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Lithium What the Sohla supercuts represent for WOC

Dec. 29, 2020
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About a year ago, I was just as obsessed with Bon Appetit’s YouTube channel as the rest of the internet. The food magazine’s videos rivaled the production of most TV shows and the recipes they created look delicious, but any avid BA fan would tell you it was the host of personalities that made the test kitchen so likeable. Everyone looked like they were having so much fun; staff would float in and out of videos offering advice or stealing a bite to eat. I always loved any appearances from Sohla El-Waylly, an assistant food editor and one of the only BIPOC regulars on the channel. She was rarely the main host of a video in the same way that other staff like Brad Leone or Claire Saffitz were, but she was the go-to person for any and all questions in the test kitchen. I barely paid attention to the staff’s actual positions in the publication and just assumed Sohla was too busy doing great things with all her food knowledge to be behind a camera. 

Just last summer, however, my rosy view of Bon Appetit’s test kitchen was shattered when El-Waylly revealed she—or any other staff members of color, for that matter—hadn’t been compensated for her video appearances the same way her white colleagues had. When pictures of then-editor-in-chief Adam Rapoport in brownface surfaced on the internet, she called the incident a symptom of systemic racism at Bon Appetit in a series of IG story posts. 

“I was hired as an assistant editor at $50k to assist mostly white editors with significantly less experience than me,” she wrote last June. “I’ve been pushed in front of video as a display of diversity. In reality, currently only white editors are paid for their video appearances.” 

Then, supercuts of all of her unpaid appearances began cropping up. Now that I knew the real context, what I naively saw as a fun, friendly working environment looked like something else entirely: white staff leaning on the expertise of an underpaid, overqualified woman of color while simultaneously undermining her. In one instance I found particularly horrible, Chris Morocco—test kitchen director—says, “We needed an extra person to stir,” after El-Waylly guides them through the entire process of tempering chocolate (a task no one but El-Waylly seems to know how to do). I felt silly for not seeing it sooner and something like betrayed to learn that BA was exploiting its staff members of color this way. 

I think the compilation videos put on full display the way many, many women of color are treated in their workplaces. At the intersection of racism and misogyny, their work is undervalued, but heavily relied upon. All my life I’ve seen the labor of WOC (whether domestic, professional, or emotional) taken for granted by their colleagues, families, and communities. And of course, there have been instances when the same thing has happened to me—especially in my academic life. 

In a Twitter thread, Jess Kung (@jessskung) discussed how common it is for WOC to be the backbone for entire organizations, and it’s a dynamic that most people—higher-ups in particular—are aware of, but fail to actually do anything substantial about. They used one of the El-Waylly supercuts to point out that usually this dynamic is framed as endearing instead of “profoundly unfair.” 

As a WOC in pursuit of a career in journalism, I dance between feelings of cynicism and optimism. The part of me that has witnessed all my mentors endure belittlement on account of being brown women like me feels anxious, terrified of entering the workforce. Sure, I could meet this prospect with tenacity and a dedication to break the glass ceiling like all the other girl bosses—but why do I have to be resilient when my white, mostly male peers get to fail upward for their entire lives? 

While I gear up for summer internship applications and am now just two semesters from graduating, this is something weighing heavily on my mind. My way of coping has been having open conversations with the WOC in my life about how they’ve encountered racism and sexism in their careers. It’s a privilege to have these women to look up to. 

Another thing that brings me comfort is knowing that El-Waylly’s story didn’t end with her IG callout or even her leaving Bon Appetit for good. A couple months ago, she got her own show on the YouTube channel formerly known as Binging with Babish (now the Babish Culinary Universe) called Stump Sohla. It’s a delightful show in which she spins a wheel to cook a certain dish with a silly twist. In one episode, she makes a boozy brunch with just one hand. The series exemplifies just how much BA failed to recognize her talent and most importantly, it pays her fairly too. She also has a column with Food52 and is a NYT Cooking contributor. 

After standing up to her shitty employer, El-Waylly has found new heights of success in her career because other people are recognizing her skill. At the end of the day, it shows me and other WOC that we don’t need to settle for less and suck it up. It’s okay to walk away because eventually, I hope, we’ll find people that truly value our work. Until then, let’s keep ourselves from internalizing the messages that ask us to work twice as hard as everybody else.