School Lunch Line - ©

No Safe Answer To ‘Racist’ Accusations…

There are always many ready to condemn any hasty comment as ‘insensitive’. But few are as quick to offer ‘safe’ substitutions or compromises. Even school cafeterias are being called ‘racist’. But can you judge an operation by its menu?

School Cafeteria Staff - © Tallwood H.S.Typical high school cafeteria staff: Racially, demographically balanced.
Can’t necessarily say the same about all H.S. lunch menus…

This kind of thing always makes me angry – and a little fearful, to be honest. The bottom line is, I wouldn’t be comfortable working in business or academia in the U.S. anymore. Heck, I’m barely okay with going to the supermarket, these days.

My problem

I have this recurring dream – both regular night dreaming and brain-drift day dreaming – that I’ve just stopped in at a pet supplies store looking for bird seed. A specific type that the small seed-eating birds which hang around Distelfink feeders and suet balls love so much. I don’t see it immediately, so I decide to ask the ‘Customer Service Specialist’ behind the counter.

Well, I prepare to ask. Because there are so many things I might say in haste, mispronounce, or even pronounce perfectly, in innocent good faith, that the person opposite might mistake or misinterpret. Anyway, I compose myself and step up.

High Noon or high-five?

“Do you have any Niger seeds?” I manage to inquire.

For a few seconds, the counter rep just stares at me. I wait for the 16-ton weight to fall, the barrage of outraged accusations, the whites of her eyes to bulge and the accusations to start. I have done my best to ask my question in the best English I can muster, and hope the Person of Colour across the counter has chosen not to punish me for being non-coloured.

You see, I might have said ‘Nee-SHARE’ (with the soft ‘g’), or ‘NYE-ger’, or any number of other things the spelling of the word suggests. But I was careful not to get anywhere near the banished, condemned, so-called ‘N’ word that gets so many older, uneducated, ‘un-woke’ or just plain naive people in so much trouble these days.

For the record, Niger – formally the Republic of the Niger – is a Western African nation which is named for the Niger River. It is neither affiliated with, nor connected in any way to better-known Nigeria. Except that it gets its name from its proximity to the same river.

Hair-trigger reactions

I’ve even witnessed a militant anti-discrimination advocate dress down another customer, right in a store, claiming the other person may not ‘exactly’ have said the dreaded, potentially ruinous, actual servant-of-Satan ‘N’ word – but that’s what they meant and were just trying to sneak around the alleged transgression on a technicality.

And I hasten to say, it’s not always People of Colour who make a fuss, trying to play the Race Card where, perhaps, a three-of-Hearts would have been more appropriate.

Wiser to take the low road

Many folks, I think, would rather come down on the side of the Community of Colour in disputes arising from the alleged use of a racist word, gesture or suspected innuendo than wade in and be fair, and stand up for the supporting the facts of the matter. There are too many people out there who are all too happy to paint with the same black brush all others who might have stepped toe over the line in the sand. Or might just have left themselves open to allegations of wrong-doing through a slip of the tongue, use of an ill-advised metaphor or rubbed a militant anti-racist the wrong way.

To the latter, there is no acceptable defense. I.e.- Once you’ve been accused of racism, you are assumed guilty. Witness the accuser who claimed the innocent opposite in the store scenario above, “may not ‘exactly’ have said the dreaded, potentially ruinous, actual servant-of-Satan ‘N’ word.” But, looking for any excuse… It’s human nature. It’s a double standard, too, of course. But wise folks caught in the net of an unfair accusation will always back off, shut up and concentrate on not pouring more gasoline on the fire.

Ah… If only there was a way to probe a person’s mind and tell whether they actually said what they are accused of saying. Or were they mis-interpreted – accidentally or on purpose? A way to to confirm their motives, and allow all involved to be sure of what actually happened before dropping the 16-ton weight.

Which brings me to…

… The situation I just heard about, where low-level employees of the food service contractor for a U.S. School District were recently accused of racism in their choice of items for a Back History Month school lunch menu.

Employees of Aramark, a huge commercial food service provider in the U.S., apologised – not for the first time over the past decade or so – when their employees served kids in Nyack, NY, Middle School, “chicken and waffles with a choice of watermelon for dessert on the first day of Black History Month.”

Aramark told NBC News: “We have apologized for our mistake, are working to determine how it happened and make sure it never happens again,” their statement said. “Our team at that school should have been more thoughtful in its service.”

My take

You’d think Aramark would have learned its lesson after the previous incidents involving high schools and colleges.

You’d think someone on the front lines would have been smart enough to take the necessary steps to avoid such a run-in, even if it was the first time. That speaks to the school board’s accusations of ‘insensitivity’. Maybe even illuminates a potentially serious issue with Aramark’s policies and procedures.

How hard would it have been for the accusers here to suggest some menu substitutions that would be acceptable, to help everyone who might otherwise find themselves jammed up over the choice of an entrée in the future?

Be that as it may… I see no weak points in the school’s complaints against Aramark this time. In this case, maybe, you can judge a food service operation by its menu. Of course, this situation – not unlike many others involving subjective issues – did come down to a matter of ‘insenitivity’, rather than downright black-or-white wrong doing. These gray issues often leave themselves open for debate for as long zealots and those on the other end of the pointed finger care to keep arguing. Not this time, though, I think.

But fair is fair

At the same time, I think it behooves those who play the Race Card to perform due diligence before making public accusations. The situation could just as easily have been the other way around! And, IMHO, it has been many times in the past.

Why can’t we all just agree to be fair, and approach such situations in a spirit of openness, equity and – most importantly – good will?

~ Maggie J.