Ethnography of the University / Ethnography of the University: Focus on Diversity 2021 / Undergraduate Ethnography

Digestible Diversity, By Isabella Gillard (Ethnography of the University 2021: Focus on Diversity)

This blog post was part of the coursework for the Ethnographic Practicum course, “Ethnography of the University 2021: Focus on Diversity.” It was originally posted in the category “On Being Included.”

A common theme that arose from my interviews was a discrepancy between the campus food presented and labelled as ethnic food and the original dish. Nadia confided to me that the “Indian food” (which she put air quotes around) served in the Victoria college dining hall wasn’t “real”: the butter chicken curry was watery and an alarming orange colour that tasted like a “microwaveable meal.” In a similar sentiment, Helen told me she quickly realized in her first year that the Chinese food in the New College dining hall was “fake” and if she wanted authentic Chinese food she would need to trek to Chinatown. Viv informed me that the ethnic food failed to live up to her expectations and that of her international friends because they were “watered down versions” of the real deal. In other words, “Westernized versions” were bland because they did not utilize the necessary spices and ingredients to recreate the original dish. Melia put it succinctly when she said campus catering companies were “trying to cook food from other cultures by using white ingredients.” Applying Sara Ahmed’s concept of “digestible difference” I argue that these Westernized versions of cultural dishes represent a stripped version of diversity that is more palatable to white students, who may not have been exposed to ethnic food before (Ahmed, 2012, 204). This reveals a normative student who is catered to by the institution, and both the institution and this ideal white student can only stomach so much difference before it becomes “indigestible” (Ahmed, 2012, 204).  In other words, diversity is delicious and exciting but if it becomes too spicy then it must be watered down to suit a white palate, even if this sacrifices the authenticity.

It became clear to me that there is an ideal student who feels more comfortable in the dining hall and is satisfied by the food. In other words, they feel at home on campus. These students tend to be white and grew up in Canada or other Western countries, such as Danni or Rebecca who I interviewed. Neither of them had grown up eating ethnic food because they were from small towns in Ontario, therefore they enjoyed the dining hall ethnic food because it was different from what they usually ate at home. At the time they didn’t know what authentic ethnic food was supposed to taste like, so they accepted the dining hall versions as the real deal. It wasn’t until they became friends with international students that they learned the food wasn’t representative, but although this was disconcerting, they continued to eat the Westernized versions because it was tasty without being too spicy. This process of “stranger making” constructed an institutional space through food where white students felt more at home because they were assumed to be the norm and thus their tastes were prioritized and catered for (Ahmed, 2012, 3). On the other hand, international students like Helen felt like they had to “eat in a Canadian way” to fit in, even though it made them feel more homesick in the process.

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