Fojol Bros. worker Peter Korbel, Kipoto, in fake mustache and turban, assists… (Dominic Bracco/THE WASHINGTON…)
Neither Drew Franklin nor Arturo Viscarra has ever eaten at one of the Fojol Bros.’ three colorful, cross-cultural food trucks. Despite this fact, the two roommates have, in the course of a week, transformed one of the District’s most popular mobile vendors into one of the most despised.
It started on May 11 with Franklin’s semi-crude “Open Letter to the ‘Fojol’ Bro-dawgs” on Facebook and continued with Viscarra’s online petition at Change.org, which demanded that the Fojol Bros. “[r]espect Asian and African cultures — stop the brownface minstrel act!” As of Friday, more than 950 people had signed the petition, many expressing outrage over the cultural insensitivity of Fojol employees, who wear turbans and fake bushy mustaches and assume mythical personas from the lands of “Merlindia” and “Benethiopia” — all while peddling dishes inspired by the cuisines of India, Ethiopia and Thailand.
The charges of racism and cultural mockery have blindsided Fojol co-founder Justin Vitarello, who essentially pioneered the city’s modern food-truck movement when he rolled out his first Fojol Bros. vehicle during Barack Obama’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 2009. The charges have impacted his young, ethnically diverse staff, says Vitarello, and they have proven a huge distraction as his ever-growing business gears up for the busy summer months on Washington’s streets.
“This is all just happening,” Vitarello says. “This is a proactive move to de-legitimize us. . . . We’re still trying to understand what the situation is.”
So is almost everyone else. The petition campaign against the Fojols has created a sort of crisis of conscience for Washingtonians. Some have berated themselves for not speaking up before now, even though they’ve been troubled by the trucks’ carnival-like shtick from the beginning. “I’m a little embarrassed that I didn’t say something or at least boycott the truck on my own,” wrote one petition-signer.
Others, however, fret that the District has become such a politically correct zone that no one — not even young entrepreneurs with a clear affection for international cuisines — can playfully incorporate the symbols and clothing of another culture without being accused of racism.
“We’ve reached the point where no one can do anything funny/edgy without shrill idiots getting ‘Offended,’ ” wrote one commenter on a Huffington Post story about the Fojol Bros. crisis.
The questions raised by the kerfuffle are part of an ongoing cultural conversation: Are we becoming more culturally sensitive, or too culturally sensitive? Can we no longer take a joke? Or was the joke never really funny in the first place?
The media landscape has become a war zone lately, with writers attacking privileged white culture for appropriating the language and symbols of an oppressed minority. Drew Franklin even invoked West Coast critic Lindy West’s “Complete Guide to ‘Hipster Racism’ ” on Jezebel.com in his open letter on Facebook. In her essay, West argues that racism underscores many seemingly innocuous behaviors among celebrities and so-called hipsters, whether it be suburban girls flashing gang signs or dance music superstar Skrillex wanting, as he noted on his Twitter feed, to “use the n word sometimes (in a non racist way of course).”
Unfortunately for West, her essay was published before the latest accusation of casual, pop-culture racism: actor Ashton Kutcher’s brown-face portrayal of a Bollywood producer named Raj. It was one for several characters that Kutcher assumed for a new Popchips advertising campaign, and it drew such swift criticism from Indian Americans that Popchips quickly put Raj in mothballs. The commercials inspired comedian Hasan Minhaj to declare that “Asians and Indians are the new clownable minority.”
That, in a sense, is the position that Franklin and Viscarra have assumed in their campaign against the Fojol Bros. — “that white people wearing turbans and fake mustaches and playing Punjabi music while serving Indian food is stereotype and mockery,” according to their petition.
At least one scholar who studies race and ethnicity can see their point. Alondra Nelson, an associate professor of sociology at Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, understands how people would be upset by a business that takes two rich food cultures, like those of Ethiopia and India, and transforms them into a playful mashup. “It is harkening back to a colonial period when it was okay to exoticize” other cultures, she says.
But more than that, this cultural appropriation just seems an “imprudent business decision in a society and local community that is increasingly multi-cultural,” Nelson adds. “It seems like you wouldn’t want to offend any of your potential clients.”