New York University is apologizing after an ill-received attempt to honor Black History Month created a stir around campus.
On Tuesday, a university dining hall advertised a special Black History Month menu that included barbecue ribs, corn bread, and collard greens, as well as Kool-Aid and watermelon-flavored water to drink.
Nia Harris, a black sophomore in NYU’s College of Arts & Science called attention to the seemingly stereotypical menu in a Facebook post after being dismissed by the dining hall’s head chef.
Harris sent an email to school officials detailing why she took issue with the menu and the head cook’s rude response to her when she sought an explanation.
The cook purportedly told her that the Kool-Aid was actually fruit punch, and fruit-flavored water was regularly served in the dining hall. They also noted that the employees who planned the menu were black.
Harris posted a screenshot of her email on the social network with a lengthy caption.
“You walk inside the dining hall only to find ribs, collard greens, and mac and cheese,” Harris wrote. “You note that this is stereotypical, but you decide not to make a big deal. Then you see the beverages, Red Koolaid and watermelon water. You take a breath. You ask to speak with the person over this specific dining hall menu. After being bounced around from person to person you finally get a chance to meet with someone. Today this happened. Today I was lied to, placated, and ignored. In 2018 I literally had to explain why displaying watermelon and koolaid in celebration of Black History Month was not only racially insensitive but just ignorant.”
Within one day, the university president, Andrew Hamilton, issued a statement denouncing the menu and deeming it, “inexcusably insensitive.”
He clarified that the menu choices, including the beverages, were made by Aramark, which is the school’s food service provider. However, there was no input from NYU officials. Hamilton asserted that the “error was compounded by the insensitivity of the replies” to Harris' inquiries about the menu.
“N.Y.U.’s dining administrators will insist that Aramark put in place a mechanism to avoid a repeat of yesterday’s episode, such as consulting the existing student advisory body and campus cultural groups about the menu for special events,” Hamilton said in his apology, which was reported by NYU’s student newspaper.
Interestingly enough, Aramark already requires employees to consult with the aforementioned organization; however, the two workers responsible for planning the controversial menu violated that rule. As a result, they were both fired, and Aramark has said it is retraining its employees.
“We have zero tolerance for any employee who does not adhere to our values or contradicts our longstanding commitment to diversity and inclusion,” Aramark said in a statement Wednesday evening. “Employees at N.Y.U. who acted independently and did not follow our approved plan for the celebration of Black History Month have been terminated and are no longer with the company. We are extremely disappointed by this regrettable situation and apologize to the entire N.Y.U. community and communities everywhere for their insensitive and offensive actions.”
Harris said she considered the termination of the workers “a victory.”
She continued: “But it’s also very important that we had to publicize it in order to put the pressure on them to do the right thing because I feel like had I not publicized it, this could have gone a little bit differently.”
While the employees certainly should have been reprimanded, firing them was rather drastic. It is more likely than not that they acted out of genuine ignorance and not with ill-intentions. This could have been used as a valuable teaching moment, but instead resulted in the company being pressured to let them go.
Nevertheless, their blunder was particularly egregious as they could have avoided the entire ordeal by following protocol to consult with campus organizations before planning the meal. However, management is also responsible for not confirming that the proper steps were taken before moving forward with the menu.
Additionally, they could have avoided being accused of stereotyping by diversifying their menu to include some traditionally African, Creole, and Afro-Caribbean dishes along with the African-American soul food-inspired items to honor the entire diaspora.
Alas, the Kool-Aid and watermelon water were a terrible idea all around. Those beverages only perpetuate negative stereotypes that claim all black people love excessively sugary Kool-Aid and have an affinity for eating watermelon.
Banner/Thumbnail Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Jonathan71