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.”
They may not be customers, but Franklin and Viscarra are definitely offended. (Disclosure: Franklin is the son of the Post’s Travel editor Zofia Smardz.) Then again, the two men are activists by nature. They met at Occupy D.C. on McPherson Square, which led them to become roommates this spring. Franklin was compelled to write his Facebook letter after a couple of friends, both Indian, tried to confront the Fojol Bros. over their costumes and music.
The matter might have ended with Facebook had the Fojol Bros. owner responded differently to a Huffington Post D.C. editor who came calling about the budding controversy. But Vitarello essentially dismissed the charges, not only saying that he was “more worried about the Brussels sprouts going bad than this guy’s comments” but also claiming that “no more than five” people have suggested his trucks are trading on racist stereotypes to sell Asian and African dishes.
To date, the petition has generated a lot of smoke, but little fire. “We’ve done more business and shared our food with more people than before this happened,” says Vitarello, who acknowledges the increased sales could be a function of the warmer weather. “This shows a loyalty of the people who are following us.”
Vitarello has a different perspective on the culture he’s created around the Fojol Bros. trucks. It’s a personal one for this particular white man — an attempt to re-create the loud, lively dinners that his father, a government worker and part-time human rights activist, hosted in their Adams Morgan home. “There would be a tremendous amount of prayer. There would be a tremendous amount of laughing,” Vitarello says. “I wanted to bring what I experienced to the streets.”
Vitarello’s vision was to create a “traveling culinary carnival” that included turbans, fake mustaches, music, blankets spread out on nearby lawns and employees indulging in a little spontaneous Hula-hooping outside the truck. On one level, it’s a formula that works: Vitarello says sales of Fojol Bros. food has increased more than “1,000 percent” since he launched the business three years ago. “We’re not going to change anything that we’re doing because of this,” he says. “The people who eat from us, they wouldn’t want us to change what we’re doing.”
Except they apparently do. Earlier this week, Shawn Jain, a 27-year-old communications professional, was waiting for his food at Fojol’s Volathai truck. He’s Indian by heritage and says he finds the Fojol approach “mildly offensive.”
“The way that it’s being commodified, that’s not appropriate,” Jain says. “I think that there is a certain privilege that white people have — and I think they have to recognize that.”
Maybe it’s the 900-plus signatures on the petition or maybe it’s because he just wants all the negative attention to go away, but Justin Vitarello is slowly recognizing that lots of people — not just five — have a problem with his traveling culinary carnival. Without prompting, Vitarello offers the statement that Franklin and Viscarra (and their friends) wanted from the beginning:
“I apologize to anyone who is offended by this,” he says. “That’s not the intent, and it never will be.”