On Racism

This post is going to be a little different for me. I address a lot of issues on this blog, and a lot of controversial issues at that, but I don’t discuss race. I’m part of a couple subordinate groups: I’m a female, and I’m queer. I am not, however, a person of color. Therefore, I will never fully understand what it means to go through life as one. I’ll never have that experience, and so I’ll never know how it feels. I read many blogs written specifically about and by people of color, to try and educate myself as much as possible, but it’s still not the same as living it.
My first week working retail, I was fixing a hole in the product hanging on the wall, and happened to be right next to the only group of people in the store at that moment. It was a group about four or five black young adults. One of them immediately confronted me, claiming that I was trying to keep an eye on them, because I thought they would steal, because they were black. That thought had never crossed my mind. My first reaction was one of utter shock. Then I got indignant, defensive, and angry. But the truth of the matter is, I don’t know how often that *does* happen to them. I don’t know how often they walk into stores and are immediately suspected of something based on racial profiling. So I can’t judge their reaction, because it could have been totally valid based on their experiences, the same way many women are wary of or fear men because of their experiences (if you have no real exposure to the concept of privilege, especially white privilege, the White Knapsack is a really great place to start, and it’s short and easy to get through).
Therefore, I’m posting this, not so much as my opinion, but as a way to open a dialogue. I want to hear what you all have to say, and I’m hoping that I can learn something from all of you. I don’t know how many readers of color I have, though I must say that I’m not aware of many. Hopefully I have more than I think, and you’ll come out of the woodwork to comment on this post. However, any offensive or mean comments will not be tolerated and will be immediately deleted. With that being said, let’s get into this.
I’m still trying to confirm if this is real or not, but whether it’s real or fake doesn’t matter for the purpose of this post. This is allegedly NBC’s menu, “in honor of Black History Month:”

I find this incredibly racist. I mean, all that’s missing is watermelon, and making sure the soda is orange or grape. However, some people have said that it’s southern food, which it is, and many blacks are from the south, which they are. But not all blacks are from the south, and when you list off these foods, they’re often associated with black people. Kristi pointed out that this kind of food is deeply engrained in the southern, especially southern black, culture, and she’s not wrong. It’s also been pointed out that the chef is black, but that doesn’t mean he came up with the menu. He could just be paid to cook it.
I’d also like to share an experience that I had, that I found really surprising. I used to hold a job where I was the only white person on staff. I learned more at that job then I have almost anywhere else. There were things about black culture that I didn’t know, that I was confused by at first, that I began to understand. I also went out of my way to go to church with them, to ask questions, and to learn. It was my one and only experience being a racial minority, and considering that I grew up in a town that was 95% white, my exposure to black people and culture was fairly limited.
For our staff luncheon, one of the other staff members was in culinary school, offered to do all the cooking herself, and cater the luncheon. When I arrived, I was given a piece of paper with the menu on it, and was taken aback. The menu consisted of fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, collared greens, sweet potatoes, corn, watermelon, and cake. Now, this wasn’t racist; a black woman had created and catered the menu to serve to a group of black people. This was the food she enjoyed and wanted to serve.
Therefore, I’m torn on the issue of the menu. Is it only racist if white people make this menu? Is it racist because it is based on stereotypes, ones that are not true of every black person? Is it racist at all?
I also want to post this clip from Dave Chappelle, if only because it’s a black man explaining why the assumption that black people like certain foods is racist:

I’d like to hear thoughts and feedback, but please, do it in a respectful way.

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  1. Advizor
    Posted February 10, 2010 at 1:44 am | Permalink

    I've been white all my life. I grew up in an all white neighborhood in an all white church, school, PTA, soccer league, you name it.

    In high school a black family moved in and Mark became one of the group. But, the parents never settled in on the idea, gave them grief, and they moved out. I knew then that generational perspectives were changing. I didn't think like my parents, and they didn't think like me. I grew up with Cosby, Fresh Prince, and people on TV that my parents had never seen. While TV isn't the best place to learn racial relationships, it opened my eyes to those that my parent's considered "the others."

    When I was in college I was the only white kid in my program. I was constantly being accused of being racist for saying things that had nothing to do with race in my head. But they heard it as racist. I had the chance, at the same time, to educate them that racism can go both ways. They made assumptions and judgments about me because I was white. We had a lot of "heated" conversations.

    So much of this issue wraps around the maxim that "Perception is Reality." If someone thinks I'm a racist, they will see me as one, regardless of how I see myself.

    I think the key it to keep talking about it. Great post.

  2. elitza
    Posted February 10, 2010 at 4:34 am | Permalink

    Coming from a restaurant background, and given that my father is a certified executive chef, there are a couple of possibilities that I see for this.

    Either the chef is working for a corporate chef or is one himself (corporate chefs create menus for chains or restaurant groups, work with the executive or head chefs of their outlets on training and development, but generally leave the day-to-day stuff for their head or executives to handle. My dad works for a resort chain as an executive chef, so his everyday menu isn't something he has control over–the corporate chef does that for the whole chain. He does get to make his own specials, hire his employees, do his budget etc).

    I admittedly don't know the kitchen hierarchy at NBC, but I'm guessing that no one told this chef to make that specific menu–if anything, it might have been suggested that he put together some "traditional black food" or what have you. Is that racist? I'd say it's probably racial, but then, I don't know the whole story.

    Brit, I used to work at a restaurant that was almost 100% staffed and patronized by upper middle class whites. We served "American food" which damn well consisted of collards, hoppin' John for New Year's, cornbread, fried chicken, ribs, etc. And we hosted dinners every February paying tribute to African-American history and culture. Does that mean that because our chef, owners, etc were all white, that these dinners were in some way racist? I really don't.

  3. Whiskey and Popcorn
    Posted February 10, 2010 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    Person of colour here! Faithful reader, and sporadic commenter. I am glad to read this, and to read it.

  4. JonsBabydoll
    Posted February 10, 2010 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    I'm white, but growing up until I was 13/14 I was in a neighborhood where white was the minority. I truly feel like I didn't see color. I saw the person. As a kid you don't care if the person you want to play tag with is white/brown/purple/yellow.

    I moved when I was 14 into an upper class white neighborhood. The high school I went to was 95% white. It was such a culture shock. People there were racist. I don't think it was because they wanted to be. I don't even think it was conscious. However, they were. They would say things without thinking, because there wasn't anyone of color around to take offense.

    I clearly remember one of my teachers putting an arab student on the spot because he wanted to know what it was like when 'everyone thinks you are a terrorist'. The girl was 15!!!! It just shocks me what come out of people's mouths sometimes.

    We had a handful of people of different backgrounds, but not too much of any one. Which didn't expose any of my peers to different cultures.

  5. Eliot
    Posted February 10, 2010 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    I can't find the article now, but the chef (who is female) *is* the one who came up with the menu. Apparently she'd been wanting to do a menu like that one for a while. She didn't understand why it was stirring up controversy.

    I'm amused that all of the articles regarding the situation that I've looked at today do not mention the chef at all.

    Wait, I just found this: http://92q.com/national/news-gossip/theurbandaily/is-nbcs-cafeteria-lunch-menu-racist-2/

    I think she said it best.

  6. skyddsdrake
    Posted February 10, 2010 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    I'm not a person of color. My family immigrated from Sweden and Norway, and we look it. I've been very fortunate, however, to have participated in a program of study that included significant social/cultural training by persons of various cultures and backgrounds. I message that I got regarding racism was, "Ask." It's not something that is set in stone. Rather, race and racial issues are things that everyone looks at differently, and according to their own experiences.

    I am racist. Not because I choose to be, but because I'm considered white and in the United States (where I live) there is considerable white privilege. Whether I want to take advantage of that or not, it is an advantage that I have. I hated hearing that message at first, but now that I know I find that I just want to learn more.

    The only time that I have ever had a person of color get so thoroughly offended by something I said they called me out for it and we couldn't even have a conversation about it was when I described myself as "colorblind." Once we could talk about it (much later) he informed me that colorblindness was a stigma of the eye, and it damn sure didn't keep anyone from seeing black, brown, or any other skin tone. When I said I was colorblind, he informed me that I was denying HIM. Being black was part of his identity, and by telling him I didn't see that, he said I was missing a big part of his culture and life. The more I thought about it, the more it makes sense. I never want to give anyone the impression that I don't "see" them ever again!

  7. Welcome to Chicago, Jillinois
    Posted February 12, 2010 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    Dave Chappelle is one of my heros. He really nails the way I choose to address racism. His whole "have you ever heard a racist comment and you don't even get mad, you just feel like you're watching a movie, like 'Damn. That's racist.'"

    I live in Chicago, which is a hella racist town. But most everyone I know, especially people of color, choose to look at it like this when faced with ignorance. They just laugh. In the same way they'd laugh at someone who was dressed in clothes from the 1950s, thinking it was the normal way to dress, you know? Like "Are you kidding me? Did you just step out of the black and white TV or something? Get out of my face with that, ha ha, let's go."

    If it's institutionalized racism, yes, of course it takes some major addressing. But the little one-on-one stuff? I find laughing in their face and paying them no mind is the best reaction.

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