Asian market. White privilege?

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Stephanie Fox’s recent Global Groceries column, Double Dragon Foods: Good eats, touchy staff, really got readers talking. While she was taking photos to accompany her article about the St. Paul grocery store, she was confronted by a store employee, who told her that photography was not allowed without the manager’s permission. She described the store manager’s attitude as hostile. 

“In most stores, small or large, the owners are willing—actually, they’re usually delighted—to talk with anyone, even a member of the press, about their store and the foods they carry. Not at Double Dragon…This is all too bad because the store is phenomenal,” Fox wrote. “It’s a large ethnic foods supermarket with products from all five (maybe all six) continents.” She went on to describe, in considerable detail and in very positive terms, what she saw and ate at the store. 

You can read the details for yourself here, but what I find really interesting is the dozens of responses the article generated from readers. As a journalist, I embrace the goal of transforming journalism from a lecture to a conversation, and that’s what these commenters did. In the process, they — and especially those who took issue with Stephanie, provided valuable context and insights: 

Someone from Little Mekong, the Asian business and cultural district on St. Paul’s University Avenue pointed out that, “As a business district, we find that some of our Asian businesses in Little Mekong are weary of strangers poking around because they have had bad experiences in the past, whether it’s an unannounced inspection, thieves scoping out their premises and products, or the long line of survey takers and researchers taking up their time with questions. Unfortunate that this happened, but sometimes it helps to call ahead and let the store know that you’re a reporter and interested in doing a story that will give them publicity. It’s a matter of communication and creating trust. Of course it doesn’t excuse the bad reception you got.”

“My tendency is to find the manager before I start an investigative-type visit that includes photographs and questions to employees and see if an understanding can be reached,” wrote Jerold M Rothstein, editor at Community Reporter, a St. Paul neighborhood newspaper.

“This was NOT an investigation,” Stephanie responded. “Please, please read some of the other Global Groceries stories and then, think restaurant review (although I’ve never said bad things about these stores.)  I walk around taking notes and getting a few photos to get the feel of the place. If anyone comes over and asks what I’m doing, I tell them. Otherwise, I then go and talk to the owner and probably get more photos. I have done more than a dozen of these articles and have never had a problem. Until now, the people at the stores have welcomed me, told me their life stories and posed for photos. Some have even taken parts of my column and posted it on their website.”

“I shop here all the time and have never had the same experience as you,” wrote Kong Vang. “I’m glad you mention about the variety of produce and exceptional products the store has to offer, but your comments about staff behavior are overly critical…Too often, people outside their culture groups have tarnished their community, even ‘legitimate’ people. You have to earn your respect, not be freely given because you have a camera.”

Stephanie didn’t buy the argument that this was a cultural misunderstanding: “I’m not sure of the manager’s country of origin, but judging from her lack of an accent, I’d say that she’s been in the United States for a long time. Her culture is St. Paul, MN. I also doubt that I seemed menacing to anyone. I’m the least authoritarian looking person I know…Really, there was no cultural misunderstanding between me and the manager unless you are counting the culture of corporations vs. the press.”

Several readers questioned whether it is appropriate – or even legal – to take photos inside a private business. “If you’re taking photographs on private property without permission of the owners, that’s trespassing,” claimed Ken Paulman. 

That’s not quite accurate, according to attorney Bert P. Krages, author of The Photographer’s Right: Your Rights and Remedies When Stopped or Confronted for Photography: “(It) depends on the circumstances,” says Krages. “In most places, you may reasonably assume that taking photographs is allowed and that you do not need explicit permission. However, this is a judgment call and you should request permission when the circumstances suggest that the owner is likely to object. (In this case, I think it was reasonable for Stephanie to assume that the owner wasn’t likely to object – none of the markets she had written about before had objected.) In any case, when a property owner tells you not to take photographs while on the premises, you are legally obligated to honor the request.” 

Several other readers raised the issue of white privilege.  “The people at this store do not owe you their trust,” wrote one anonymous commenter. “The writer seems to feel like she’s doing these stores a favor by writing about them and therefore she should automatically command respect. While you did not intend to do harm, there is still an ‘us/them’ undercurrent simply because you are a white person entering a space embedded in the immigrant community and then acting as an observer rather than a customer. By the time you asked for permission, the damage had already been done.” 

“You may not agree, but I think it would be interesting to unpack this experience by looking through your own lens of privilege and having some folks from outside your culture talk about how they might have perceived this encounter, with emphasis on the latter, would be much more enlightening than this article itself was. It’s cool that you put the spotlight on businesses that reflect the diversity of the Twin Cities, but because you’re from outside the cultures represented there, you have to be extra conscientious; otherwise this column could become nothing more than cultural voyeurism.” 

“I made the mistake of reading this mess & just like that the daily planet climbed on top of my last nerve,” tweeted Ramla Bile. And when another Tweeter responded that “this article reeked of condescension and privilege,” Bile agreed: “Exactly! And then acts like the onus is on the staff. Lazy reporting to the max. The whole piece was so insulting…I just keep thinking that this could have been my dad’s store…would she dare approach another biz this way?” 

Double Dragon

Daily Planet Editor Mary Turck also weighed in: “I think a lot of the commenters assume that Stephanie only reports on stores of recent immigrants and people of color and hence is exercising white privilege. But it’s more complicated than that. She reports in the same way (i.e. going in and looking around and taking photos before getting the back story of the owners), whether she’s reporting on Ziach’s Polish Foods or Double Dragon or Minsk Market or SuperValu.” 

“There are a couple of issues,” said Turck. “One is whether any reporter should call up the subject of a story in advance and get permission to report on them. That, it seems to me, is clearly wrong.”

“A second is whether a reviewer — restaurant or grocery or film — is really a reporter, and what kind of rules or courtesies apply in the case of a reviewer.”

“A third is whether there should be different rules for reviewing stores owned by people of color vs. white-owned grocery stores and, if so, what those rules should be. Many of the critics seem to suggest this is the case. I believe it’s worth discussion, and wonder what readers think.”

As for my own opinion, I think the journalist’s most important responsibility is to the public.They should try to produce the most informative reporting they can. Sometimes, creating a good rapport with a business owner can help the journalist do that. In this case, it probably wouldn’t have done any harm for Stephanie to ask permission before she started taking notes or taking pictures. And it might have produced a better, more culturally sensitive story. Or maybe not. The manager might have declined permission, and the public would wind up with less information, not more.

And what if, at a different market, she had discovered spoiled food or unsafe food handling practices? In those cases, if she had contacted the owners first and told them she was coming, she might have missed an important story – or produced a story that missed some important information. Deciding how to approach a news source always takes judgment, and nobody gets it right all the time.

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