A story in the LA Times this past week (“UC Irvine says fried chicken and waffle dinner on Martin Luther King Jr. Day was insensitive”) immediately caught my attention not just for the obvious reasons but also because it brought up memories of a similar incident that happened when I was a student at UC Berkeley.
As background, the LA Times story was about a last-minute decision by the dining hall staff at UC Irvine to serve chicken and waffles for a Martin Luther King Jr. symposium organized by the school’s Black Student Union, which sparked an uproar among the school’s minuscule black population (only 2 percent of the school’s entire undergrad makeup).
Without being there and being in those UC Irvine students’ shoes, it’s difficult to come to any definitive conclusions about what the correct reaction should be. But for the sake of this post, I’m going to do just that because I know exactly how they feel, having had a similar experience.
On the last day of Black History Month (Feb. 28, for those who have forgotten) in 2001, the Daily Californian printed a full-page ad by prominent conservative writer David Horowitz titled, “Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery is a Bad Idea-And Racist Too.” Needless to say, the black students at Cal saw this as a complete slap in the face and raised issue with the campus paper and university (check out my bio on my portfolio website to understand the connection this incident has with my career in journalism).
But incidents like these aren’t just limited to happening once every blue moon. You remember what happened last year at UC San Diego, right? A student hung a noose in the school library like it was a joke during Black History Month. That was preceded by an off-campus party that was labeled the “Compton Cookout,” which mocked black culture and, of course, also ignited racial tensions.
So the question I pose about all of these incidents is this: How are black people most appropriately supposed to react? As expected, are we supposed to complain about the fact that someone basically said, “Hey, these black students are celebrating their culture. I know what will make them happy. Let’s serve them some of that good old-fashioned soul food because we know they’ll like it and all we serve throughout the rest of the year is that un-ethnic cafeteria food.”? Or should we just bite our tongues, be ourselves and enjoy the fact that, on at least one day out of the year, someone was considerate of our interests—even if it makes us a little self-conscious. Because, let’s be honest, there’s nothing like soul food and it does taste good.
The answer is both. Black folks have a right to be upset about this, and the fact that someone made the decision to serve chicken and waffles—one of the greasiest kinds of soul food—is just down right insulting, no matter what the person’s intentions might have been. On the other hand, this didn’t have to be blown out of proportion because, let’s be honest, it’s not every day at a majority white and Asian university that you get to enjoy soul food. Bottom line: W.E.B. Du Bois’ observation that African Americans live behind “the veil” and have double consciousness still rings true. And despite the U.S. having a black president, most Americans don’t get that concept.
Moral of the story: Serve more greens and cornbread.