Internet of Food: The Great Chicken Sandwich Race
Disclaimer: This is going to make you feel uncomfortable, and if it does, then my mission is fulfilled. I also do not speak for all Black people. Black people are not a monolith. While Black people have a racial connection, we are of different cultures, life experiences, and socioeconomic classes that influence how we interpret and react to events and interactions.
Unless you’ve been under a rock for the past two weeks, the internet has been engaging in a War of the Worlds level crusade about fast food chain fried chicken sandwiches. From think pieces to videos to tweets to articles, everybody who’s anybody (and not), has had commentary. Some funny, some kitschy, some disparaging and of course some of it tone-deaf. And I read all of it; I was even part of it, (a few of my tweets were quoted in the New Yorker piece).
Mainstream media has done an excellent job of capitalizing off of the chicken frenzy. While I value the opinions and work of these writers, I believe a few things were overlooked, namely consumer responsibility, cultural context, and the power of social media. I also recognize deadlines and that editors play a role in what gets published.
How did we get here?
For approximately six weeks before the national release, the online community known as Black Twitter, (just because you are Black doesn’t mean you’re a part of Black Twitter), was already exchanging pleasantries and reviews on the crusted wonder on a brioche bun. For weeks we quietly engaged with each other about the $4 miracle, uninterrupted. And then one day when it has crossed over into the world of ‘pop culture’ and trendiness it became a problem.
42.4% of fast food is eaten by Black people in comparison to 37.6% of white people.
While much of the commentary was directed at the media, the subtle talking points addressed at the consumer come across as culturally tone-deaf albeit unintentionally. The chicken sandwich only seemed to become problematic when non-white people began to eat it or viral videos some new, some very old, surfaced. Many of the videos featured unsavory depictions of people fighting, lining up in droves and sometimes harassing employees. When it was mostly Black people munching and crunching, all was silent on the internet. Seeing the sudden change of interest is concerning. Makes you wonder if subconsciously, the media only cares when it affects whites? And there’s significant evidence to prove it isn’t subconscious and obviously goes beyond food.
Why now is there a need to put the sins of the poultry and fast food industry on the consumers, some of whom are working in those same establishments? The average consumer has a fundamental knowledge if any at all about the inner workings of food and agricultural labor practice and food systems. That’s perfectly fine actually because most people are under the impression that their elected officials have the knowledge and power to address and correct these inequities. And I’m by no means saying that people shouldn’t know how a food system works or not be involved in pushing back again injustices.
Why isn’t the level of outrage present when it’s something non-Black people are lined up for? Think about that. I know they exist but it’s often a blip on the radar. Why is that? Hmmmmm.
But let’s also bring up the economics of the $4 sandwich that is far more physically accessible with most Popeyes located in the Black neighborhoods of urban metropolises. I live within a one-mile radius myself of three Popeyes all in different directions. Black people also make less money than white people, meaning they have less discretionary spending and less money to spend on food. If you’re a member of the working poor or the formerly lower middle class, taking your family out for a meal can break the bank literally. But treating your family to a $4 sandwich is much more realistic for a family of four. One seems more feasible. My friend, a mother of two, even commented to me that she prefers Popeyes. She knows her entire family can eat for $10 or less, (she buys the four or six-piece chicken meals sometimes). Accessibility, time-saving, and did I mention Popeyes makes some of the best chicken overall and it’s cheap!
It’s not right to put that amount of pressure on consumers over a $4 chicken sandwich when there are many other factors to consider. And, unfortunately, the same people that tried the sandwich first were logically also the first to initially talk about it on social media. What this ends up looking like is Black people shouldn’t be eating Popeyes because of said social issues.
Of course, people know somewhere in the food system somebody is getting screwed over. They’re not stupid, some may be unaware, but they’re not stupid. It doesn’t mean that they don’t care or are naive about what’s happening. For some people, it’s a priority for others; it’s not that they don’t care, it’s just that they are too poor themselves to take on another struggle. This isn’t a cop-out, or a means to excuse people from what’s going on, but there isn’t the same level of condemnation for people grocery shopping. Food insecurity and accessibility is a serious problem in this country, and as some of us know that sometimes the only guarantee is the chicken sandwich.
Are Black people allowed to experience happiness?
But with all the dumpster fires happening in this world, specifically in this country, why can’t Black people ever enjoy anything? Why is it whenever we find the slightest bit of joy in anything no matter how small, we are automatically demonized and must feel the wrath of respectability politics. Black celebrities, elites, and some intellectuals came out in droves to chastise us for being able to spend $4 on chicken but not having the same energy for voting. Ummm hello, the Stacy Abrams election in Atlanta! Has anybody been paying attention to the wave of voter suppression happening across the country, particularly in the South? I’m talking about you Janell Monáe, thankfully, she quickly apologized and retracted her statements. I’m glad people also spoke up. Or the number of people who said they wished Black people would come out and protest the way they came out for this chicken. People get hungry during protesting. Just because you don’t see people actively protesting a cause, doesn’t mean they’re not involved. This country, Black people, in particular, have to stop blaming each other for these issues. Keep that same energy for non-Black people; they were in line too!
Popeyes received the equivalent of $23 million dollars in free advertising thanks to social media.
Quite a few misguided and uninformed individuals pointed out that Popeyes is white-owned and we should have this same energy for Black establishments. We do, though. Social media has shown up and showed out for many burgeoning Black business owners – even if we don’t live in the same state! But also, I can’t line up to get Bun B’s Hot Wang sandwich at Antones Poboy in Houston if I’m in NYC, but I can promote it. People definitely did that. Also, some of those Popeyes are Black-owned, because, like many other fast-food chains, they franchise. I said all that to say; those doing the nagging with the “make sure you keep the same energy for Black-owned businesses Black people,” thank you but also tell your white counterparts this too.
Why does it always have to be about race?
The sight of Black people lining up to enjoy a chicken sandwich from a company that to some degree uses a modern caricature of a mammy figure to sell fried chicken might actually be rooted in something much deeper. See one thing I noticed in all of this commotion was the failure to mention race. Sorry, but you can’t talk about fried chicken in this country without talking about race. Frying chicken most likely wouldn’t exist had it not been for America’s original sin, slavery. The art of frying, yes it’s an art, was brought here by our ancestors from West Africa.
I saw only one article reference the history of fried chicken. Which to sum it up while Black Americans are responsible for fried chicken, they also were ridiculed for eating it. As many of you should know, Black people were and still continue to be stereotyped for their association with fried chicken. Many racist tropes were created and have been passed down throughout the years to the point that some Black people are ashamed or uncomfortable eating fried chicken in public places.
So when you do the math, racist history of fried chicken towards Blacks in the US + Black people created the hype surrounding the Popeyes chicken sandwich + ‘people’ being denigrated for eating chicken sandwiches and allegedly not caring about (insert relevant social issue here) + respectability politics from Black figureheads = reinforcing racist and white supremacist rhetoric. And the equation alone tells us why you have to talk about race.
Was it intentional? Probably not, but that’s also why it’s essential to have diversity at all levels of media, from the writer to the editors to the artists to publishers. Some of the commentaries come off condescending towards the Black community. We already have the weight of the world on our shoulders don’t berate us for enjoying an accessible $4 sandwich, because for the first time in a long time, the rich, poor, Black and white we all agreed on something that we all could take part in.