▪les mots ▪food ▪racism ▪msg
This is the story of a racist myth that began with a light-hearted letter to the New England Journal of Medicine in 1968 and subsequently exploded in North American culture — in direct opposition to every shred of scientific evidence — becoming so prevalent that credulous eaters buy into it to the point of experiencing its effects on a purely psychosomatic basis.
It’s often been called “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” and its premise is that MSG in Chinese food results in unpleasant allergic reactions. Interestingly enough, higher quantities of MSG in non-Chinese foods are not reported to have the same effects. MSG is a naturally occurring amino acid, and some of the highest levels of MSG a North American consumer is likely to ingest come in vine-ripened tomatoes, aged cheese, and dry-aged steak — yet there is no reported medical phenomenon known as “Italian Food Syndrome” or “American Steakhouse Syndrome”.
Monosodium glutamate was first isolated from the seaweed kombu, commonly used in the Japanese broth dashi, by biochemist Kikunae Ikeda of the Tokyo Imperial University in 1908. He named its taste umami because it differed from the five conventional flavours of sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and spicy. Ikeda patented his discovery and MSG became commercially available in 1909. It was found to enhance flavours with one third of the amount of sodium as traditional salt, i.e. sodium chloride. In this sense, monosodium glutamate is probably healthier than sodium chloride because it achieves flavour with reduced sodium levels.
MSG was immediately popular in Asia and became common in the North American food industry after World War II, used in baby food, canned soup, vegetable juice, frozen food, as well as seasoning mix brands such as Accent. Yet somehow in the 1960s, this popular food additive became associated with Chinese food and deemed a health hazard. Why? Because Chinese people, culture, and food have been targeted by widespread and effective racist hate campaigns in North America since the 19th century, buttressed by wild claims that the Chinese are “unclean”, carry diseases, are sexually-deviant opium addicts, inscrutable and sneaky, a Yellow Peril.
The 1968 letter to the New England Journal of Medicine which solidified the myth of MSG was actually written by a Chinese immigrant named Robert Ho Man Kwok, who described “numbness at the back of the neck, gradually radiating to both arms and the back, general weakness and palpitation” after eating in American Chinese restaurants. The letter opened the floodgates to a barage of letters and related articles complaining of headaches, dizziness, paralysis of the throat, tingling in the temples, tightness of the jaw, irregular heartbeat, depression, hyperactivity, and all manner of digestive ailments.
Given this preponderance of anecdotal evidence, numerous scientific studies have been performed since then attempting to identify this “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome”. The funny thing is that no study has ever been able to do so. When people don’t know that they’re consuming MSG, they don’t suffer adverse reactions. All national and international food safety bodies have concluded that MSG is perfectly safe. People in Japan eat MSG every single day and the Japanese have the longest life expectancy in the world.
Fear of MSG is a racist remnant of the Chinese Exclusion era which exists only in North America and has been thoroughly debunked by science. Yet racist socialization is so powerful that people actually experience physical effects such as headaches, depression, and indigestion based solely on their indoctrinated fear of Chinese people and Chinese food. Think it over next time you eat parmesan cheese or a vine-ripened tomato.
Look at your stories - don’t just count who gets to be the hero and the villain (what kind of hero? what kind of villain?); count who gets the redemption arcs.
We’d hear things like: “She can’t let go. She’s clingy. She’s irrational. She’s crazy.” Men would have a field day comparing her to their own “crazy” exes.
Yet when Robin Thicke released “Paula” – a plea for reconciliation with his ex-wife Paula Patton disguised as an LP — he was called incoherent, obsessed, heartfelt and, in particular, creepy.
But you didn’t hear men calling him “crazy” — even though he used it as the title of one of tracks.
No, “crazy” is typically held in reserve for women’s behavior. Men might be obsessed, driven, confused or upset. But we don’t get called “crazy” — at least not the way men reflexively label women as such.
“Crazy” is one of the five deadly words guys use to shame women into compliance. The others: Fat. Ugly. Slutty. Bitchy. They sum up the supposedly worst things a woman can be.
WHAT WE REALLY MEAN BY “CRAZY” IS: “SHE WAS UPSET, AND I DIDN’T WANT HER TO BE.”
“Crazy” is such a convenient word for men, perpetuating our sense of superiority. Men are logical; women are emotional. Emotion is the antithesis of logic. When women are too emotional, we say they are being irrational. Crazy. Wrong.
Women hear it all the time from men. “You’re overreacting,” we tell them. “Don’t worry about it so much, you’re over-thinking it.” “Don’t be so sensitive.” “Don’t be crazy.” It’s a form of gaslighting — telling women that their feelings are just wrong, that they don’t have the right to feel the way that they do. Minimizing somebody else’s feelings is a way of controlling them. If they no longer trust their own feelings and instincts, they come to rely on someone else to tell them how they’re supposed to feel.
Small wonder that abusers love to use this c-word. It’s a way of delegitimizing a woman’s authority over her own life.
Most men (#notallmen, #irony) aren’t abusers, but far too many of us reflexively call women crazy without thinking about it. We talk about how “crazy girl sex” is the best sex while we also warn men “don’t stick it in the crazy.” How I Met Your Mother warned us to watch out for “the crazy eyes” and how to process women on the “Crazy/Hot” scale. When we talk about why we broke up with our exes, we say, “She got crazy,” and our guy friends nod sagely, as if that explains everything.
Except what we’re really saying is: “She was upset, and I didn’t want her to be.”
Many men are socialized to be disconnected from our emotions — the only manly feelings we’re supposed to show are stoic silence or anger. We’re taught that to be emotional is to be feminine. As a result, we barely have a handle on our own emotions — meaning that we’re especially ill-equipped at dealing with someone else’s.
That’s where “crazy” comes in. It’s the all-purpose argument ender. Your girlfriend is upset that you didn’t call when you were going to be late? She’s being irrational. She wants you to spend time with her instead of out with the guys again? She’s being clingy. Your wife doesn’t like the long hours you’re spending with your attractive co-worker? She’s being oversensitive.
As soon as the “crazy” card is in play, women are put on the defensive. It derails the discussion from what she’s saying to how she’s saying it. We insist that someone can’t be emotional and rational at the same time, so she has to prove that she’s not being irrational. Anything she says to the contrary can just be used as evidence against her.
More often than not, I suspect, most men don’t realize what we’re saying when we call a woman crazy. Not only does it stigmatize people who have legitimate mental health issues, but it tells women that they don’t understand their own emotions, that their very real concerns and issues are secondary to men’s comfort. And it absolves men from having to take responsibility for how we make others feel.
In the professional world, we’ve had debates over labels like “bossy” and “brusque,” so often used to describe women, not men. In our interpersonal relationships and conversations, “crazy” is the adjective that needs to go.