(The Root) —
“I had dinner with my white girlfriend and her mother recently. Her mother cooked, and I was surprised that the meal was all ‘soul food’ — chitlins, greens and sweet potato pie. My girlfriend said her mom likes to cook new things and I should think nothing of it. Didn’t think much of it then, but my friends say it was insulting. Was it?” –R.W.
Your question reminds me of what the cafeteria at my college would serve during the first week of February. Feb. 1, we could count on fried chicken, collard greens, mashed potatoes, candied yams and watermelon. With the exception of maybe Thanksgiving, the cafeteria never offered a similar spread. And while the food was tasty — my university was known for its good food — it was pretty clear that this “soul food” offering was in honor of Black History Month.
You know and I know that nearly every person who eats meat likes fried chicken, and loving watermelon is pretty universal, even if both foods are always attributed to being a stereotypical “black thing.” The rest of the dishes you mentioned are also consumed by nonblack Americans, especially across the South, so it was curious to me why these offerings were limited to Black History Month (or Thanksgiving), and it wasn’t because of the high calories.
Despite the abundance of white and Asian customers filling the tables each time I pass by a soul food restaurant such as Sylvia’s in Harlem or Ms. Tootsie’s in Philadelphia, and despite all the offerings in Paula Deen’s cookbooks, soul food is considered black food. And that’s why my college cafeteria and your girlfriend’s mother prepared it in some weird sort of honor to mark a black occasion.
The good news is that you’re not offended by Mom’s efforts, so this isn’t a rift in your relationship that needs mending. And so you know, just because your friends say you should be offended doesn’t mean you have to be. But I do see how they would consider Mom’s meal insulting.
Mom’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner meal indicates that she has assumed that because you are black, you automatically must like these things that are stereotypically associated with blackness. Black folks aren’t monolithic, and our tastes vary. For instance, some black folk love chitlins — and I’m amazed that Mom stunk up her house to try this one, but hold up, as a newbie, did she clean them? — and others (like me) wouldn’t touch them with a 10-foot fork. If Mom really wanted to impress you — and as your girlfriend said, this was a “new thing” Mom was trying, which seems to be the case here — she would have been better off asking your girlfriend what your favorite dish was and trying to master that instead.
Mom obviously doesn’t know too much about black folks. Her dinner lineup reads like the search engine results for “What do black people like to eat?” But take it in the spirit of what it likely was, even if it was misguided: a mom’s attempt to make her daughter’s black boyfriend feel comfortable.
The great news here is that you’re dating your girlfriend, not her mother. Hopefully your girlfriend has not taken on her mother’s generalizations about black people and would understand why your friends took offense if you explained to her as I have here.