I never thought that a trip to a Pomona College dining hall would anger me to the point where I felt obligated to write about my frustrations regarding race discourse and how we, as a nation, celebrate cultural diversity. However, this week’s Black History Month celebration dinner at Frank Dining Hall caused so many mixed emotions and, in a type of domino effect, led me to write about stereotypes, education, and hypocrisy.
While heading to eat, I pulled out my phone to check the 5C Menu website to see what would be served. What I saw made me do a double take, and I had to stare at it for a few seconds to fully register what I had seen. The dinner menu for February 5 read, “Black History Month” in bold, followed by this list of food: Oxtails, Fried Red Snapper, Mac-N-Cheese, Black-Eyed Peas, Pot Likker Collard Greens, Hot Water Cornbread, and of course, Peach Cobbler.
While I have enjoyed my fair share of cornbread, black-eyed peas, and greens (not because I’m black—my mother, who is not black, makes these foods regularly), I was angry and disappointed at this. Oxtails? Mac-N-Cheese? Were those greens really pot “likkin'” good?
It was then that I realized people still don’t get it. Even if, for some proportion of the black population, these are legitimate daily food choices, this is still a form of stereotyping. Even if a well-intentioned person of color put this celebration together, I felt embarrassed that even though I go to school with some of the most open-minded students in the world, this menu and its racial implications could terribly mislead and confuse my peers into thinking, “Wow, this is what black people eat. How different … But where’s the chicken and watermelon?”.
I know I am not alone in saying that even in America’s most honest attempts to celebrate cultural diversity, I am constantly made uncomfortable having this ever-growing blanket of expectations and generalizations held over my head. Maybe I’m not comfortable with my place in society as a black woman. Or maybe what I’m angry about is the fact that black history is too often reduced to a single month filled with a few obscure food items, a handful of popular black role models, and insufficient, superficial discussions of topics of “black history.”
Newsflash: Black history is American history.
After seeing what a Pomona education can offer in terms of understanding the seemingly reformed yet still unequal social structures in America, and comparing this education to petty celebrations I experienced before Pomona, here’s what this all looks like to me now: Our schools tell us that the ability of blacks to overcome slavery and systemic oppression is so amazing it’s worth some time to think about. But only 28 days. Four weeks. A teensy one-tenth of a school year. That’s all. It’s not at all about why blacks have been put in situations they had to fight their way out of. No, this month you will not hear about minstrel times, which created the very stereotypes that middle and high school-aged children make fun of. You won’t hear about the bad science that tried to prove that blacks (and all other races) were biologically different and thus inferior to whites. You won’t hear about how blacks continue to be incarcerated at higher rates, how they are isolated and kept in the cycle of violence and poverty by being punished for just that.
Instead of these truths, social institutions (schools, the media, the government, our communities) tell us that blacks are so different and so special that they get a very generous month in which we will eat their food, listen to their music, even watch films with black actors, but never, ever, talk about our social duty and responsibility to ensure that the actions we are taking aren’t reinforcing the things we as a society or as communities “try” to fight against.
I love Pomona College. But as an institution that preaches racial equality, sensitivity, and fostering productive conversations to make the world a better place, its community members need to practice what they preach. That means not feeding into mainstreamed, hurtful attempts to honor cultures and instead promoting consciousness in our everyday words and actions. The Pomona College community needs to extend its careful thought and concern from the classroom to everyday life, because black/American history is still very much our present.
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