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Some food for thought on the menu at UC Irvine

Was a chicken-and-waffles special on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in such bad taste?

January 29, 2011|Sandy Banks

At least it wasn't watermelon. At least the cafeteria workers weren't in blackface or wearing Afro wigs.

I can't muster up much outrage over chicken and waffles, the Martin Luther King Jr. Day cafeteria special at the center of a flap on the campus of UC Irvine.

Some black students complained that the meal, promoted on placards in Pippin Commons, trivialized their public commemoration of the slain civil rights giant. I wish they'd just consider it an opportunity, instead, to enjoy good cafeteria food for once.

It's not that I don't understand their perception of insult in the menu choice, or the hyper-sensitivity of young people who feel isolated and ignored because they are collectively such a tiny sliver — 2% — of the demographic pie of the Orange County campus.

When you wake up to find the N-word has been scrawled on your dormitory door, as Black Student Union Co-Chair Ricardo Sparks did two years ago as a freshman, it is easy to be suspicious of a gesture that seems to equate a civil rights giant with a finger-licking-good soul food standard.

But the public hoopla over the incident has turned the students into symbols of misguided political correctness, backed the university into an unnecessary series of mea culpas, and may have hijacked a dialogue that could pave the way for better relations on campus.

It's hard to imagine that's what King would have wanted.

::

The controversy started small and snowballed this week: a complaint from Sparks, a Facebook photo, a blog post in the OC Weekly, a story in The Times, an hourlong program forum with listeners on KPCC, and a national mocking by Rush Limbaugh.

UC Irvine spokeswoman Cathy Lawhon said she has fielded more calls and e-mail on this subject than on any other she can recall. She hesitated when I asked what their focus was.

"The tenor has been: Are we putting ourselves in a place where we can't do anything that relates to a culture that we are not familiar with without including people of that culture?" she said, choosing her words carefully, as if she were tap dancing through a mine field.

Which, in effect, she was. Because talking about race is difficult. It hasn't gotten any easier with a black man in the White House. And it's probably more complicated in California than just about anywhere else.

The Irvine situation is a case in point. The culprit in this culinary blunder wasn't some "white chef who is a redneck from Mississippi or somewhere," said Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Thomas Parham, who happens to be black.

He's a Filipino chef, who took his cue from black students "when he wanted to do something sensitive culturally" for the King holiday menu. Chicken was the meat of the day.

He asked black students for advice, and they suggested the chicken and waffles combo.

"This is a guy who takes great pride in creating 'comfort food' for the students," Parham said. "Somebody who was really trying to do something nice, that was perceived differently by a small group of people.

"No racist intent, nothing hostile about it. ... But people who jumped to faulty conclusions without considering the context and intentions."

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As a black intellectual with multiple psychology degrees, Parham understands the students' perspective.

"The cultural sensitivity of these kids is a little raw," he told me, launching into an explanation of the link between Southern foods and stereotypes and why black folks tend to be particularly sensitive to culinary imagery … even if that culinary offering has transcendent mouth-watering appeal.

Maybe we ought to blame Roscoe's for the problem. The popular chain Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles has made the unlikely combo — a Harlem staple with roots in the Deep South — an L.A. soul food icon. So I paid a visit to the restaurant's Hollywood branch on Thursday to see how the controversy was playing there.

The first few customers I tried to interview were too busy chowing down to talk. But a group of punk rock fans from Huntington Beach, grabbing a bite before a Social Distortion concert, were glad to join the chorus bashing the UC Irvine protesters for making a big deal out of nothing.

"It's good food, it's got nothing to do with race," said Tessa Antonelli, who frequents the Long Beach Roscoe's whenever she can. "I think they were just looking for something to complain about."

Christopher White, the restaurant's night shift lead, said he hadn't heard about the UC Irvine flap. He got a kick out of the notion of chicken and waffles as a racist symbol of white oppression.

But he also understood the students' reaction. He's a middle-age black man, like Parham, drawing on similar values, but a very different background.

White grew up in Louisiana and spent time in prison, where the institutional response to any "black holiday" was a soul food dinner for the inmates.

"Your first reaction is 'It's an insult'," he said. It feels like you're being patronized, made fun of, singled out. "So a lot of times we blow things out of proportion," he said. "You don't see the whole picture. You don't talk with other people about it."

At Roscoe's in Hollywood, he has to deal with customers from every demographic. Sometimes you look around, he said, and there's not a black customer in the place.

"I've learned," he said, "you can't blame everything on race. It seems to me that whites are trying their best to make things better. They're trying to be accommodating.

"That cook, he may have been reaching out, but the young people didn't see it like that."

Then he hustled off to usher in a lively group of black teenagers, boisterous and ravenous and blissfully oblivious to the racial implications inherent in a menu choice.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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