On BuzzFeed and White Liberalism

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Like many of my peers, I receive most of my news and entertainment from the Internet. And, although I hate to admit it, BuzzFeed became a huge component of my weekly (ok, daily) internet binge, particularly because it was the first mainstream “news” source that matched many of the values I considered imperative. BuzzFeed was earnestly liberal, and despite its inanity, I found myself spending a lot of time on the site because it more or less confirmed my ideals in the form of a popular culture platform.

Which is why, upon discovering their video entitled “Americans Try Bangladeshi Food with Their Cabbie,” I was extremely puzzled. At first glance, I thought they were being ironic. They had to be. The level of offensiveness one would have to reach to confirm the stereotype of the South Asian “cabbie” in the very title of a video seemed implausible to me. Particularly, I think, coming from BuzzFeed, which had become, in a way, the Essence of Liberality.

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I watched the video, becoming more and more infuriated by the second. It follows a couple of white dudes calling for multiple cabs, Ubers and Lyfts until they find an ~ethnic~ driver who would take them to the restaurant that reminds him “most of home.” After multiple “bland white” drivers, they finally meet a Bangladeshi man named Shaikh.

The tokenization of Shaikh irked me. It’s the kind of thing I face as a result of my cultural background all the time; kids wanting to try spicy food or jam out to Bollywood music or exclaim how beautiful my kurti is. I understand that that’s a way to express acceptance, and that, more often than not, the individuals who profess such ardent love for my culture are coming from a good place. There is a sincere desire to be tolerant, which can — and usually does — come off as condescending. The exotification of the cab driver only reminds me of the fact that folks of color and minorities are perpetual ‘others.’

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Additionally, the fact that the BuzzFeed staffers persisted in asking Shaikh, despite his hesitation, to take them to the “authentic Bangladeshi” restaurant made me extremely uncomfortable. In their own words, he took some convincing. The white liberal insistence to be let into minority spaces is rarely a gesture of open-mindedness and too often intrusive. There is a fine line between the former and the latter, and that line is an invitation. Not a forced one, but a genuine will to share a space with someone who has the privilege to not need that space.

I think that there is a difficult contention between wanting to understand a person’s culture and being overwhelmingly fascinated by its foreignness. BuzzFeed has, time and again, tried to celebrate a variety of cultures in an attempt to seem open-minded, but, in doing so, has othered communities of color and cultural minorities. This matters, because the site has a large audience that considers it a beacon of liberal and progressive thought. Because of this, BuzzFeed’s continued microaggressions must be pointed out to avoid their normalization. While trying to seem appreciative of difference, they’ve invaded minority spaces. I don’t think eating someone’s food means you understand and respect their position as cultural and racial minorities. No, I think this video did nothing but trivialize the experience of a South Asian man away from home.

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Fatima Zehra is the Deputy Editor of Kajal Magazine. She owns too many red lipsticks. Bother her on Twitter @zebrazehra and Instagram @fatimazehral.

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