A Lesson Not Learned

After all the protests, speeches, demonstrations and media coverage of Winter Quarter 2010’s “Compton Cookout,” you would think that the University of California as a whole might have learned how to avoid racially related media coverage. But here we are, exactly a year later, and this time it’s UC Irvine in the spotlight for its poor judgment.

On Jan. 19, in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, UC Irvine’s Pippin Commons served its “Holiday Special: Chicken and Waffles.” The insensitive menu selection, based off stereotypical African-American foods, stirred up enough controversy on the Irvine campus to draw national media attention.

UCI, however, wasn’t alone in its poor judgment: UCSD’s Canyon Vista held its own Martin Luther King Day menu that included collard greens, cornbread and fried catfish. The Canyon Vista menu didn’t trigger much of a reaction here, but it appears that dining department planners at both schools need to take a hard-earned lesson from last winter’s handbook on racial sensitivity.

The dining halls’ inclination to commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr. with a special menu is baffling to begin with. We don’t celebrate the legacies of Cesar Chavez or Christopher Columbus with foods that have a tenuous connection — at best — to Mexican or Italian culture. They are celebrated for their achievements and not for their race, just as King should be, because his message advocated equality for everyone.

By serving southern foods that have little apparent connection to King beyond racial stereotypes (neither served his favorite food, pecan pie), the dining halls’ menus made an unnecessary racial distinction that doesn’t honor the civil rights activist.

Marshall College sophomore Olamide Noah found the Canyon Vista menu personally offensive. “I’ve experienced way too many ‘black jokes’ that pick upon seemingly typical African-American meals to find that at all humorous or politically correct, especially when used to celebrate a holiday in the name of a historical black figure,” Noah said. “[The menu] seems a lot more like ridicule.”

On the UC Irvine campus, the Black Student Union was not about to allow the dining hall menu to pass under the radar. “I understand people have prejudice and ignorance,” UCI BSU chairman Ricardo Sparks said. “But this is out in the community and nobody is saying anything about it.”

Martin Luther King represents activism and a constant battle for equality. That battle for equality is far from over, and if schools really want to honor the civil rights leader, they should focus on events in the spirit of his universal teachings, not his racial background.

A menu change, no matter how well-intentioned, teaches nothing about the issues that MLK worked so hard to bring to national consciousness.

The dining halls did get something right, though: They’re an ideal location to promote any event or activity. Everyone’s gotta eat, and at one time or another, nearly everyone stops in.

Organizers should have used the dining halls to promote awareness events and campus speakers, all of which are far more effective routes in commemorating one of the great civil rights leaders. The campus should focus its energy on promoting events like the MLK parade and rehabbing the Sherman Heights Community Center. Let’s be honest — the Saturday before midterms week, most probably didn’t even hear about any of the events.

In contrast, hanging a menu does nothing. Although they were intended to commemorate a great leader, they represent yet another instance of low-effort activism, much in the same vein as a “Save Darfur” t-shirt or $5 Starbucks water bottle that sends 3 cents of every bottle to improving water conditions in Africa.

The age of Facebook petitions and Twitter posts may foster some worthwhile impact, as in the case of civil rights movements in Iran and Tunisia. The supposedly commemorative dining-hall offerings, however, make a bleaker statement: that often, our modern efforts at activism are comprised by misunderstanding, laziness and — in this case — ignorance.


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