NYU is currently in the headlines because one of its cafeterias served a Black History Month meal consisting of ribs, collard greens, cornbread, smashed yams, mac-n-cheese, Kool-Aid, and watermelon juice.
Some students got pissed and two cafeteria workers—who are black—were fired. There is even a Facebook rant from one of the students.
After reading an article on CNN about this, a few things came to mind. First, that meal sounds delicious, but I haven’t had Kool-Aid since I was eight, so I’ll pass on that. And second, who the hell thought this was a good idea?
The discourse on Facebook is has been interesting, as well. A lot of folks think this is an example of the student(s) being overly sensitive, and maybe it is a bit. And the other is more along the lines of, “Let’s burn this racist school to the ground.”
For the record, no one needed to be fired over this, especially not the two black chefs who planned the meal. NYU is a major institution. It has over 50,000 students. What was the purpose of this meal, and who cleared it?
Let me clarify a point here. Going to Facebook and ranting about this is a bad move on the student’s part, but I’m assuming the student is a 20-year-old who endures racist side comments (microaggressions) every day while just trying to get an education. That is going to wear on anyone. Also, most of us didn’t make the best judgment calls when we were angry and in our early 20’s, so I get it.
While I don’t think it was a good move to rant on Facebook and get so deeply heated about this, I understand the hypervigilance of the student. In fact, I was that student when I was at a PWI in my 20’s, and even now as a grown black male working at a PWI, I still feel frustrated at times.
Let’s look at this from another perspective. Many HBCUs have “chicken Wednesday” where they serve fried chicken. But it’s an HBCU so most folks get it, and no one questions it. If you did this at a PWI, during Black History Month, it would (rightfully) cause an uproar. It is akin to Chappelle infamously leaving his hit show on Comedy Central. One of the reasons he left dealt with how some folks were laughing at his jokes for the wrong reasons.
If you’re black, you know damn well there are some jokes about black folk you can make with your family and close friends that you would never make around some of your white friends. They wouldn’t get it, they would be confused, and they would possibly internalize it as evidence supporting a stereotype you don’t care for.
The meal is Chappelle’s Show and NYU is that person laughing for the wrong reasons.
NYU, a school that’s 2020 class is only 5% black, is not ready for this level of “in-group blackness.” The purpose of this meal was to educate 50,000+ students about a piece of African-American culture. I’m not even going to dig into how the meal is more southern culture versus black culture, but what were the students supposed to learn here? That black folk love Kool-Aid and watermelon?
Look, I get the whole “college campuses are coddling students” argument, and I will save my thoughts on that for another post. But, have you been to a college campus recently? These campuses are more diverse than ever before. For some of the white students, this will be their only real exposure to black folk before they self-segregate themselves into corporate America and relocate to a “nice” suburb with “good” schools.
The error in this, both in implementation and response, does not fall on the black chefs but NYU itself. I mean, it was their watermelon, right? At least remove the Kool-Aid and watermelon juice from the menu (who the hell drinks watermelon juice anyway?), add sweet tea, and call the meal a “southern experience” and include a history lesson with it about how black folk served as chefs in the south for generations and helped shape the palate of that region. Boom. Fixed.
Also, a few years ago, The Atlantic put out this great article on how watermelon became a racist trope. Now that is a good history lesson for Black History month.