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 firstname.lastname@example.org.