Fired cooks at NYU demonstrate the impossibility of culinary commemoration of Black History Month
Two people who work to prepare food for students at New York University have lost their jobs for serving a meal featuring food and beverages believed to be stereotypically associated with black cuisine. The New York Times reports:
On Tuesday, a dining hall at New York University advertised a special meal in honor of Black History Month. On the menu? Barbecue ribs, corn bread, collard greens, and two beverages with racist connotations: Kool-Aid and watermelon-flavored water.
Nia Harris, a sophomore in N.Y.U.'s College of Arts & Science, sought an explanation from Weinstein Passport Dining Hall's head cook. The cook dismissed her objections, Ms. Harris said in an email to university officials, telling her that the Kool-Aid was actually fruit punch (it was not, she said) and that the dining hall served fruit-flavored water "all the time" (it does, she said, but not watermelon).
The head cook also told Ms. Harris that the employees who planned the menu were black.
Ms. Harris, 19, posted a screen shot of her email on Facebook, along with a post that began, "This is what it's like to be a black student at New York University." It spread quickly.
So, thanks to the exquisite sensitivity of Ms. Harris, two people who probably earn less than her yearly tuition are without jobs in an expensive city. Nice work!
I grew up drinking Kool-Aid, as did all the white kids in my 1950s Minneapolis neighborhood. I recall drinking a lot of it at summer camp, too. And the only time I get to drink watermelon juice is at my favorite Mexican restaurant, which serves it. I was not aware of the "racist connotations" Ms. Harris objects to. Now, maybe I am clueless, but it is also clear that lots and lots of people who are not black see nothing particularly black or racist about either of them.
I am aware that barbecue ribs are a part of American cuisine, in fact one of its glories, and that African-Americans have played an outsized, if not completely exclusive role in its development and flourishing. For reasons that I cannot fathom, Ms. Harris apparently doesn't object to their inclusion on the menu, nor the other elements of the menu that might be ascribed to black people's preferences. But someone else desiring to complain of racism surely could object. It seems to me that in the current atmosphere, any attempt to commemorate Black History Month with a special menu at any institution is fraught with the hazard of being accused of racism. What food associated with black culinary preferences is immune to charges of stereotyping? No one could commemorate it with sushi – that would surely lead to charges of cultural appropriation, as has happened at Oberlin.
The only safe course for anyone associated with preparing food for a population that includes any blacks would seem to be to ignore Black History Month. Would that lead to protests? That works for me, but it no doubt would be considered racist as well by those with a need to be offended. So we are left with a full descent into rule by dining hall commissars who must approve every menu. You can count on that to produce cuisine that will both taste bad and be boring.
My only hope is that sooner or later, those who need to be offended will decide that singling out black people for a month, without so singling out every other racial group (especially whites!), is itself condescending and racist.