The International Food Aisle Makes Me Sad
I love grocery shopping. That includes everything from making a grocery list to rolling my cart through the aisles to checking off each item after grabbing it from the shelf. The order and slow pace bring me comfort.
I loved it even more as a kid; when my parents would stop at Wegmans on the way home and I was able to put things in our cart without feeling the result of it sucking money from my bank account. What I enjoyed most about our trips was visiting the international food aisle to pick up bottles of Ting and Cola Champagne. Drinking them reminded me of summers in Jamaica, when it seemed like those two drinks were the only things that could save me from the overbearing heat. But as I got older, the international food aisle became less of a treasure trove and instead a reminder of all things I did not have access to as a person of Jamaican immigrants living in Central New York.
The international food aisle is where grocery stores stock the “ethnic” items; it’s where Goya products sit next to Japanese noodles and Thai curry mixes and sometimes Indian spices. Everything that is nonwhite and “non-American” is clumped together and sequestered in the international food aisle. The aisle — which is actually only half an aisle because it’s usually split with other grocery items — doesn’t even hold space for products of the African diaspora. So, when my mom needed specific items to cook our meals, she had to drive 30 minutes to East Syracuse to shop at a small Chinese market (which has sadly closed) to potentially find what she was looking for. Many Americans have the luxury of stopping once at the grocery store to complete their lists, but we had to drive all over town with the hope of finding oxtail, saltfish, or ackee.
To be a first generation American, to be a nonwhite American, is to exist in a limbo of cultural uncertainty. Where your existence is often suppressed and dismissed by white supremacy. To quote scholar Frances Lee Ansley: “By ‘white supremacy’ I do not mean to allude only to the self-conscious racism of white supremacist hate groups. I refer instead to a political, economic and cultural system in which whites overwhelming control power and material resources, conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement are widespread, and relations of white dominance and non-white subordination are daily reenacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings.”
I see this very clearly in the international food aisle. I hear it very clearly in the voice that whispers to me, “This is all you get. This is all the space you are worth,” when I reach for something. But what makes me most sad about shopping in the international food aisle now, is that I’ve experienced what it’s like to live in a place where the international food aisle is every aisle. Where Grace Cock Flavoured Soup packets are in the soup aisle and Ting is right next to Sprite and there’s oxtail in the freezer section. That place is called Crown Heights.