UPDATE, JAN. 27, 5:06 P.M.: As news traveled of Monday's MLK-themed chicken-and-waffles dinner held at Pippin Commons, one of UC Irvine's three major dining halls, university officials scrambled to soften the blow.
“Both the students who reported the incident and found it to be offensive and the food-services people are getting together on Tuesday to talk about where each side was coming from and feeling about it,” says Cathy Lawhon, director of media relations for the university, “Student Affairs recognizes that this menu choice, while perhaps well-meaning, probably wasn't as culturally sensitive as it could have been. This is a teachable moment in which the chef can learn cultural sensitivity of stereotypes as interpreted through food choices.”
According to Lawhon, the chef had no ill intentions. “He asked a few African-American student staff members in the Pippin Commons what would be appealing (for MLK Day). . . . Chicken was already the meat of the day, which is decided three weeks in advance. He wanted to know what would be a nice thing for people to enjoy that was MLK-themed. This was their idea, and he ran with it.”
Ricardo Sparks, co-chairman of the school's Black Student Union, remained skeptical. “Why did he think it was okay that he asked a few black students,” he said. “That's problematic in itself. It's the same stereotype, assuming that all black people think the same.”
News that Aramark, the company in charge of UCI dining for student housing, would conduct cultural-sensitivity training for all managers and chefs, as reported by the Los Angeles Times, did little to mollify Sparks. “They've been doing that since I've been here in 2008,” he said. “This is a system-wide occurrence and should be a part of initial job training.”
On the day set aside to commemorate the life of one of the few civil-rights leaders America feels comfortable enough to acknowledge, the eatery decided to do its part and serve the meal, presumably under the assumption that black people like chicken and waffles because the one chain legendary for serving the dish, Roscoe's House of Chicken and Waffles, has locations in predominantly African-American cities and neighborhoods in Southern California. Since we're talking about academia here, let's make Pippin's line of thought into a proof: Chicken and waffles are popular among African-Americans. MLK was black. Therefore, MLK likes chicken and waffles!
The move by Pippin Commons has sparked an uproar on campus. Ricardo Sparks, co-chairperson of UCI's Black Student Union, was not surprised. “Yes, the OC is very racist,” Sparks said on his Facebook page. “There's a bigger picture to all of this because it's more than just giving the okay to an MLK chicken-and-waffles night. There is a system that allows ignorance like this to continue. For Black students on this campus to feel uncomfortable.”
This isn't Sparks' first experience with racism on campus: As a freshman, someone scrawled “Nigger” on his dorm room's dry-erase board.
Sparks and other black student leaders on campus are considering boycotting Pippin and encourage others to do the same. This comes only a week after a Laguna Beach surf shop achieved international notoriety for offering 20 percent off all black-colored items for MLK Day.