In my senior year of high school, my government class was taught by a teacher that was very involved in local government. On a day near Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (still not sure why it wasn’t on the actual day) the Town of Gilbert had a MLK commemorative breakfast downtown, and she wanted some students to represent our school by attending. Myself and a few friends went, and while we grabbed breakfast we all muttered how uncomfortable we all felt. All of us were white. Breakfast included grits and fried chicken. Snickers about racism prevailed.
Gilbert is about 3% black, and over 80% white. In my earlier years I don’t even remember if there were black kids in my classes, and I remember only a token few from my high school years (Apparently, there are about 150 out of 2700 total students). So, when Gilbert tries to do MLK Day, it comes off as kind of weird. In retrospect, I’m glad that the event happened, and I’m glad it brought quite a few people out to remember Dr. King. There were a few speakers about equality, and some students from Best Buddies at my school did a performance. And there was grits.
This week, the cafeteria at UC Davis honored Dr. King by serving a menu that looked pretty reminiscent of my experience. And I think this sums it up nicely:
On the one hand, the cafeteria is making an effort to mark MLK day and, to be fair, the food choices are traditional “soul food” familiar to (especially Southern) Black populations and the South more generally. On the other hand, preparing foods associated with Black people is about the shallowest possible way to celebrate such an important man.
The conundrum — do we or don’t we, as a cafeteria, acknowledge Martin Luther King day and, if so how? — is a familiar one. Can one do so without reproducing stereotypes and appearing on blogs like these? Or should we just pretend the day doesn’t exist?
The truth is, in a context of ongoing racial inequality in which stereotypes continue to harm, organizations such as these are stuck between a rock and a hard place. That’s how racism has such staying power: it makes it such that all choices resonate with its ugliness.