The confusion between yams and sweet potatoes is actually racist—here’s why

Breanna Robinson
Sunday 25 April 2021 13:02
Lifestyle
(AFP via Getty Images)

For many people within the United States, the terms “yam “and “sweet potato” are used interchangeably to describe the sweet starchy goodness that acts as the perfect side dish to meals, or the marshmallow-cinnamon “dessert-inspired” candied yams served in the fall.

However, yams and sweet potatoes are completely different vegetables. Yams actually have a starchy and rough brown texture and are consumed in West Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and Latin America.  They can also reach enormous lengths up to 45 feet long.

Sweet potatoes, on the other hand, are a new world root vegetable that has a creamy interior and has a softer red exterior.

When did the mix-up of the vegetables occur?

The mix-up occurred around the time of the transatlantic slave trade. Yams are customary to West African food traditions.  As European slave traders crossed the Middle Passage, they packed copious amounts of yams, alongside black-eyed peas to feed the captives.

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John Barbot, a slave merchant, estimated that 100,000 yams were needed to sustain the livelihood of over 500 enslaved people. That’s roughly 200 yams per person for a journey that could take months.

Yams were not readily available in the Americas as sweet potatoes were, which travelled from Central America with Christopher Columbus.

In a February issue of Food & Wine,  culinary educator at NYU  and chef Dr. Scott Alves Barton  wrote about sweet potatoes becoming one of the many transfer foods in that allowed enslaved people to keep some of their tradition and spiritual practices even in the midst of the abuse they endured

Additionally, the confusion between yams and sweet potatoes continued due to a marketing campaign for Louisiana sweet potatoes, a trade group. Julian C Miller, a researcher created a new variety of sweet potatoes at the Louisiana Experiment Station. This sweet potato has a creamier less stringy flesh and a more tender skin.

It also has a high concentration of vitamin A than any other sweet potato on the market. In order to distinguish between the sweet potatoes from the East Coast, the Louisiana sweet potato industry started to use the term “yam.”

Now, sweet potato growers in California are working to stop the use of the word “yam.” The USDA also requires that yam should be accompanied with sweet potatoes in official descriptions.

If this still seems a little confusing, you’re not alone.

This confusion is common among the American public, which shows how the perpetuation of sweet potatoes as yams is rooted in West African culinary traditions in the underbelly of American cuisine.

The mix-up does have roots in structural racism that was the fibre of the country, but using sweet potatoes as yams by African-Americans is a result of innovation, strength, and utilizing the resources that were readily available to them at that current time.

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