injustice” TEDx Talk.

Day 4 

Day 5

Day 6

  • Dinner and a movie: Order food from a local Black-owned restaurant and watch Ava DuVernay’s 13th on Netflix.

Day 7

  • Watch Alfre Woodard performing Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech.

Day 8

Day 9

Days 10–16

  • Read The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander, after buying it from a Black-owned bookstore.

Day 17

  • Give your copy of The New Jim Crow to a friend and spend a day reflecting on what you’ve learned.

Day 18 

Day 19

  • Donate to the Movement for Black Lives.
  • Call your local elected leaders and police chief to advocate for police de-escalation training, if they don’t require it already.

Day 20

Day 21 

Day 22

Days 23–26 

Day 27

Day 28

Day 29

Day 30

Compiled with inspiration from Justice in June, by Bryanna Wallace and Autumn Gupta, and Anti-Racism Resources, by Sarah Sophie Flicker and Alyssa Klein.

5 Voices Who Are Resetting America

Audre Lorde’s 1984 essay “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” examines how those benefiting from an existing system may not have the will or the capacity to deconstruct it. In recent days, as the need for a reconstruction — or at least significant renovation — to the “house” of American society is becoming ever more apparent, the architects chosen will be vital. Here are five voices of the moment we think you should know.

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Samuel Sinyangwe

An activist and data scientist, Sinyangwe, 30, is one of the founders of Campaign Zero, a national organization focused on ending police violence. While you’ll see him in the media less often than co-founders Deray McKesson and Brittany Packnett Cunningham, who made their names in the Black Lives Matter movement during the Ferguson, Missouri, protests, Sinyangwe is bringing the stats to this fight. He has helped create the most comprehensive database of police violence in the country, to pave the way to comprehensive solutions. The group recently released its #8CantWait campaign to spotlight eight policy fixes that research shows correlate with a drop in police killings.

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Brittney Cooper

Cooper, 39, is an author, educator, activist and cultural critic whose research spans from Black feminist theory to hip-hop. In the Rutgers University professor’s eye-opening TED Talk, she discusses the racial politics of time and how it has been stolen from people of color in this country, delaying progress. The Louisiana native’s most recent book is the aptly titled Eloquent Rage.

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Ibram X. Kendi

Kendi, 37, is a historian and the New York Times best-selling author of How to Be an Antiracist. Through memoir-based writing, Kendi makes antiracism accessible, forcing readers to reexamine their own deeply held biases. A New York native, he is the founding director of the Antiracist Research & Policy Center at American University. Kendi is a vegan and a cancer survivor.

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Elle Hearns

The fights for justice for the LGBTQ community and Black community have been intertwined from the beginning. Rates of violence are even higher against transgender Black people, including the recent killing of Tony McDade. Hearns is the founder and executive director of the Marsha P Johnson Institute, which fights for the rights of transgender Black folks. A native of Columbus, Ohio, she splits her time between Washington, D.C., and Harlem.

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Thea Monyeé

Healing is an essential part of the fight for justice, and artist and therapist Monyeé focuses on healing through the decolonization of joy and pleasure in much of her work, including her podcast, Shaping the Shift. The Los Angeles resident is the author of Murmurs of a MadWoman: An Unconventional Memoir and is working on becoming a licensed sex therapist.

This Non-Binary Comedian Is Finding Humanity in the Pandemic

  • Jes Tom is a fast-rising New York comedian who is breaking ground as a non-binary person on stage who uses the pronouns ‘they/them.’
  • Tom’s uplifting brand of comedy stands out — particularly during the pandemic.
  • They are part of a movement of non-white LGBT comedians gaining popularity on the scene.

Amid feeds filled with feuds and outrage on everything from pandemic-defying spring breakers to actress Gal Gadot’s take on the song “Imagine,” the comedian stands for a selfie in front of a budding cherry blossom. “Fighting racism by being Asian and hot,” declares Jes Tom, a joke that garnered an unexpected response.

In came hundreds of replies from Asian-presenting people with their own selfies, dutifully retweeted by Tom, in a strike against soaring anti-Asian racism that represented a rare uplifting moment — both for comedy and for Twitter.

But unexpectedly uplifting is not new for the 29-year-old comedian. A non-binary, transgender Asian American who uses the “they/them” pronouns, Tom also practices a kind of comedy that doesn’t slash and burn in the manner of Dave Chappelle or Louis C.K., and one that might be finding a new voice in 2020. “To me, humor is very algebraic,” says Tom. “You’re solving for X. … Things right now are so bad, and getting worse, and I want everyone to be able to laugh about it.” During the pandemic, along with virtual shows on Zoom and Instagram Live, Tom is working on a new hour about searching for the humor and humanity. “What does it mean to have a crush in the face of a global pandemic?” they ask.

Tom grew up in San Francisco surrounded by extended family and close friends. An early performance memory was a Christmastime puppet show of dinosaurs singing to the soundtrack of The Sound of Music. “I remember my aunt just absolutely losing it, and I was like ‘Yes, I’m crushing it. I’m crushing it.’” It led to a theater major at Smith College, then to the New York stand-up comedy scene. “I figured I could try acting, improv or stand-up, and stand-up was the one I could go do immediately, so I did.” They advanced to performing three to four shows a night on both coasts alongside names like Awkwafina and Rosie O’Donnell. But lately Tom’s repertoire has expanded and includes shoots for upcoming HBO series, audiobook recordings and several short films.

I like when people call me ‘they.’ It makes me feel less lonely.

Jes Tom

Whether sharing recommendations for Filipino restaurants in Queens or delving into topics of intersectional inequity, Tom carries a magnetic energy. “Even just a walk with Jes [becomes entertaining] … because they will notice and observe things in a way I never would have,” says Lauren Zelaya, curator at the Brooklyn Museum and a longtime friend. 

Tom’s observational style and identity is core to their comedy: “I do go by the gender-neutral pronoun they/them. I like when people call me ‘they.’ It makes me feel less lonely,” Tom joked during a recent set. “I do find people have a hard time reading me. People tend to think I’m this hot, cool dyke, and I think I’m a little twink. Like, people think I’m an Ellen Page when really I’m a Michael Cera,” Tom said at another. With this wit, they make often-difficult themes of identity approachable. “There’s a level of trust and care and self-awareness Jes has,” Zelaya says. “They’re able to invite audience members in, in a funny and caring way.” 

But this comedic education doesn’t come without difficulty. They have given up on correcting people about their pronouns in certain parts of their life. “Because of that, I have the energy to go on stage and explain this over and over and over again,” Tom says. “My dream is to get past the point in my career where I have to use my comedy educationally.”

Rosa Escandón, a fellow New York stand-up and comedy writer, says the work of Tom and others will change the future of identity-based comedy, so it “doesn’t have to teach you, but pushes new narratives and makes you think.”

Tom is part of a growing movement of non-white queer comics like Bowen Yang, Jaboukie Young-White, Julio Torres, Sydnee Washington, Ana Fabrega, Joel Kim Booster and Dewayne Perkins. In the past several years we’ve seen white LGBTQ comedians such as Tig Notaro, Hannah Gadsby and John Early become stars, and Escandón notes the “trickle-down hierarchy” of who society allows to tell jokes. She sees this as a societal shift rather than one specific to the comedy scene: “We’ve opened the doors of culture for people to say it on stage.” Yet she warns not to overplay this surge: “There are people who want that ‘good old boy’ comedy. I don’t think that’s going away … there are now just also newer and more interesting things going on.”

Tom adds that the power of humor as a coping mechanism draws in people with traditionally oppressed identities. “Something really bad will happen to me and I have to be like, ‘This is so funny.’”

Lately, Tom has discussed on stage how they’re taking testosterone. It’s been commended as brave, but Tom says it’s no more so than other comedians opening up about taking antidepressants or getting an abortion. “Everyone has their shit,” Tom says. “I just take a shot every week and now I’m really strong and hungry all the time. That’s what’s going on in my life, so I talk about it.” 

OZY’s Five Questions with Jes Tom

  • What is the most recent book you’ve finished? Well, I didn’t exactly finish, but Stone Butch Blues. It’s such a sad book with so much trauma, and I got to a happy part and put it down because I didn’t want to see what happens next.
  • What do you worry about? Well, it’s a highly worrying time right now. … I’m worried about our slowing morale. I’m worried about all the people whose lives are going to get worse. I’m worried about when we’re going to lose hope. 
  • What is one thing you can’t live without? Bubble tea. That’s my vice.
  • Who is your hero? I don’t have heroes. Heroes disappoint you. My heroes are my peers, are my friends.
  • What is an item on your bucket list? I want to go to Tokyo Disneyland. … And I want to do an HBO special. 

This Weekend: Find That Perfect Summer Wine

The Weekender is a special collaboration between OZY Tribe members near and far to provide delicious recommendations for your weekend inside. This week, we’re excited to bring you special recommendations from our partners at monthly wine club Bright Cellars.

What to Drink on a Virtual Museum Tour

Notes, Pinot Grigio, 2019 — Fruits and Flowers. This California pinot brings forward strong notes of citrus, stone fruit and flowers, perfect while virtually visiting the home and museum of Georgia O’Keeffe — an artist known for her sexy, modernist approach to fruit and flora. Get this wine and others delivered to your door for $50 off when you get started with Bright Cellars.

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Wellfleet, Chenin Blanc, 2019 — High Society. Enjoy the best of Degas, Gauguin, Monet and more on the digital tour of Parisian-train-station-turned-art-palace the Musee D’Orsay while sipping this classy, vibrant wine with hints of white peach, yellow apple and perfumed honey. Just don’t let on that you’re drinking a non-French wine to any Parisians. Get it here.

Havelock, Sauvignon Blanc, 2018 — Fresh and Funky. If you’re up for something new and funky, this lively, New Zealand sauvignon blanc is packed with a myriad of flavors, from citrus and stone fruits to fresh herbs and white pepper. Try it now while browsing experimental works of contemporary art at new York’s MoMA.

What to Drink With Your Backyard Picnic

4 Cellars, Grenache Rosé, 2017 — Classic. The intense flavors of watermelon and fresh strawberries in this California rosé will bring you back to childhood picnics — but not the sad paper plate affairs you actually had, rather the fake dream of plaid woolen blankets atop a grassy lawn on a sunny day. Get it now and pair it with a fresh tomato sandwich sprinkled with flaky salt.

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Source Bright Cellars

Mulderbosch, Rosé of Cabernet Sauvignon, 2018 — Coastal Flair. This wine is South African, but its zippy notes of lemon and raspberry will take you straight to the beaches of Sorrento, Italy. Pair it with some prosciutto and melon to transform your yard into the Italian coast. Get this wine and others delivered to your door for $50 off when you get started with Bright Cellars.

What to Drink While Your Bread Rises

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Source Bright Cellars

Wandering Giants, Barbera, 2018 — Cozy Nights In. This grape is traditionally Italian, but this wine is made from a Northern Californian crop, softened with warm notes of cinnamon, clove and ripe berries. When there’s a springy chill in the air, you can soothe your irritation that it should already be summer by trying your hand at a new bread recipe (like this one!) and then curl up under a blanket with a glass of this while the sourdough proves. Get it here.

And whatever you do, don’t…

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Eat dinner with creepy dolls. Faced with having to leave tables empty to allow diners to social distance, the Michelin-starred Virginia eatery Inn at Little Washington will fill the dining room with well-dressed mannequins. Because that will definitely make everyone less uncomfortable. (Washingtonian)

SLIDE INTO OUR DMS

Do you have a killer potato salad recipe that you’d like to share? Think you discovered the next great jam band? Share your suggestions with us here at OZY! Email us: Weekender@ozy.com.