Those of you who are regular readers of this blog know that I have hardly been reluctant to address issues that have arisen at my own university. So I was not surprised when I received several e-mails asking how—not if—I was going to address the latest incident that has brought Wright State national attention that it could have done without. This most recent issue was newsworthy enough that the Chronicle of Higher Education even ran a short item about it [http://chronicle.com/blogs/ticker/jp/wright-state-u-apologizes-for-black-history-month-menu-featuring-fried-chicken], linking to the more extensive local coverage of it in the Dayton Daily News [http://www.daytondailynews.com/news/news/crime-law/menu-board-at-wright-state-causing-upset/nkDsd/].
Here is the gist of the story. To celebrate Black History Month, Chartwells, the company that operates the dining services at our university, posted the following menu on the dining hall message boards:
There was an almost immediate outcry from many students, which was picked up on social media by alumni and others in the Dayton metro area, and the menu was very quickly taken off the message boards.
Most notably, Billy Barabino, a senior organizational leadership major from New Jersey and president of the Black Student Union, quite lucidly conveyed the profound anger that he and other students were feeling, “’I was really hurt (by the menu). Extremely hurt. For me, it was a knock in the face for African (and) African- American individuals who have fought for us to be progressive. I was extremely offended by it because it minimizes who we are as people.’”
When I first heard about the menu, I was also appalled because it seemed very obviously to be reinforcing stereotypes instead of promoting a more nuanced understanding and appreciation of African-American identity, history, and culture.
David Hopkins, the President of Wright State, very quickly issued a public statement that was e-mailed to everyone in the campus community. He apologized to those who had found the menu offensive and then added “’But the larger question remains: Why was it done? I will find out. We will take steps to prevent this kind of behavior occurring in the future.’”
He also pointed out that our university supports the Bolinga Black Cultural Resources Center, a Women’s Center, an Office of Latino Affairs, the Rainbow Alliance and other initiatives, adding, “’We’ve come a long way because we are working diligently to create an inclusive campus environment in which all students, faculty and staff are respected and valued for the unique contributions they make to our university.”
More specifically, he emphasized that the university had just hosted a very well-received program “Daughters Rising from the Dust: Children of ‘The Movement,’ Speak Out!,” a panel discussion that included: Ilyassah Al-Shabazz, daughter of Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz; Reena Evers, daughter of Medgar Evers; and Mary Liuzzo Lillieboe, daughter of Viola Liuzzo.
Ironically, Billy Barabino seems to have been speaking for many students when he pointed out that the fact that the menu was posted while these speakers were on campus was especially embarrassing and frustrating.
Indeed, especially to someone who had not read the news item in the Dayton Daily News, President Hopkins might have seemed to be laying it on a little thick in defending the university’s broader efforts at inclusion while also apologizing for this incident. But I think that he can be excused for feeling defensive because the Dayton Daily News somehow felt it appropriate to dredge up a story about the Guardian, the student newspaper at Wright State, which in November 2013, ran a classified advertisement recruiting students to sell a “rebel tabloid” that represented “straight whites” and was published by the Nation of Aryans Against Commie Putrefaction, whose acronym is identical to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Clearly, one story has nothing directly to do with the other.
In fact, the more that I have thought about the controversy over the menu and the news items on it, the more ambivalent I have become about it.
I am not saying that anyone was wrong to take offense. Clearly it is not my place to judge what someone might find racially, ethnically, or culturally insensitive, especially when I do not share that specific racial, ethnic, or cultural heritage.
But this is actually one area in which our university has made commendable efforts to be quite proactive and progressive, and President Hopkins does have a right to feel proud about that.
Furthermore, I think that Chartwells was being honest in its statement apologizing for the menu: “Chartwells celebrates many national events on campus and tries to provide authentic and traditional cuisine to reflect each theme. In no way was the promotion associated with Black History Month meant to be insensitive. We could have done a better job putting this in context of a cultural dining experience. We sincerely apologize.”
Indeed, many of the events sponsored by the university’s Office of Multicultural Affairs have not just included but have prominently featured ethnic food–for instance, Mexican food at the Cinco de Mayo celebrations.
Moreover, here is the image in the Wikipedia entry for African-American cuisine/”Soul Food”:
It’s pretty much what was on Chartwell’s menu.
So I am willing to accept the explanation offered by the spokesperson for Chartwells that this was a very poorly presented promotion but there was no malicious intention on anyone’s part.
Moreover, I think that the nuances of this situation were very accurately expressed by Kimberly Barrett, our university’s Vice President of Multicultural Affairs and Community Engagement, who stated, “’I think many times, in attempts to be inclusive and to honor diversity, people who might be in the majority community or in communities other than the ethnic groups they’re trying to honor, sometimes get it wrong. Inclusion is an ongoing process where we have to continually re-evaluate and move forward. I was thrilled when they decided to remove the sign.’”
More broadly, this sort of incident has to be distinguished from the many other, more troubling incidents that have occurred on all too many of our campuses. There needs to be a distinction made between deliberately provocative actions and speech that are unapologetic expressions of prejudice and a more unthinking insensitivity for which there is a quick apology and in response to which there is a commitment to improve sensitivity.
If we don’t make such a distinction, we are, in effect, contributing to that broader tendency in our society that has been greatly exacerbated by social media—the tendency to elevate relatively trivial issues to such exaggerated significance that there is little room to address those issues that are extremely critical and, not coincidentally, much more difficult to address.