The Interesting Relationship Between Bigotry and Online Reviews

bigotry in online reviews

What is bigotry? Dictionary.com defines it as “stubborn and complete intolerance of any creed, belief, or opinion that differs from one’s own.” How it works its way into the food world: through online reviews. And it seems Asian food is often a target.

Andrew Simmons, a writer for Slate.com, presented his own findings in “Gastronomic Bigotry: Do you think an ethnic restaurant caused your food poisoning? You might be a little bit racist.” It’s about a New York Times article on how the New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene used Yelp to help track down cases of food borne illnesses, cases the CDC found had possibly not been officially reported – by observing and taking note of certain keywords on Yelp reviews.

The CDCs findings point to the importance of social media:

As social media usage continues to grow among U.S. adults, health departments might consider additional surveillance methods to capture illness reports from those more likely to post a restaurant review online than to contact a health department. By incorporating website review data into public health surveillance programs, health departments might find additional illnesses and improve detection of foodborne disease outbreaks in the community. Similar programs could be developed to identify other public health hazards that reviewers might describe, such as vermin in food establishments.

The research points to the conclusion that by diners reporting if they’ve been sick on review sites, those reviews could help track down community outbreaks of foodborne illnesses. Perhaps diners don’t know who to contact if they’ve been ill.  The online ‘surveillance methods’ could help target the source of the problem and prevent another outbreak of the same environmental findings, such as cross-contamination and improper storage methods.

That all seems good until Simmons ran his own search of with word ‘poisoning’ from restaurant reviews in his home town of L.A. Simmons discovered from his first 100 searches, 68 percent came from Ethnic restaurants, 44 percent Asian alone. His findings are interesting because although authentic ethnic foods are currently en vogue with diners, in the world according to Yelp, diners are first to bad mouth those same ethnic eateries over all others. He writes that diners today “don’t reveal that they share their predecessors’ xenophobia until they get sick.”

And bigotry goes beyond actually reviewing the actual food consumed. If you are in an ethnic restaurant, do you expect all the workers in it (from cooks, to the host/hostess, to the waitstaff) to be of the same ethnicity? Can’t a restaurant hire its own staff based on, say, performance, rather than an Affirmative Action hire? Seattle sushi restaurant Mashiko noted reviews that stated there were no Japanese people working there. In An Open Letter to Bigot Diners, sushiwhore points out to reviewers that yes, white women can and do make awesome sushi. And Seattle isn’t the only one with bigoted diners who desire Asian chefs (doesn’t even matter what ethnicity, just “Asian”) to be working at sushi restaurants, San Diego has them, too.

I don’t even know how to end this post, except to note that a good portion of reviews aren’t even real anyway. Which will make the pilot efforts of that public health social surveillance thing from the government all that more interesting if it expands. Because everyone tells the un-skewed, unbiased truth in online reviews, right?