Black History Month menu prompts criticism

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Students waiting in line to check out at the Marketplace at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. Feb. 24, 2023. Mali Abel/The Occidental

Campus Dining sent an email to the student body and staff with a proposed lunch at the Marketplace to celebrate Black History Month during the afternoon Feb. 16. The lunch, scheduled for the next day, was meant to include mac and cheese, fried chicken or fried green tomatoes with sweet potatoes and green beans, shrimp or artichoke étouffée and jambalaya.

The day after the menu was announced, Erik Russell, assistant vice president of hospitality and auxiliary services, issued an apology on behalf of Campus Dining via email. In the email, Russell acknowledged the menu was offensive to some members of the community and could perpetuate harmful stereotypes.

“This was not our intention and it does not reflect the values of Campus Dining or the college,” Russell said in the email.

Kel Kline (junior) said he was not very offended by the menu and that it was the kind of microaggression that happens all the time, particularly at a predominantly white institution, which points to larger issues.

“I think the school has a bit more of a solidified institutional problem dealing with these sorts of microaggressions, [and] not really fully addressing racial issues,” Kline said.

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Kel Kline (junior) in the Marketplace at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. Feb. 24, 2023. Sebastian Lechner/The Occidental

He said the menu felt insensitive and impersonal, as if no thought went into it.

“In my head, I thought it was a white person that just sat down and was like, ‘Okay, what do Black people eat?’” Kline said.

Kline said he is unsure how to feel about the apology.

“I’m trying to understand the degree in which they understand what they did wrong,” Kline said. “Like, are you just apologizing because we told you to apologize? Or do you actually understand what what was happening? Or do you do actually understand the argument the people that were offended are trying to make?”

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Assistant Vice President for Hospitality and Auxiliary Services, Erik Russell, at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. Feb. 22, 2023. Mali Abel/The Occidental

Russell said the criticism that Campus Dining received was valid.

“This was intended to be a cultural showcase,” Russell said. “We missed the mark on that completely.”

On the administrative side, Russell and his team are working on a new procedure for menu selection for cultural celebrations.

“We are already working on plans to improve our overall menu selection process and evaluating how to accurately reflect and celebrate,” Russell said. “We will do better moving forward.”

According to Russell, the process for developing any menu at the Marketplace involves key stakeholders, such as the chef and the Campus Dining team. The Campus Dining team is just one of the many groups that develops menus for the college and follows its own internal methods for menu selections.

Zuriyah Smith (first year), co-student leadership liaison for the Diversity and Equity Board (DEB), said she felt that the menu showed a lack of intention to properly celebrate the Black community.

“Fried chicken is not Black culture,” Smith said. “Fried chicken is a meal, fried chicken is a food.”

According to Smith, there are better ways to celebrate Black culture and other cultures in general. Smith said Occidental could have celebrated Black History Month in a similar way to the Lunar New Year Festival, which was celebrated the same week. Smith recommended the College hire Black-owned businesses, such as food trucks and vendors, as a proper way to celebrate, as well as collaborate with organizations on campus, such as the Black Student Association and DEB.

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Zuriyah Smith (first year) in the Marketplace at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. Feb. 24, 2023. Sebastian Lechner/The Occidental

According to Smith, in addition to the problems with the menu, the lunch was one of the very few references to Black History Month from the college. Rather than take a full day to celebrate Black History Month, Smith said she felt that the college was planning on reducing it to a two hour event.

“Black History Month is not acknowledged, Black History Month is brushed over,” Smith said. “Black History Month is an email.”

Smith said the celebration of Black History Month should have focused on dismantling ignorance and replacing it with acknowledgement, pride and love. She said reducing the celebration to a meal was not representative of what celebrations of Black History Month should be.

“Our first opportunity to be represented in a month of celebration for us and acknowledgement of the Black community, we are disrespected tremendously by being minimized and subjected to fried chicken and macaroni,” Smith said.

According to Smith, action should be taken by everyone, from students to administrators.

“We need a roar,” Smith said. “I need you to start speaking up.”

Contact Sebastian Lechner at slechner@oxy.edu.

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