Heads up, everyone! There are new rules again, so I want everyone paying attention. Eating your food the way you’ve been taught to with forks and knives (because this is the West and it’s what we do) is racist and it hurts people who are still upset about colonization from hundreds of years ago. Writing in “Today’s Parent,” Joshana Maharaj is outraged, I tell you, just outraged that some teacher somewhere in Canada told a little girl not to eat rice with her hands.
This prompted her to write about learning how to eat around the world, where using hands is acceptable and how the West is just racist by using utensils, or something.
Recently, I chatted with someone who told me a story about her young niece, who goes to a prestigious preschool and was eating rice with her hands at lunchtime. The feedback her parents received was that this child needed to work on her table manners and use proper cutlery to eat. I immediately felt a rush of anger bubble up inside me when I heard this. The message that eating food with your hands is an unmannered way to eat is a real problem for me because it is dripping with the control and shame of colonization, which is particularly dangerous in an educational context. Suggesting that a child who eats with her hands has no manners is an echo of European colonial powers looking to tame the wildness out of the people they controlled. These European table manners were imposed on conquered people in an attempt to “civilize” them. It’s a damaging message about right and wrong ways to do things. It positions the technique as superior and the people who practise it as setters of the standard, leaving those with a different approach to eating with a status of inferiority. The idea of a single standard of acceptable table manners is just one of a host of strategies used to grow and promote racism. It’s a subtle message but one that is reinforced three times a day, every day, which makes it quite powerful.
Oh for crying out loud! For the most part in her essay, she explains that certain manners are for certain foods: chopsticks for sushi, and hands for naan, which makes sense and we do that in my house. But if you’re in a Western prep school, you need to use the table manners of the West. It’s not racist. It’s giving respect to the culture you’re in. You’re not in China. We eat rice with forks here in the West. If you are in China, then you probably want to put the fork down. I don’t think this has anything to do with colonialism, but with respecting the culture you’re in. “Recognizing diversity in cultural backgrounds and food traditions is essential, especially in a country as multicultural as Canada,” wrote Maharaj, totally unironically.