*Of Course* the People Who Made the Bon Appétit Racism Podcast Were Also Racist

Unfortunately, hiring BIPOC folks doesn’t fix white supremacy

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Stacy Lee Kong

Feb 19 2021

13 mins read

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I keep thinking about this one moment in the first episode of The Test Kitchen, the podcast miniseries about racial injustice at Bon Appétit. Host Sruthi Pinnamaneni and Sue Li, a food stylist, recipe developer and former junior staffer at the magazine, are talking about Li’s time there. Specifically, they’re talking about a story she pitched on soup dumplings that was rejected, then, after she left the magazine, assigned to another writer. A white one, of course.

 

Even now, ten years after this all went down, Li gets emotional talking about it. The conversation is an extremely powerful moment in the episode, one that makes it clear that even though Li, now a contributor to NYT Cooking, says she’s “worked through it” and “worked hard [to] move on,” her trauma still lingers.

 

But it’s not just her totally valid pain that I keep coming back to. It’s that she was so vulnerable—to the point of shedding tears—with someone we now know treated others just like Li had been treated by the higher ups at Bon Appétit. Imagine how it must have felt to realize that she hadn’t actually confided in an ally, but instead another abuser.

 

We were all so excited. How did it all go wrong?

 

A bit of backstory: The Test Kitchen is a miniseries within a larger podcast, Reply All, which is produced by Gimlet Media, a podcast company and Spotify subsidiary that also makes shows like The Cut on Tuesdays and the Wall Street Journal’s The Journal.

On February 16, former Gimlet employee Eric Eddings posted a Twitter thread that made serious accusations about Pinnamaneni, who, in addition to being The Test Kitchen’s host is also a senior reporter for Reply All, and PJ Vogt, RA’s co-host & editorial director. “Last week I got an email from Sruthi about Reply All’s Test Kitchen series,” he wrote. “I had been avoiding listening but once I did I felt gaslit. The truth is RA and specifically PJ and Sruthi contributed to a near identical toxic dynamic at Gimlet.” (Eddings produced and co-hosted The Nod, a podcast about Black life, with Brittany Luse until last summer, when they were essentially pushed out.)

 

Vogt, his co-hosts Alex Goldman and Emmanuel Dzotsi, and their six-person staff, which includes Pinnamaneni, had sway with Gimlet’s higher-ups, Eddings says. “When they spoke, the company listened. But they rarely exercised this power beyond the scope of their team.” When he asked them to contribute more to diversity efforts at the company, Vogt brushed him off. Then, when unionization efforts began in 2019, Vogt, Goldman and Pinnamaneni tried to undermine those efforts, harassed members of the organizing committee and denigrated them to other colleagues. All this despite BIPOC staff making it clear to the RA team that unionizing was their “last chance at creating an environment within Gimlet where they could succeed,” Eddings says.

The fallout came quickly. By Wednesday evening, Vogt and Pinnamaneni had posted apologies on their Twitter accounts and Gimlet’s managing director, Lydia Polgreen, had addressed the situation in an internal email. She advised staff that Vogt had asked to step down from his role on RA and to take a leave of absence from the company, requests she’d granted. (Vulture later learned he would be leaving the show permanently.) Pinnamaneni had intended for The Test Kitchen to be her last Reply All project, but instead, she’d be stepping back from the show immediately. And, Polgreen said, she and the remaining RA team would be “discussing the plans for The Test Kitchen in the days ahead.”

 

“We’re not women of colour. I’m Indian. You’re Asian.”

 

It wasn’t super surprising to hear that Pinnamaneni had undermined diversity efforts, despite being a woman of colour. In The Test Kitchen’s first episode, she used her introduction to express her discomfort with the term and, it seemed to me, with the entire idea of solidarity between ethnic groups. “So, the first time someone in my life used the phrase ‘person of color’ to describe me—that was about six years ago,” she says. “I was at this small gathering, and a friend of mine, who’s Asian, referred to both of us as ‘women of color.’ And I said to her no, we’re not. I’m Indian. You’re Asian.”

  

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Even on my first listen, when I knew nothing about Pinnamaneni, much less her behaviour at Gimlet, I found that odd. Six years ago was 2015, and by then, the terms “people of colour” and "women of colour" were super common, as was the understanding that it acknowledged the similar ways white supremacist society disenfranchises racialized people, even if their specific experiences differ. (It's only recently that critique of those terms became common.) But who was I to question someone else’s understanding of their own identity? Besides, she went on to say that she would be using them even though she still feels uncomfortable, and that her discomfort stemmed from the worry that people would think she was conflating the type and scale of racism she’d experienced with what Black people experience, which seemed pretty thoughtful, at least. So, I shrugged and kept listening.

 

But that introduction, and the rest of the episode for that matter, feels completely different with the context we have now, particularly the interviews with Li and Yewande Komolafe, a former pastry chef who, like Li, had left her restaurant job to test recipes at Bon App as a freelancer. Both women spoke extensively about the emotional toll of being regarded as uncool, out of touch, inconsequential. They explained how it felt like they’d done something to deserve this treatment—Komolafe says she wondered if she didn’t do good work, if she was “too shy” or not brilliant in the way that these people [white staffers who rose through the ranks] are.” These conversations now seem... almost exploitative. I mean, you don't reveal things like this if you don’t trust the person you’re talking to, and it’s hard for me to believe that Pinnamaneni’s race did not play into the way her interview subjects—all people of colour—related to her.

 

Pinnamaneni uses The Test Kitchen to absolve herself

 

I’ve seen a few people say that Pinnamaneni acknowledges her behaviour in episode two, but I don’t think that’s actually true. She does briefly mention that she was against a union at Gimlet, but not until she’d spent almost the entire episode positioning herself in solidarity with the people who'd been mistreated at Bon App.

 

For example, in the intro to this episode, which is set in 2018, she explains that Anna Wintour had started telling managers at Condé Nast to hire POC, but that these magazines weren’t actually equipped to support racialized staff. It’s “the story of how things so often go in media,” she says. “If you work in media, and frankly in a lot of other industries, you’ve either seen this story or been a part of it. If you haven’t seen it, you were definitely a part of it.” The implication is clear: as a journalist of colour, she’d seen white managers do this time and time again.

Later, she explains that former Bon Appétit editor-in-chief Adam Rapoport’s “original sin” (that is, hiring exclusively white people for his leadership team) meant if a staff member—like then-editorial assistant Jesse Sparks—“felt weird or bad, there was no one with power he could go to, who he knew that would understand what was going on... The fixing would fall instead to people like Jesse. This dynamic exists at so many companies; it has certainly happened where I work. And this chapter is about what happens when the people with the least amount of power try to fix a place, and the toll it takes on them” (emphasis mine). Again, she’s implying something very different from reality—that she’s one of the people who lacked power but tried to fix a workplace, when in fact she deliberately undermined other BIPOC staffers’ efforts to do so.

It gets worse when she introduces listeners to Christina Chaey, who first worked at Bon Appétit years ago as assistant web editor, then left and returned in a more senior position—associate editor. She’s clearly Pinnamaneni’s surrogate in this story. Like her, Chaey was a woman of colour who, though she felt frustrated at racist missteps herself, initially threw her lot in with management. She’d been attached to Bon Appétit for a long time and felt “territorial” and even offended at the work Sparks, Ryan Walker-Hartshorn, Rapoport’s assistant, and Priya Krishna, a contributing writer who ended up filling the deputy editor’s maternity leave, were doing to drag the magazine into inclusivity. “Who are you to say these things about my team and my work? And ultimately, me?” she remembers thinking.

 

It’s only after the May 2020 meltdown at the magazine that she begins to grapple with what went on there—and, she says, she immediately felt guilty about her role. “There was truly a not insignificant amount of time when I felt as equally responsible for everything that happened,” she says. Pinnamaneni disagrees, arguing that she didn’t really have power to create change—if she challenged Rapoport, the “soft power” that she used to exert some influence or move the needle a little bit would go away. That's true—and to be clear, the fault for Bon App's racist and exploitative work environment lies with Rapoport and his senior team—but I also think that when she absolves Chaey in this way, Pinnamaneni is trying to absolve herself.

 

About the union-busting…

 

It’s at this point, with just about six minutes left in the episode, that Pinnamaneni finally mentions the Gimlet union.

 

“Even now, Christina’s left with real anger with herself. For that complicity, for not being on the right side or making the right choices. But I have to say, of all the people in this chapter, I identify with her the most,” she says. “The company where I work, Gimlet, had its own version of these problems. The white people who ran the place hired people of color and promised them change that never quite seemed to materialize. A group of employees tried to fix the place themselves and eventually things ended as these things often do—in a union drive. Plenty of people joined that fight. I did not. To the extent I talked about it, I talked about the way that their fight was stepping on my toes. It took eight months of reporting on Bon Appétit for me to see how wrong I was about all that, and if I’m honest, I’m still processing the anger that I feel toward myself.”

 

Hmm. “To the extent I talked about it, I talked about the way that their fight was stepping on my toes.” That’s definitely an interesting—or maybe totally inaccurate?—way to describe hosting a meeting that tried to “rally people against [the union],” as Eddings said in his Twitter thread. It also doesn’t really cover calling Eddings a piece of shit in a Slack message to Vogt and asking Vogt to tell him she said so.

It is easy to recognize white supremacy in white people. It can be much harder to see when BIPOC folks are perpetuating it. But that’s what we’re really talking about here—even in the watered-down version of her actions that Pinnamaneni includes in The Test Kitchen, it’s easy to see where her loyalties lie: with the white people, and white supremacist system, that paid her, promoted her and publicized her work.

When I first started writing this newsletter, I thought I knew what would “fix” The Test Kitchen. Clearly, if Pinnamaneni had been transparent about the problems at her own media company from the beginning, it would have made her union-busting and lack of solidarity if not better, at least less distracting. But now, I’m not sure that’s true. There's no way to think about what happened at Bon Appétit without placing it the larger context of what happens to racialized people at media companies, and allowing someone who committed abuses against BIPOC folks to delve into that was always going to be weird. It would also have explicitly shifted the focus from where it should be: on the people who came forward with their stories, despite the very real possibility of career consequences.

Though of course, not disclosing Reply All staffers' behaviour has led to the exact same outcome.

 

There are no workplaces where racism doesn’t happen

So: it's not just the cool food magazine that’s racist, it's also the company meant to excavate that racism in a podcast. And it's every other workplace in media—and outside of it, for that matter.

 

If there’s a lesson to be gleaned from this whole thing, it’s that there is not a single workplace where racism isn’t a problem. Even those with BIPOC staff still have to grapple with race, because we live in a white supremacist society that rewards whiteness, proximity to whiteness and the ability to fuck over your fellow people of colour to benefit whiteness. And that’s why just hiring racialized people is not enough. Businesses actually have to dismantle unbalanced systems, invest actual dollars in diversity, equity and inclusion and do the hard work to change their culture. And, as I’ve written about other industries, we need to make it easier for racialized people to start their own things that are completely divorced from white supremacist structures and cultures.

In a way, it’s kind of poetic that the future of The Test Kitchen is up in the air. It’s just proof that, without these structural changes, the same people who’ve traditionally lost—the Eddingses, Luses, Lis, Komolafes, Sparks, Walker-Hartshorns, Krishnas and Chaeys, not to mention me and likely many of you—will just keep losing.

 

And Did You Hear About…

 

FKA Twigs opening up about her abusive relationship with Shia LeBeouf. (Trigger warning: this one is v. difficult to read.)

 

Vulture’s definitive ranking of Miley Cyrus covers.

 

The cultural legacy of “the Brandy Cinderella.” (I mean.)

 

This trio of tweets that almost became the framework for this week’s newsletter: Zach Gilbert’s viral tweet about Lana Condor’s career trajectory versus Noah Centineo’s, Ahmed Ali Akbar’s reminder that this has happened before and Delia Cai’s observation that female thirst (a.k.a. the Internet Boyfriend Effect) helps propel hot dudes to fame, but their female co-stars rarely get the same boost.

 

Jezebel’s deep dive into how Cribs helped turn kitchens into status symbols.

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