WHITE: Racism and the holiday dinner

It is hard not to notice the racial composition of the Yale Dining staff: The vast majority of the people who make and serve our food are black. To some, this betrays some sort of racism akin to that in the antebellum South. However, to see racism where there is none is not only to misunderstand New Haven and Yale’s role in it but is also deeply counterproductive and unhelpful.

Last Friday, Kathryn Brown asserted (“A parade of racism,” Dec. 2) that the Parade of Comestibles enjoyed by the freshmen each year in their holiday dinner is manifestly racist. She wrote that “the event is reminiscent of a history of African-American subservience that, each Christmas, turned to joyful festivity.” Her association of the Commons Holiday Dinner with the celebrations of the antebellum South seems to be based on two features: that the vast majority of the Yale Dining staff is African-American, and that their serving us makes them appear subservient.

There is nothing inherently racist in the Parade’s being carried out primarily by African Americans; in other words, there is nothing racist in Yale’s dining staff being predominantly African-American. We live in the midst of the African-American communities of New Haven. We should praise, not criticize, Yale for hiring from within the community it calls home. Doing so creates positive exchanges between the University and the surrounding areas and in doing so strengthens the ties between town and gown.

Brown suggests that the racial composition of the staff should reflect the demographics of New Haven. But ought we to hire whites and Latinos from more distant communities to ensure a racially balanced staff? To do so would be to penalize African Americans for their race to the benefit of whites, Latinos and other races.

In her column, Brown claims New Haven’s African Americans are trapped in a class of subservience from which they cannot escape. She rightly criticizes New Haven’s educational system, blaming its inadequate preparation of African-American students for higher paying jobs. New Haven’s schools are of unacceptably low quality, and we can blame them for many of the problems New Haven’s African American communities face.

However, Yale Dining’s hiring practices are among the most promising ways to mitigate this impediment. If we think the African-American community is disproportionately handicapped, the ability to hire almost exclusively from this community should be seen as an opportunity.

To be bothered by the racial composition of the staff, however, is not the greatest problem in seeing the Parade as racist. Far more problematic is seeing the fact that the staff serves Yale students — be it for the Holiday dinner or throughout the year — as evidence of subservience. We ought to enjoy, as I hope many do, the Parade of Comestibles not as a meal prepared by servant-like workers, but as a celebration into which many have poured their efforts.

To characterize serving as subservient is to degrade the work of the staff and to fail to afford the necessary respect both to the members of the staff and to their livelihood. This kind of belief is premised on a notion that our respect for the staff is somehow incompatible with their serving the student body. The dining hall staff should undoubtedly have our utmost respect and gratitude, but they can and should enjoy it without our being forced to reconceive of their roles in our community as something other than what they do.

The staff serves us, yes. But service is not at all a bad thing; rather, that so many people are stably employed in relatively high-paying jobs is good. And yes, the staff is primarily African-American. But this, too, should not cause us discomfort, but should rather earn Yale our praise. When we consider the Parade of Comestibles, then, we can celebrate the holidays without vague and ultimately counterproductive concerns of racism. Real racism still plagues our country, but we should fight it where it exists and stop seeing it where it doesn’t.

Quinn White is a sophomore in Branford College. Contact him at quinn.white@yale.edu.

Comments

  • River_Tam

    > And yes, the staff is primarily African-American. But this, too, should not cause us discomfort, but should rather earn Yale our praise.

    God.

    It should do neither. You sound as patronizing as Ms. Brown. They’re not charity cases – they’re workers and damn good ones.

    • Frashizzle

      Like any other service job, some are damn good some are damn bad and most are mediocre. Lol at your being just a patronizing as the two authors.

      • River_Tam

        @Frashizzle – I am basing my evaluation on my own personal experience. The employees of Yale Dining Services have many times gone above and beyond what their job requires to help me or my classmates get something we needed. I genuinely haven’t met a Yale Dining employee I’ve had a markedly bad interaction with, which is more than I can say of virtually any other job I’ve worked or business I’ve patronized. It’s not patronizing to say that YDS has a much better staff than virtually every business (restaurant or otherwise) that I patronized while I lived in New Haven.

  • Mikelawyr2

    I think the word “belies” is misused.

    • River_Tam

      Yup. Completely missed that too.

    • NewCampus

      You’re quite right. Why do people use unusual words if they don’t know what they mean? There’s no shame in using a smaller vocabulary. I’d argue that relying on more accessible language is a mark of a good writer.

  • JohnnyE

    Haha, Mr. White vs. Miss Brown. A perfect battle of condescension.

  • The Anti-Yale

    “Far more problematic is seeing the fact that the staff serves Yale students — be it for the Holiday dinner or throughout the year — as evidence of subservience. We ought to enjoy, as I hope many do, the Parade of Comestibles not as a meal prepared by servant-like workers, but as a celebration into which many have poured their efforts.”

    And I would reward those many who serve (but are not subservient) by inviting them to sit down and enjoy the fruits of their labor too. Draw up a chair and feast with your egalitarian Yale undergraduates, dear servers.

    • connman250

      It is bad enough that they serve you, now, you want them to sit down and eat with you, which will probably get them fired?

  • BaruchAtta

    Antiyale: Let’s count the ways this situation is not “subservient” – all workers at Yale (and everyone else) 1. applied freely for the jobs 2. can quit at will 3. can apply for any other available job in the country 4. will be hired on qualifications only at any job in the country 5. are free to apply to any school or college 6. will be admitted on merit only (or given preference!) and so on. If you go to a restaurant, do you feel that the workers there are subservient? If you go to a professional (doctor, lawyer etc) are they subservient because they work for you? And so on. I didn’t realize that common sense was in so short supply at Yale.
    Then again, think frats and beer parties, even at Yale. And life continues, regardless of these comments.
    Furthermore: “It is hard not to notice the racial composition of the Yale Dining staff:…” Puncht farkeirt: It is really easy not to notice that. You worry about “racial composition”? Cause I don’t. I live in a mixed community, work in a State job where it is fully mixed race-wise. Have been for most of my adult life. Maybe if the author would get out more, he would change his outlook. A bit. His comments tell more about where he is coming from than what the reality of the situation is.
    Wouldn’t that be a better course to take than “Art History”?

  • The Anti-Yale

    ” If you go to a restaurant, do you feel that the workers there are subservient?”

    I don’t live on the campus of the restaurant. The restaurant doesn’t feed me every day. I do not “govern” the restaurant’s budget and menu through a participatory democracy (student government) which advises the restaurant. I don’t have to pay the reatuarant six month’s in advance for their meal plans: I can leave the restaurant after one meal and go elsewhere if I don’t like the food or service.

    • River_Tam

      I don’t understand how students being locked-in to eating in the dining hall for a semester implies that the workers are subservient to the students.

    • whatwhat

      Where are you getting all this false information? Students don’t “govern” the “restaurant’s” budget and menu. Most students do not eat every single meal every day in the dining hall- in fact many people choose to “leave the restaurant” when they don’t like the food. Happens all the time when the menu for that particular meal (chosen by non-students) is not appealing.

      In any case, RT got it right- how is being locked-in to eat in the dining hall imply that the workers are subservient?

      • The Anti-Yale

        I do not have control over the labor conditions of waiters/tresses in a restaurant I frequent. Indirectly, students DO have control over the working conditions of worker sin the dining halls of the campus which their presence funds. They certainly have the power to invite workers to sit down and dine with them on Versailled-day or whatever it is called. But they also have the CONCENTRATED power of a discrete cvonsumer group on a captive-campus to boycott the eating plan if they feel the conditions the workers must endure are unfair.

        My boycott of McDonalds as an individual would not be analogous.

        I don’t h

        • CrazyBus

          Your boycott of McDonald’s as an individual is analogous to an individual student boycotting the dining hall. If you decide you’re tired of spewing empty words, maybe you’ll try to gather McDonald’s customers and create a concentrated discrete consumer group. Until that happens, your righteous preaching calling for others to take action is hypocritical at best.

        • whatwhat

          The working conditions of Yale dining hall workers are quite good- something that you would not know, since you don’t frequent the dining halls.

  • connman250

    Maybe if the guilt ridden, white liberals, stop catering to blacks, they would be better off. And why on earth would a black person want to get educated and continue being a slave to the white power structure? Maybe we should all learn ebonics? You know what aaam sayyying?

    When many of you graduate and are CEO’s, you will even have more servants

  • connman250

    If you go to Yale I am sure that your mummy and daddy have a few hispanic workers (illegal aliens) mowing the lawn and trimming the hedges, so why would you care who the heck works in the YDS?

  • connman250

    ??????? Did Yale ever return those stolen artifacts to the Peruvians???????

  • nero

    The dining experience wouldn’t seem racist if those eating — plus the faculty and administration — looked more like the people preparing and serving the food. It’s the stark contrast that’s jarring and makes attending dinner feel like a visit to Yale Plantation. The solution isn’t to change the dining staff; The solution is to redouble efforts to ensure equitable minority representation in student admissions, and the hiring of faculty and administration.

    • River_Tam

      Yeah, it makes sense to *increase* affirmative action because we all know the most important thing to do is make sure the racial composition of Yale’s undergraduate population mirrors that of New Haven’s working class.

    • connman250

      Why not! We lowered the standards on everything else.