End the “lunchbox moment”.

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Earlier this month, Kim Saira started a petition that now boasts over 40,000 signatures (change.org). Saira’s petition wants to fight anti-Asian racism through an unusual venue: by opposing one of the sections on The Late Late Show with James Corden, “Spill Your Guts or Fill Your Guts.”

​In this recurring segment, a celebrity sits opposite Corden around a spread of apparently revolting foods. Each takes turns selecting one that their opposite will have to consume should they decline to answer an embarrassing question. Justin Bieber swigs a shrimp-and-chili-pepper smoothie in lieu of admitting which country is home to his least favorite fans (YouTube). Instead of eating bull penis, Kim Kardashian discloses that her then-husband Kanye West’s most annoying habit is falling asleep in public (YouTube). Alicia Keys chooses to take a bite of an ant-covered pickle instead of saying which city she most dislikes performing in (YouTube).

The fun of this segment is based on disgust: we see our famous celebrities shriek, gag, and embarrass themselves confronted with revolting foods. Some of the items featured were clearly specially created to evoke just such revulsion: hot dog juice, hot sauce and olive jello, the aforementioned ant pickle.

The trouble is that other dishes are just normal, non-Anglo food: cow tongue, which appears in Korean BBQ and in tacos as lengua; chicken feet, a dim sum staple; or durian, a popular Southeast Asian fruit with a strong aroma. Some of these are presented in the least appetizing way possible such as the cow tongue, which appears unseasoned and whole. Others, like Chinese century eggs, are evidently grotesque enough as they are for Corden and guests to theatrically dry heave in disgust (Inkstone News).

Nobody is obligated to enjoy every food and there are some that each of us might emphatically refuse to taste. But dramatizing the “grossness” of Asian foods for popular entertainment is a low blow, especially given that so many immigrants in the United States are mocked for the food they eat. It’s repugnant coming from a celebrity with a large audience and influence, since that media plays a key role in giving permission to react with disgust to “exotic” dishes.

“The story of being bullied in the cafeteria for one’s lunch is so ubiquitous that it’s attained a gloss of fictionality,” writes Jaya Saxena. “It’s become metonymy for the entire diaspora experience; to be a young immigrant or child of immigrants is to be bullied for your lunch, and vice versa.” In my case, I got to hear about how disgusting all of my fourth grade classmates thought it was that I brought kimbap instead of a sandwich for lunch one day. That this is a common and widely recounted experience makes Corden’s display of Asian foods for shock, disgust, and amusement especially repulsive.

But no food is inherently disgusting, even if it’s a new dish from an unfamiliar culture. The “lunchbox moment” – that experience that many children of color have when they’re shamed by their peers for what they brought for lunch – doesn’t just happen, it’s learned and perpetuated through pop culture. Although it exists for many, it’s anything but universal. One Indian girl growing up in South Dakota, for instance, found her white classmates reacted to Indian food “with either genuine curiosity or ‘at worst boredom’” (Eater).

That’s because disgust – especially the over-the-top enactments of it that are the bread and butter of the “Spill Your Guts” segments – is something we’re taught and something we teach each other. That’s not to say if, when left to our own devices, we’d find each and every new food wonderfully appealing. But we are taught that expressing public revulsion at some things is permissible and even encouraged (immigrant lunches, cow tongues), but that being disgusted at other things is a sign you have no class or taste (French haute cuisine, your mother-in-law’s signature dish). Public disgust at things that seem foreign isn’t just a matter of taste but a political act, and not a very good one at that.

That’s why 40,000+ people have signed onto the Change.org petition against “Spill Your Guts.” “In the wake of the constant Asian hate crimes that have continuously been occurring, not only is this segment incredibly culturally offensive and insensitive, but it also encourages anti-Asian racism,” it reads. “So many Asian Americans are consistently bullied and mocked for their native foods, and this segment amplifies and encourages it” (Change.org). On Instagram, @intersectional.abc is making videos showing how delicious some of the show’s “gross” foods actually are (Instagram). And we can all rethink the instinct to reject or disrespect new or unexpected foods or cultural practices.

Key Takeaways

  • In “Spill Your Guts” segments, James Corden and guests have to eat “gross” foods or answer uncomfortable questions.

  • Many of these dishes are just non-Anglo foods that Corden and guests react to with horror and disgust.

  • We can choose to react to unfamiliar foods or practices with respect instead of revulsion.

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