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Racism at Bon Appétit didn't start with Adam Rapoport or Puerto Ricans. Why would it end?

The magazine's toxic environment was just a small part the ongoing commoditization of Puerto Rican culture by affluent white people.
Image: Adam Rapoport
Adam Rapoport attends The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NYSPCC) - Food & Wine Gala in New York on Nov. 14, 2016.Jared Siskin / Patrick McMullan via Getty Images file

Puerto Ricans love to cook, and the women in my family were no exception. Bon Appétit was one of the magazines they read cover to cover, cutting out the so-called international recipes and filing them away with care in index card boxes. I would steal them away to read them, but I don’t remember seeing anything that was Puerto Rican. Maybe there would be something with pigeon peas or roast pork, or some fried food (that we might see cooked in lard at a roadside kiosk), but nothing that jumped out as special enough to make my mother, aunts and grandmother want to keep it.

One would think that, in the decades since, a magazine which says that it is where “food and culture meet” with an editor, Adam Rapoport, who in recent messages of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement touted that “all food is political,” would have a broader view of food, culture and politics than the one I grew up reading.

Well, if food is political, there is a mofongo stuck in your throat.

Rapoport, who helmed Bon Appétit since 2010 and was at the magazine’s parent company, Condé Nast, for 20 years, announced his resignation this week after a photo of him dressed as a Puerto Rican “thug,” complete with brownface, a durag and bling — alongside his wife, the artist Simone Shubuck, in similar attire — was posted on Twitter.

Rapoport’s wife had posted the Halloween picture on her public Instagram feed in 2013 (Rapaport now says it was taken in 2003), but, like bad habichuelas, it was regurgitated after a freelance writer posted screenshots of an old conversation she’d had with Rapoport in which she asked how her work as a Puerto Rican food writer could find a “way in” to Bon Appétit.

The “way in,” apparently, was to bow to the racist culture instituted at Bon Appétit — confirmed by current and former black and brown employees, Rapoport and the remaining leadership — and to decolorize our “native” food so that it fits into the ongoing commoditization of our culture by affluent white people.

A recent recipe for “Creole Chicken-Stuffed Mofongo“ is a case in point. Mofongo is a delicious and easy dish made with fried green plantains mashed up into a ball with garlic and chicharron (fried pork skin.) Served in a mortar, mofongo is Puerto Rico’s signature dish — a blend of the Spanish and African influence — and the heart of the island; it is eaten almost everyday. The recipe in Bon Appétit looked nothing like the mofongo Puerto Ricans eat at home because we tend not to put the entire kitchen sink in it to make it more “exotic.”

And that’s the only mofongo recipe Bon Appétit has published in the last 10 years. But just look at how many different ways they’ll teach readers how to make Italian spaghetti and meatballs — even though the dish isn’t even really Italian.

It is very hard to believe that a grown man who held a decision-making position in a prominent magazine dedicated to culture did not know or understand that brownface, let alone the rest of his costume, was wrong, whether in 2003 when he now says it was taken or 2013 when the picture went up on Instagram.

On the contrary, the "Puerto Rican” costume was a deliberate construction of a caricature of Puerto Rican culture — and how the economic marginalization of that culture in the United States is an object of “fun” for rich white people.

Rapoport and his wife were not simply playing Halloween dress-up; they were rich, white racists using Halloween to reinforce their personal stereotypes about poor Puerto Ricans in urban areas, of which they likely personally knew none. Their costumes were not and are not representative of the culture of Puerto Rico or its people; it only represents a privileged white person’s view of Puerto Ricans as poor and violent.

The funny thing is that, if you asked a Puerto Rican, we wouldn’t have known he was dressed up as us. As Roger Maldonado, the former president of the New York City Bar Association, told me, “My reaction to that was, hell, no one in Puerto Rico would say that is what Puerto Ricans look like, because it’s not true.”

But to white privileged people like Rapoport, his wife and their friends, Puerto Ricans are not only poor and dress like thugs, we are thugs. At best, maybe we might be the caricatures from “West Side Story” — like Anita, played in the movie by the incandescent Rita Moreno, forced to darken her skin and adopt an accent to play her own ethnicity in a play about Puerto Ricans written by a wealthy white guy who grew up on Central Park West — or a singing Lin-Manuel Miranda playing the white Alexander Hamilton.

Not on your life: funnily enough, according to a (tongue-in-cheek) study by a computational biologist at the University of California at Berkeley, we Puerto Ricans are close to perfect human beings due to the mix of alleles that come from our mix of Spanish, African and Taino Indian heritage. I do not know if we are that close to perfection — Lord knows we have our problems — but we are a special people with a deep-seated pride, courage and resilience, and we love our island with abandon.

Outed, of course, Rapoport engaged in the time-honored mea culpa. In a statement on Instagram, Rapoport said he stepped down from his role to “reflect on the work that I need to do as a human being and to allow Bon Appétit to get to a better place.” The remaining leadership on Wednesday published a post vowing to prioritize people of color in the search to replace Rapoport, implement anti-racism training, eliminate racial pay disparities and end the toxic internal culture current and former employees had been calling out when the photo went viral.

This all sounds great, but the problem is, we’ve heard it all before. Two hour seminars, anti-racism training and a shuffling of the management deck chairs on the Titanic will do very little to repair hundreds of years of racism, colonialism and colorism in the broader society that he, his wife, their friends and the magazine were all mirroring. Maybe the protests in the streets and the Black Lives Matter movement, which clearly fed into the decisions to begin protesting the climate at the magazine, can begin to dismantle more than just police brutality and systemic racism. But they have to begin celebrating our differences, not just erasing them, by letting people of color tell our own stories.