Racism With Food on Qantas — Again?!?

When it comes to the choices of serving food aboard its aircraft, Qantas Airways does not seem to have much luck — except this time, a flight attendant was apparently involved.

“Allow me to tell you about the racist Qantas Airways flight I just took” were the words which began this article written by Paul Ogata, a comedian who was born in Hawaii.

After requesting beef as his choice for the meal during the flight, “I was greeted with this idiot Qantas steward’s loud response, ‘You don’t want the Asian chicken? What a disgrace!’ (Emphasis added where he used it.) And when he got the chuckles of the other (white Australian) passengers around me, I glared at him and he moved on.”

The description for the chicken reads as follows: Asian style spicy chicken with steamed rice and broccoli.


So is the word Asian racist as a descriptor? Perhaps it is some form of fowl play? “Plus, what kind of Asian do they mean? Russians? Israeli? Laotian?” What do you think of when you read Asian style? How about American style? Would that mean Southern? Midwestern? New England? Southwestern?

Okay, Paul. We get it. Perhaps Asian was not the best adjective to use to describe how the chicken was prepared. Perhaps the flight attendant did not use the best judgement in attempting to impart a brief moment of levity to you — but do you really believe that the flight attendant in question was being racist to you? I am asking sincerely, as I was obviously not there when it happened.

Along with posting a photograph of Caucasian men in what is known as “blackface”, Paul Ogata added: “So ‘good work’ Qantas, for sticking to your colors. Most likely, the mouth-breather in charge of ‘customer service’ on my flight will get a special commendation from corporate. After all, he went out of his way not to humiliate the white passengers for not ordering the ‘white people style beef.’ For an airline that lost over $200 million in the first half of this year alone, you’d think they would try a little harder to please.”

I am not sure whether this was meant to be funny or if this was actually serious. I will let you decide on that — as well as whether you believe that Paul Ogata was being too sensitive and could not take a joke; or if he had every right to be offended.

According to this article, the official response by Qantas Airways pertaining to this incident is as follows:

Qantas does not tolerate discrimination in any form and we take such reports very seriously. We are investigating this issue further internally.

As a hugely diverse, multicultural business with employees of around 100 different nationalities, suggestions of racism are extremely disturbing to us. We consider racism deplorable and unacceptable wherever it occurs.

This is not the first time Qantas Airways has been embroiled in a controversy over its menu options. As a supposed requirement of its partnership with Emirates — which became effective as of March 31, 2013 — pork food products were removed from the menu on some flights operated by Qantas Airways for religious dietary reasons. In that article, I attempted to impart some levity myself — note the puns and double-entendres inserted throughout the article — but there was a major bone of contention amongst readers who posted comments in response in what became an intense debate.

The contention pertaining to which foods should and should not be served aboard airplanes during flights can be controversial enough when food allergies — such as nuts and peanuts as two examples — are involved; but throwing in religion and race seems to only be akin to pouring gasoline on a raging fire.

Despite passengers having a choice of what airline they can patronize for their travel needs to get from origination to destination, should religious beliefs dictate what menu items are served aboard an airplane as well as which ones are prohibited? Was the flight attendant in question exercising poor taste with his choice of levity? Was Qantas Airways complicit in its descriptive wording of its menu item?

What are your thoughts?

  1. Paul Ogata has every reason to be upset.

    We can argue over the semantics of what counts as “racism” but assuming Ogata is not out right lying and the event took place….the very BEST scenario is that the Qantas FA was making a “joke” based on the race/origin of a CUSTOMER. So in the very BEST scenario the FA is guilty of horrible customer service.

    From there it can only get worse for Qantas. Based on the words and the reaction from Ogata and the other customers, this was a Qantas employee who made it a point to single out a passenger based on their race/origin and disparage their choice of meal.

    I love your blog and respect your work. Perhaps but this is a case where you don’t see why it is a big deal because you haven’t lived a lifetime full of comments and “jokes” based one who you are and what you look like….

    1. I appreciate your thoughts, Atif. Thank you.

      There are a couple of sub-themes within this article: race and religion. I treat neither lightly, as I myself am of a background which has endured its share of hatred from others…

      …but sometimes I also wonder where is the line between levity and racism; and if at times we are being too sensitive. I attempt to give the benefit of the doubt when I hear a comment which is not of the best taste — as difficult as it may be sometimes. I also believe that it is important to discuss these themes to help give each other a better understanding of our beliefs, as we can learn greatly from each other.

      We should be celebrating each others’ differences in order to better integrate as a global community — especially amongst frequent fliers who travel. That is part of why travel is so interesting and educational, in my opinion…

  2. I love levity and jokes and actually do see humor as a good way to start/approach the topics in a society that are normally difficult to discuss.

    But the FA was clearly wrong to make such a joke, be it racism, poor judgement, or just unprofessional customer service.

    I can understand why Paul Ogata was upset and can understand why he tweeted about it. I have a hard time imagining a FA on a major U.S. carrier making this type of joke directed at a passenger.

  3. In my opinion, people who haven’t faced the same level of systemic, race-based discrimination probably should not joke about anyone else’s race. Therefore, white people should not make “jokes” about other people’s race. End of story. Bloggers are up in arms about the most frivolous aspects of flight service. A racist “joke” is far more troubling than Etihad running out of food.

    1. I am not a fan of Howard Stern, Andy C — but I have heard him mention more than once that as a Jewish white boy who grew up and attended school in a neighborhood predominantly populated by black people, they repeatedly discriminated against him:

      “Growing up in what became a primarily African-American community, Stern was frequently subjected to racial hazing and violence, and came to dread leaving his house.”



  4. Brian, you can’t just brush this kind of thing off as just an idiot FA or not in good taste.
    It is plain racism and stereo typing.. what if the flight attendant told an African American passenger, ‘What?.. you don’t want fried chicken? What a disgrace!” Do you think that is just not in good taste?

    Sure, if the passenger and the FA were both White Australian (somehow that FA knew it during conversation with the passenger) and said. “What? .. you don’t want Vegemite sandwich? What a disgrace!” That would be different (just bad customer service). Since the ‘joke’ was race neutral.

    The FA who deals with people from all parts of the world, all race, color and religion, you can’t joke about any of it. FA was definitely at fault here.

    1. You have imparted some good points, Juno. Thank you.

      I can assure you that my intent was not to brush this off as an idiot flight attendant — but people do commit mistakes; and the flight attendant committed a bad mistake. What is important is that he learns from it.

      My other question is — whether or not Paul Ogata has every right to be offended by the comment of the flight attendant — was his response appropriate?

  5. Here’s a hypothetical.

    Morgan Freeman orders the pasta and some chamomile tea.
    The Australian steward (who happens to be white) rather than taking the order responds ‘You don’t want the FRIED CHICKEN AND WATERMELON? What a disgrace!’
    The white passengers chuckle at Mr. Freeman’s expense and to his horror.

    Now, everybody likes fried chicken and watermelon is a delicious fruit. The food much like black face paint (shoe polish normally from back in the day), the word Asian or the word Black is not racist in and of itself. Using any of these things or anything in general to demean, stereotype and denigrate a person in order to make light of a person’s ethnic background at their expense is a form of… racism.

    One need not be focused on the person being insulted and their response to a reasonably upsetting situation. Perhaps the actual act of suggesting that a person of Asian descent not consuming the item on the menu that contains the word ‘Asian’ as a ‘disgrace’ is clearly the point of focus here.

    Asking an African American why they would order anything other than fried chicken or collared greens and then calling it a disgrace and then laughing at that person for it would not be even remotely acceptable in this day and age of Cliven Bundys and Donald Sterlings.

    It is rather unfortunate that we show more outrage for the racist (mild to extreme) treatment of many other minorities but if Asians are the recipients of such treatment it often times results in a collective shrug. And if the Asian person were to be frustrated and angered by the same unfortunate treatment many others experience, they are looked upon not as victims of mistreatment but more as individuals who should really just get over it and are overreacting. Perhaps they did something wrong? Perhaps they are overreacting. Perhaps they’re response was not perfectly measured to a degree in which I feel comfortable with. Perhaps they should just continue on being the ‘model minority’ we casually and/or unconsciously expect them to be. I’ll admit to being guilty of that last one sometimes, but no longer.

    Maybe they are just like us. Maybe they don’t deserve to be treated in that manner. Maybe all of us decent people should stand up for all people. Maybe, just maybe.

    1. Great minds think alike with you and Juno when it comes to the fried chicken analogy, Steven Mills — and three minutes apart, no less!

      Ironically, I actually get offended when black people call each other the “N” word even though I am white — and the funny thing is that that racial epithet is derived from legitimate words from languages with a Latin base.

      I have even witnessed people be offended by the word niggard, which is a stingy person and has nothing to do with race.

      I guess the question to me is whether or not the flight attendant purposely meant to be hurtful to Paul Ogata; as well as whether or not the flight attendant has committed this lack of judgement before. Is that flight attendant truly a racist; or was that comment a bad customer service decision at best? At the very least, what the flight attendant done was clearly in poor taste and should indeed be reprimanded.

      One thing is for certain: whether racist or not, I never would even think about committing that kind of mistake — not even for the purpose of humor…

      …I appreciate the comments from everyone so far. Thank you. Please keep them coming…

  6. Is “southern fried chicken” racist? I never thought of it, but using this logic I suppose it is.

    I better be careful if I order some Tex-Mex down in Texas. I don’t want to be considered a racist when I order it.

    A lot of Thai food actually comes from China and Indonesia. I wonder if I’m a bioit for just calling up Thai food.

    Or, perhaps we should teach tolerance as a respectful part of getting along with one another.

    1. To be fair, Dave, those analogies are not accurate. Rather, if you were a Southerner — the accent would give it away — and was told by a flight attendant who is a “Yankee” from the northern United States that “You don’t want the Southern fried chicken? What a disgrace!”, that would be more in line…

      …but it is really race that comes into play — including incorrect assumptions. Paul Ogata is American — he was born in Hawaii and supposedly lives in Los Angeles — but just because his features appear Asian, the flight attendant might have assumed that he was from Asia and uttered what is considered at best a tasteless remark that is at worst racist.

      It is like saying to a person from Pakistan “You don’t want the Indian tandoori chicken dish? What a disgrace!” There was apparently ignorance involved as well as possible racism.

      I once was a personal coach to a man who was originally from Pakistan. I did not say, “So — you must be from India” to him. I asked where he was originally from — as well as different questions for me to get to know him better. He seemed very appreciative of my interest in his culture. He asked me similar questions — and I was more than happy to answer them. This resulted in some great sessions which I hope were really helpful to him.

      In other words: I treated him with respect. He treated me with respect.

      I wholeheartedly agree with you that perhaps we should teach tolerance as a respectful part of getting along with one another. This is why I question both sides of this issue rather than jump to a conclusion. We need to understand each other better in order to reduce — or preferably eliminate — situations similar to this in the future. Was the flight attendant racist? I will leave that to you and other readers to answer; but at the very least, the flight attendant was disrespectful to Paul Ogata — and I am not sure that anyone can argue with that as a basic perspective.

      The bottom line is that we need to treat each other with respect and learn from each other. Avoiding racism and understanding the religious beliefs of others both begin with respect, in my opinion.

  7. Unfortunately, this incident reminds me of the one and only time I connected through DFW. I’m a British citizen of Indian descent, living and working in New York. I had just landed from a flight visiting my sister in the Far East and was going through customs when the customs official looked at me as asked if I was carrying rice. “You like rice”. He asked me at least 4 further times whether I was carrying rice, much to the amusement his colleagues. I should also point out that I was traveling with just my carry on so I’m not sure how much rice he thought I could be carrying, even if I was carrying some. Having been through that experience, I have to concur with some of the commentators above, the FA should some form of conscious or unconscious bias against the passenger and that should not be tolerated. As an “Asian” I also wonder whether you would have posed this article differently had the scenario played out with a different ethnicticity such as black or Jewish or maybe even if I an elderly passenger had the audacity to order something other than soup?

    1. To answer your question, Vik — yes, I would have posted this article had the ethnicity been different.

      Unless it is some bizarre sort of questioning technique, I do not get that comment by the customs official. Why would you be carrying rice?

      Thank you for sharing your story.

  8. Quite a disappointing blog, in addition to not being entitled, your opinions reflect not being enlightened!

    “Okay, Paul. We get it.” No, you don’t get it. The Purser made an unnecessary and unprofessional comment to the passenger based on his ethnicity. What other reason would he suggest the passenger consider the Asian chicken, and to say it out loud for others to hear. Your suggestion that perhaps it should not have been called Asian also misses the mark. While often these descriptors are meant to allude to a style of cuisine, clearly Qantas takes unprofessional conduct more seriously than you and has openly noted they would look into the matter. The use of “Asian” as a denotation of cooking or saucing/ingredients is quite common, its inaccurate given the diversity of cuisines in Asia.

    Given the side you took in the matter and suggesting that the Purser was showing ‘levity’ illustrates your poor understanding of subtle racism. Its fine that you don’t like the overt racist antics of radio shock jocks like Howard Stern, but to suggest that the Purser was joking tells me that you don’t get it and clearly have not experienced racism before, or think it only comes in one in-your-face style. No, it doesn’t and perhaps you should realize that before you blog.

    Blogs are really one person’s opinion, sadly this one is oblivious to the objectionable phrase the Purser used. Instead of taking to task what the Qantas’ employee said, you focus on the aggrieved party, Paul Ogata, and intimate he was being overly sensitive. The Purser should have kept his opinions to himself, full stop. f he thought it was light banter, he was wrong!

    Its embarrassing that Boarding Area would carry such a piece. Try not to blame the victim in your next blog if you don’t understand the context of what was said. Perhaps you should have taken the approach in one of your responses “The bottom line is that we need to treat each other with respect and learn from each other. Avoiding racism and understanding the religious beliefs of others both begin with respect, in my opinion” instead of your biased blog.

  9. Maybe the beef wasn’t any good. Maybe the FA was an idiot. Maybe the people around him were idiots. Maybe this guy had a preconceived notion that Australians were racist which in turn influenced the way he interpreted what he heard. I go to Australia several times a year and being of Asian descent myself encounter less racism, less sexism, less homophobia there than in some places here in the United States. The minute I open my mouth there is no doubt in their minds that I’m American. Apparently our accent is very distinct.

    1. There are a lot of maybes, J.J. — which has been my point all along.

      I have already been called biased and entitled by some readers for posting this article in the manner that I did — and that is their right. That is the risk one takes when attempting to discuss a topic as sensitive as this one…

      …but I feel that it is an important topic to discuss, as I do not see things pertaining to this issue as — pardon the play on words — “black and white”. I could have said that the flight attendant was clearly racist; and I could also have said that Paul Ogata is too sensitive and should lighten up. I did not simply because of all of the “maybes” involved — hence, the reason for this article and the discussion.

      It is sad that in this day and age, racism — as well as the perception of racism — is alive and well. However, not discussing it is more harmful, in my opinion.

      Thank you for your thoughts.

  10. I doubt the FA meant his comment to be racist, but it certainly was ignorant and uncalled for, and did come off as racist. As other commentators have stated here, what if Ogata was black and the FA made some stereotypical comment about fried chicken and watermelon? This would have gotten way more coverage. Ogata has every right to be upset about that. But for whatever reason, such slights against Asians aren’t treated the same way.

    I read his post about it on his blog. He begins losing credibility when he gets into the menu descriptions, being offended by the “Asian style chicken” name itself, and asking why the other entree isn’t called “White people style beef.” That’s just going too far. Yes, Asian culture is diverse, but from the description, it’s clear to us Westerners what the Asian style chicken with broccoli is going to be–a poorly executed attempt at a Chinese-style dish. After all, it’s airline food, and an Australian airline at that.

    When I flew on ANA to/from Tokyo from the East Coast of the US, guess what the menu choices were? “Western” or “Japanese.” What is “Western style”? That encompasses numerous cultures. Should Westerners be offended and throw a hissy fit?

    BTW, I’m of the same ethnic extraction as Ogata (well, half of me is), and I lived in Hawaii until I was 10 yrs. old. I actually am sensitive to racial issues. I don’t look to be offended at every turn, but some things do warrant being offended. For example, even in Hawaii, I remember being asked what my “nationality” was. People refused to take “American” as an answer. As if to be an American, I had to be blond-haired and blue eyed? This continues to this day, although less often.

  11. When Australians say ASIAN, they meant or referring it as a dodgy people.

    …am an Asian Australia. I don’t get offended by somebody referring me as an Asian, as long as it is in a good sense. But, this is not the case here. The word Asian is a stigmatic and has a racist connotation, especially, when Aussies( referring to only Whites) refer to Asian as an Asian. Aussies used and taught their kids that all the Asian are Dodgy people to build mental victory against Asians and this old sentiment amongst the whites still well and truly alive. When they refer Asian and they meant “Dodgy” people most of the time.
    .. .regardless, how good the Asian person’s character is and contribution he/she made to society, Aussies have built up this assumption in the past, in fear of Asian and keep country white by character assassination. They know Asian are better student, good worker and obedient, etc.. The fear being second best, weigh heavily on Aussie. This led to this character assassination Asian, referring them as dodgy people. And, this is still the case in Australia. Thus, the Asians prefer to identifying themselves by their individually nationalities rather then common word Asian.
    The connotation Asian world have, perhaps, Mr Ogata understood and knew well. So… it is up to the individuals to judge whether Mr Ogata’s reaction is over top or genuine concern.

  12. Such a thought provoking writeup on racism and racialism Brian – kudos to you for having the guts to write it up and publish it!

    But should it take guts? No, it shouldn’t – but by the response you received, plainly it does. I still hear so very often that “We need to have a dialog about race,” yet those that are saying so seem to express — sometimes in the very same breath — just how clueless/insensitive/ignorant/stupid/thoughtless is the person who is attempting to participate in that dialog. When someone says, “We need to have a dialog”, I now hear, “I need to explain why you’re wrong and why you should feel bad about it.”

    Aside from the obvious ones, my favorite was from H Yu. Aside from the voluminous turpitude he foisted upon your entry and responses to comments, and the suggestion that the entire site should be embarrassed for even hosting your writing, he said:

    “Try not to blame the victim in your next blog if you don’t understand the context of what was said. Perhaps you should have taken the approach in one of your responses “The bottom line is that we need to treat each other with respect and learn from each other. Avoiding racism and understanding the religious beliefs of others both begin with respect, in my opinion” instead of your biased blog.”

    Mmhmm. Respect. Yes. Yes, that’s precisely what I thought when I read what H Yu wrote. Such a respectful contribution to the dialog.

    The mere suggestion that the flight attendant was trying to make playful banter with a passenger sets off the thought police nowadays. Proposing that Paul Ogata was, perhaps, maybe, possibly a little oversensitive is “blaming the victim”. Seriously? He’s a victim because an inconsequential comment he received on an airplane got his dander up a little bit? Because he was…. [wait for it]…. offended!

    I don’t know either Paul or the FA, but I’m guessing that if he’s going on a tour of Asian countries (can I say that, by the way? Or have I offended?) to tell jokes (doing standup comedy), he’s doing all right for himself. He’s probably at least as, if not significantly more, successful than some steward on Qantas, so let’s not sing the woe-is-me death knell for poor Paul who may very well have ruined this fellow’s career.

    “So what?” I hear the naysayers. “He’s a racist! That flight attendant has no right to serve passengers on Qantas if he’s such a bigot!” Really? Should he lose his job? Should his career be over? Should he be put on administrative leave because he made a tasteless joke?

    Apparently there’s been a followup from Paul (http://www.paulogata.com/2014/qantas-update/) where Paul proceeds to dismantle Mark, another FA from Qantas, who he assumes was a shill sent in by Qantas management to make nice with him. Mark apparently claimed to see Ogata in London, where he’s never been, so Ogata concludes:

    “There is a YouTube clip (Paul Ogata vs The British Empire) of a performance where I make fun of British accents. This was shot in Hong Kong, which could be determined by anyone with the reading comprehension of an 8-year-old, or anybody who wasn’t quickly and lazily scanning the internet for ways to butter up a comedian. And it was also the reason why it was the only joke he could quote.”

    Holy cow! I’m not an 8-year-old, so perhaps I’m to shallow to follow all of this, but correct me if I’m wrong:

    Paul Ogata was offended by a tasteless joke/comment from a Qantas FA: UNFORGIVABLE
    Paul Ogata makes fun of British Accents: FUNNY
    Qantas tries to make nice with Paul Ogata by giving him a free upgrade: DESPICABLY PATRONIZING
    Paul Ogata uses his public influence to shame Qantas and, along with it, a couple of flight attendants: RIGHTEOUS

    Yep, that’s the truth, folks — Qantas tried to make up with a comedian who was actively working to publicly discredit their company. What bastards! Can you even imagine???
    So here’s my conclusion after reading and thinking about all of this: Paul Ogata is a hypocrite of the standard order. I’ve never met him. He may be a very nice guy outside of all this. But while he finds it acceptable, perhaps even righteous, to use racial and cultural stereotypes to build and further his own career he also uses the same to bring down others. He seems to have none of the sensitivity towards others’ experiences and histories (e.g. Mark and the first FA) that he expects — no, demands — that others have towards him.

    There are none so intolerant as those who claim to embrace it.

    1. You might be right, Scott; but I like to keep an open mind and listen to all sides of an issue. For me, it is a way to learn.

      After reading some of those comments, I conferred with some friends and acquaintances of mine who are American but are of an Asian ethnicity; and without reading the article, they looked at me like I was some alien from a foreign planet, saying that they would not even think that I had an iota of racism in me — and I do not think of them as my “Asian” friends. I asked them to read the article; but I have not yet heard from them. They are friends; and I do not choose my friends based on ethnicity.

      I think that racism is an important issue to discuss. It is important to understand what is considered offensive and what is considered harmless fun. I see no harm in poking fun at ethnicity as long as it is not intended to intentionally hurt a fellow human being. If anything, sometimes poking fun at ethnicity can be a valid way to raise awareness. As you note, many comedians such as Paul Ogata do just that.

      As for “voluminous turpitude” — well…one thing I have learned from my experience as a volunteer moderator on FlyerTalk is that what people write reveals who they are as people.

      In other words — whether they be posted content on FlyerTalk or comments here at The Gate — I let the words of what people write and post speak for themselves.

  13. Oh and Brian, no one with any sense would compare their plight to that of the holocaust, so perhaps you should stay out of comparing yours to people of color. That is some very privileged racism YOU just displayed.

    1. Thank you for your uninformed armchair criticism greater than five years after this article was posted, Clive Baker.

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