Commentary

Saunders: School’s racially themed meal dumb, but there are bigger things to worry about

bsaunders@newsobserver.comFebruary 10, 2014 

Oh, no. Not this again.

A private girls school in Concord, Calif., is being criticized for observing Black History Month by planning to serve fried chicken, cornbread and watermelon for lunch to its students, ostensibly as a tribute to the 2 percent of them who are black.

Nobody is taking responsibility for the decision – it’s as though one day everybody showed up to find the stereotypical fare magically on the menu – but the school’s administrators have since apologized.

That’s a woefully inadequate response, and I have one question for whoever is responsible:

Where was my invitation? Lost in the mail?

Dadgummit, anybody who knows me knows I love fried chicken, that I’m a fried chicken connoisseur who has been known to compose odes to that holy bird when it’s superbly seasoned and contains just the right amount of external crispiness and internal juiciness. Not too juicy, mind you, because ...

Oops, see how easy it is for me to start waxing lyrically about that barnyard pimp?

Reduced to stereotype

As with most stereotypes, the ones about chicken and watermelon are used to denigrate and dehumanize the subject by making them less than human. Why actually get to know someone or think of them as fellow human beings when you can reduce them to a stereotype?

Comedian Dick Gregory told once of sitting down to eat at a Deep South diner with his knife poised above a succulent chicken when three local toughs strode in. He said they informed him, “African American” – I’m paraphrasing here – “Whatever you do to that chicken, we’re going to do to you.”

“So,” Gregory said, “I picked it up and kissed it.”

Not everyone loves fried chicken. There are people – called vegetarians or vegans – who proudly proclaim they never eat anything that had a face or a parent. Did you hear the one about vegans?

Q: How do you tell a vegan at a party?

A. You don’t have to: He’ll tell you – over and over again.

Love of watermelon

Watermelon, on the other hand, is a different story. Even nonmeat-eaters can eat that. I love it, but so does just about every other Southern-born or raised male. Show me one who doesn’t, and I’ll show you somebody not to be trusted.

You know that dude who invented the seedless watermelon?

Give him a Nobel Prize right now.

Of course, some purists think that negotiating the seeds and then spitting them at unsuspecting passersby is part of the fun. That’s a legitimate point, and one worth respecting.

Me, though? I like eating mine unencumbered by the gustatory speed bumps that seeds serve as.

I listened, aghast, last week as a nationally syndicated radio talk show host spent at least 15 minutes – that’s all I could take before changing back to the 1970s music station – decrying the rampant racism displayed by the California school administrators. Man, that cat was steamed about fried chicken on the menu.

Racism? For serving fried chicken and watermelon?

Was the decision to serve the food as part of a Black History Month celebration a lazy one, uninformed and intellectually uninspired? Definitely, but c’mon, man. We’ve got a lot more important stuff to worry about than what some private school puts on its menu.

It’s a stereotype likely drawn from the despicable, yet-somehow highly-acclaimed movie “Birth of a Nation,” which showed supposedly black legislators eating fried chicken “ostentatiously” – as many reviews describe it. Don’t even mention what they had us doing to chicken and watermelon in some of the old Disney cartoons. Yikes.

So, yeah, fried chicken, despite being universally beloved, comes with a side order of racial baggage.

Watermelon, though, is another story. Blacks don’t eat any more watermelon than other ethnic or racial groups. A sweet potato, on the other hand, doesn’t stand much of a chance around us.

A USDA study reports that blacks, comprising just 13 percent of the population, consume 21 percent of those bad boys eaten here.

That same USDA study on watermelon consumption – our tax dollars at work, eh? – suggested that Asians, “with a ratio nearly three times as great as their proportion of the population,” actually eat more of the stuff than any other group.

Biing-Hwan Lin, a senior economist with the USDA who helped with data research on the project, told me Monday that he doesn’t think any other studies have been conducted.

I couldn’t find out how the study was conducted, if perhaps, government officials checked people’s trash for rinds or called up and asked if they ate watermelon. If so, how much?

If somebody cold-called me and asked, “Say, homes. Do you eat watermelon?” my response would be to invite them over to find out.

Or to kiss my rind.

bsaunders@newsobserver.com

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