Saturday, January 29, 2011

Chicken and waffles plus a side of insensitivity

The story of UC Irvine offering a meal of chicken and waffles to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day was all over the local news here in Los Angeles. My initial reaction on hearing the news was typical for me. I simply said WTF. How could anybody be so insensitive? Here is a link to the story as told by the L.A. times.

A last-minute decision to serve fried chicken and waffles at a campus dining hall in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. was a regrettable choice and lacked sensitivity, UC Irvine officials acknowledged Wednesday.

The meal was served at Pippin Commons on Jan. 17, the first day of UC Irvine's 28th annual Martin Luther King Jr. symposium. The theme of the three-day campus event was "Uniting Our Voice for Change." Past speakers have included Julian Bond, the late Dick Gregory and the late Yolanda King, the civil rights leader's daughter.

The menu and a sign in the dining hall reading "MLK Holiday Special: Chicken and Waffles" were pulled together at the last minute by a chef and other cafeteria staff members, said UC Irvine spokeswoman Cathy Lawhon.

I don’t normally write about racism or racial insensately, but this one struck a cord. I’d recently had the same conversation with a naturalized American of middle eastern ancestry. He’d basically said that all African American’s eat Chicken and waffles as a means of celebrating Dr. King’s birthday. I patently explained the stereotype. He eventually understood by point, but his views are based on thinking that African Americans are a different than their white counterparts. It’s like how we think of the Chinese and French as different peoples. I explained that In America, we are all Americans although many of us took a much different path to get here. The memory of his comments resurfaced when the news of UC Irvine's flub hit the airways. I have trouble understanding how people think this way.

For example. Dr. King’s Birthday is a national holiday. As an American I take a great deal of pride in remembering Dr. King as a great American on par with Lincoln and Washington. He helps define, and helped redefine, what it means to be an American. I don’t see the holiday as black or white, I see it as American. I understand that African American’s view Dr. King as a cultural hero. I would too.

As for food, the last time I checked my African American friends (and daughter-in-law) eat the same kinds of food as I do. There is no African American stereotypical dish or cuisine, we eat American food, which also happens to be highly regionalized or something handed down through your family. If you grew up in the south your food preferences are different than if you grew up in LA, but it’s all American food. Heck, even the Mexican food I love is a regional LA specialty and therefor part of the American food scene.

I’m an Irish American, although by now any semblance of Irish culture is several generations removed. That is to say, I am an American with ancestry reaching back into the 1870s or so. I’m married to a naturalized American of Filipino ancestry. I love the story of my wife’s birth in the Philippines and her subsequent immigration to America. I’ve adopted Filipino culture as my own. My children are at home at Filipino gatherings and at my generic American gatherings.

My son married an African American classmate from Berkeley. The joining of our families was flawless. Learning about each other has been as much fun as celebrating our kids marriage. My family and friends now encompasses people of many races and backgrounds. Some are recent immigrants, some have been here for generations, and a few are thinking about becoming Americans. It’s all good. My life is richer for it.

Chicken and waffles – I love them. I think of them as classic American comfort food. I love the fact that I can go to Roscoe's in Long Beach with my friends to celebrate life by enjoying a good meal together. It’s part of what makes our country great. We will make mistakes along the way, let’s try to learn from them so we can continue down this road together in friendship, and with good eats.

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