When I first came to Yale, I was disturbed by three things. First, practically all the dining hall workers were African-American. Second, no one else seemed to have a problem with this. And third, I quickly grew accustomed to this, no longer squirming every single time I went into the dining hall. But then, in December of my freshman year, came an event where I could overlook it no longer: the Parade of Comestibles.
Very soon, another freshman class will head to Commons to witness table after table of desserts decorated in a manner that is perhaps the closest Yale’s kitchens will ever get to the confectionary brilliance of the sugar castles of Versailles. There are meats, specialty drinks, platters upon platters of food and even a parade down the center aisle of Commons in which the dining hall staff roll out all the foods they’ve spent hours perfecting. Smiles, cheering and camera flashing abound.
And then, finally, there is a mad rush to one side of Commons, where hundreds of students descend upon the servers, grabbing what they can. I have a particularly vivid memory of a wooden fishing crate, complete with netting, shells and red cooked lobsters — and then of the servers removing the lobsters and throwing them, antennas and all, into the crowd.
It’s the kind of decadence that makes you think, this is Yale — and yet I cannot help but wish that Yale, at least in this respect, were very, very different. After all, the event is reminiscent of a history of African-American subservience that, each Christmas, turned to joyful festivity.
Critics of my cynicism will cry foul, saying that the Parade of Comestibles is a beautiful Yale tradition — but, God, how I hate that word tradition and how it can excuse such a multitude of sins.
About half the people I’ve spoken to were completely oblivious of the racial undertones of the parade and had had a wonderful time; the other half were, like me, deeply disconcerted.
Yet when I complained about this event in the Yale Herald, I was told to chill out: the employees are grateful for their jobs, New Haven is mostly black anyway and the workers don’t consider their lives to be some sort of Greek tragedy.
But the thing is, New Haven isn’t mostly black at all; in fact, according to the U.S. census, in 2010, New Haven was 42.6 percent Caucasian and 35.4 percent African-American. So even if one generously assumed that New Haven had equivalent numbers of each racial group, then why — as practically every Yale student can attest — does nearly every single dining hall worker seem to be black? After all, it’s not that New Haven is mostly black; it’s just that it seems mostly black given the proximity of campus to largely African-American communities and the overwhelming numbers of service staff who are black.
Then, some will ask, well, who do you want washing the dirty dishes of society? Someone’s got to do it. True enough — and I hardly think that, in this economy, anyone can be ungrateful for full-time employment. Furthermore, I cannot imagine Yale ever becoming one of those co-op schools where students all pitch in to cook and clean for each other. So it is true that I have no short-term solution to this problem.
However, the current state of affairs absolutely requires a long-term solution. The fact that dining hall positions are filled primarily by African-Americans indicates that public education has failed to prepare them for other kinds of vocations — a failure which has disproportionally affected them in relation to other populations in New Haven. There is nothing wrong in choosing a manual job of one’s own volition, but it is terrible that an entire community has been consigned to such labor because it has never been given the opportunity to do otherwise.
This must change, not only for the sake of the dining hall workers, but for the sake of Yale students. Because here’s the scary thing: when you get used to being served by people of a certain race, you start to conflate their profession with their identity. You grow complacent, and you accept the status quo because, after all, as you reason to yourself in a voice down in the pit of your stomach that will never reach the light of day, that’s what they do. That’s who they are. And that is wrong.
The Parade of Comestibles highlights the truly glaring social problems at work in the New Haven community. And no, it may not be a Greek tragedy — but it is an American one.
Kathryn A. Brown is a senior in Calhoun College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.