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Collard Greens & Pseudo-Events

What it's like to be a cafeteria worker at New York University
Collard Greens & Pseudo-Events

Reader “Jones” — who, I feel obliged to point out to counter whataboutism, is a Muslim of Asian background — comments on the Millennial Builders in the Ruins thread:

To the people writing in to say, “isn’t it great and virtuous to care about problems that you don’t actually have?”, I say, yes, in some abstract way it is; but the problem is that you tend not to actually know anything about the problems that don’t affect you. More generally, it means that you have no actual investment in seeing the problems through to a solution. Which is why there have been 10,000 articles at Vox about the incredibly momentous social progress represented by a Hollywood blockbuster called “Black Panther,” which is a literally a movie about an imaginary world where black people are doing well.

It also means episodes like that one at NYU recently, where a black undergrad got a couple of low-level food service workers fired because they put together a stereotypical menu of soul food, which caused her an ideological injury. The food service workers were black. Her imaginary injury led this callow youth to put up a post on Facebook and cause a very real injury to these two working class black people, and their families. And of course the NYT when reporting on this never bothered to go find those people, and ask them how they liked being fired, or how it affected their families, or how they planned to pay rent next month. The real lesson being learned by the undergrad: I belong to a superior caste, and if you offend me I can put up a post on Facebook and get you fired.

Did you hear about that NYU episode? It’s outrageous. The NYT reports:

On Tuesday, a dining hall at New York University advertised a special meal in honor of Black History Month. On the menu? Barbecue ribs, corn bread, collard greens, and two beverages with racist connotations: Kool-Aid and watermelon-flavored water.

Nia Harris, a sophomore in N.Y.U.’s College of Arts & Science, sought an explanation from Weinstein Passport Dining Hall’s head cook. The cook dismissed her objections, Ms. Harris said in an email to university officials, telling her that the Kool-Aid was actually fruit punch (it was not, she said) and that the dining hall served fruit-flavored water “all the time” (it does, she said, but not watermelon).

Ms. Harris, 19, posted a screen shot of her email on Facebook, along with a post that began, “This is what it’s like to be a black student at New York University.” It spread quickly.

Wait, Kool-Aid is racist? Why does the NYT simply assume that Kool-Aid is racist? Here’s what Nia Harris posted. 


Within a day, Andrew Hamilton, the university president, had released a statement calling the menu “inexcusably insensitive.” He said that the food and beverage choices had been made by Aramark, the university’s food service provider, with no input from N.Y.U. officials, and that the “error was compounded by the insensitivity of the replies” to Ms. Harris’s questions.

“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,” Mr. Hamilton said in his apology, which was reported by The Washington Square News, N.Y.U.’s student newspaper.

 Aramark already requires employees to do that, but it said that two of its workers violated that standard by planning the menu on their own. Both were fired on Wednesday, and the company said it was retraining its N.Y.U. employees.

So, Jones is right: two working-class people — the cafeteria manager and head cook — got fired because this snowflake who is privileged enough to attend NYU (tuition, room, and board: $63,000) was offended that they prepared a menu that reflects what certain black Americans traditionally eat. I have news too for Nia Harris, a middle-class person from Chicago: I don’t know about Kool-Aid, but ribs, collards, cornbread, and watermelon represents what Southern white country people have traditionally eaten too. I grew up with that food, and love it to this day. Had I been an NYU student or employee eating in the cafeteria that day, I would have been so pleased to have that on the menu.

Anyway, this strikes me as something close to what Daniel Boorstin called a “pseudo-event”: an event staged for the sake of the publicity it will create. Except in this case, two working-class people (one black and one white, according to the food services company) lost their jobs because this black college student diva — the daughter of an administrative law judge — had her feelings hurt by being confronted with food that actual poor and working class black people (and Southern white people) eat.

That is what it is like to be a cafeteria worker at New York University. The class divide in American politics doesn’t really exist. It’s a cultural divide. Can you imagine being so insufferably privileged that you feel entitled to raise hell over the supposed symbolism of cafeteria food? Wendell Berry once wrote, sarcastically:

Quit talking bad about women, homosexuals, and preferred social minorities, and you can say anything you want about people who haven’t been to college, manual workers, country people, peasants, religious people, unmodern people, old people, and so on.

A Nia Harris SJW corollary: Frame your bullying in preferred progressive tropes and you can do anything you want to working-class people, people who serve college students, and so on.

UPDATE: Fascinating bit from a German reader:

Seven years ago I had the dubious pleasure to do research in the rare books department of Amherst college in Massachusetts. I am German and had heard of US private colleges but never actually spend a lot of time in one of them.
What I found was truly unbelievable for somebody who was used to the rather shabby environment of our state run free universities. The cafeteria was like a good, yes very good self service restaurant. There was vegetarian food,grilled meat, asian food and all in bio quality. Of course I enjoyed eating there and also the free New York Times which you picked up with your meal.
What soured me on the place was the terrible PC atmosphere. One professor made some lame joke involving male sexuality in my presence. It was really nothing but he then excused himself profusely. The campus was full of signs that it was the abode of true goodness and progress. It was unbelievably in your face and I quickly realised that you better watch what you say. It felt as if there were so many invisible land mines.
What amazed me was the tuition. It was an altogether incredible, shocking number. I believe something like 50 000$. More than what the average German makes in a year and probably also more than what the majority of Americans make. So I presumed that you get a world class education. Imagine my shock when I looked at their curriculum for learning Russian. (A language which I speak freely). Amazingly enough their schedule was less hard than the one I had had to endure in my German uni many years ago. So I wondered why on earth you would spent such incredible money for what was nothing special? I was told by an Estonian student (who hated the place as much as I did) that students in these sort of places get to know the right people. So Amherst college was a sort of finishing school for the kids of the elite where they make the right contact and get inoculated with the right world view.
The cafeteria wasn´t always open and I didn´t have the money for one of the more fancy places. So I ate in a cheap mexican place. There I got to know
some of the people servicing these children of priviledge. One evening I had a conversation which makes me feel bad to this day. To understand what follows here one more thing about Amherst college: it is an island of beautiful genteel architecture. It has a small town old fashioned village kind of feel. But just walk a bit and you come to a very different sort of place: a mall with huge stores, horrible food and a desert like gigantic parking space. In short the total opposite of Amherst college.
So what happened was that I started to talk to two aging hippies. They were nice people of a different generation. They had foregone a higher education but had lived a “free” life when making a living had been much easier in the US.They had values which I could relate to: nature, outdoors, reading something interesting.
But they had fallen on hard times. She was working
in a nursing home and he (a former truck driver) had had a head injury and got some money from the government. They just made ends meet. What I regret to this day is that I told them how I really liked the physical appearance of Amherst college but couldn´t abide the horrible way they had disfigured this beautiful part of New England with malls and parking lots.
They became very defensive if not hostile. First I couldn´t understand their reaction but later it dawned on me: they were condemned to live in this kind of world. They didn´t have the money to live in such a nice place like Amherst college. Of course they knew in their innermost that I was right but you can´t go on living if you think about your surroundings like that. These people were part of a culture that the very denizens of Amherst college were looking down on. The fast food, the soulless malls and the crass entertainment. Of course the couple I was talking to knew that they were being looked down upon. Usually though they didn´t mind as they existed in a separate world. So when I came into their world and reminded them of how they are being viewed by the lucky ones on the hill they of course deeply resented it.
To me the liberal elite will have their come uppance. Trump was the first sign of things to come. You can get away with being richer than your fellow man. But you cannot get away with adding insult to injury. Not forever.



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