Updated Monday, Feb. 26, 2018, 9:15 a.m. EST: A student group advocating for minority and marginalized students at New York University has issued a statement clarifying what happened at the university last week following a controversial Black History Month meal at the school.
On Sunday afternoon, the Governance Council of Minority and Marginalized Students at NYU released a statement on Twitter saying that the group was “dismayed and disgusted by the information being spread” about a Black History Month meal students had called out for being racist and stereotypical. The meal included ribs, collard greens, and mac and cheese, along with Kool-Aid and watermelon-flavored water.
In the statement, GCOMMS clarified that two Aramark employees who were fired by the food service provider as a result of the incident were a general manager and head cook, and that both are white. The student organization also said that the supervisors “attempted to place the blame on black cooks by saying that the cooks created the menu.”
GCOMMS said it was unacceptable that the blame be placed upon those cooks, but also wrote that no student or student organization desired or demanded that the Aramark employees be fired. The statement also added that the students who inquired about the meal were lied to about who had made the meal and what could be done about it.
The group also addressed criticism that students’ problem with the meal showed that they were ashamed to eat soul flood, or that they were classist and too preoccupied with what white people might think of them.
“The issue is that we attend an institution that constantly ignores the voices of black students and works based upon preconceived stereotypes,” the group wrote, adding that no black students were consulted about the menu.
“We understand the importance of soul food, as many of us are born and raised in Southern homes, however, we take issue when these decisions are made by white managers, from a company that profits off of private prisons,” GCOMMS wrote.
Finally, citing attacks on two students who had complained about the meal, GCOMMS blamed news outlets for manipulating the students’ words “to create speculation that black cooks were fired.”
“It is a shame that students once again must do the labor of correcting a false narrative,” the group wrote in the Twitter copy that accompanied the letter. “However we will not sit idly and allow this to happen.”
It was the choice of drinks that bothered New York University sophomore Nia Harris the most.
On Tuesday, Harris noticed an “interesting” Black History Month-themed menu at one of NYU’s dining halls. On deck was a selection of soul food: ribs, collard greens, cornbread, and mac and cheese. But what she found most striking was the choice of beverage: Kool-Aid and watermelon-flavored water, two drinks with strong racial connotations and histories.
It was enough to provoke the 19-year-old Harris to ask who was behind the menu.
As Harris would write in a Facebook post that was widely shared, and as the New York Times reported, after seeking an explanation and being “bounced around” (Harris’ words), she finally spoke to the head cook of Weinstein Passport Dining Hall. After voicing her concerns about the meal, the cook explained that the Kool-Aid was actually fruit punch and that it wasn’t unusual for the dining hall to serve fruit-infused water. The cook also said that the two employees who had planned the meal were black.
In her Facebook post and letter to the NYU administration, Harris pointed out that “fruit punch” drinks were available from the soda fountain, and so it was curious that this drink was differentiated—she added that a cook told another student that the drink was, in fact, Kool-Aid. She also noted that watermelon had never appeared before in the flavored water, and that it was out of season.
“Not only was this racially insensitive, this was just ignorant,” Harris wrote, adding that in 2018, there was “no excuse for intentional and deliberate disrespect.”
She also recounted how an operations manager asked, “Are you offended or something?” when confronted about the menu.
NYU President Andrew Hamilton released a statement within a day of Harris’ email. As the Times reports, Hamilton called the Black History Month meal “inexcusably insensitive.” The menu had been chosen by two employees of Aramark, a food service provider, both of whom have since been fired, according to the Times.
In the statement, Hamilton also noted the damage was “compounded by the insensitivity of the replies” to Harris’ concerns. The NYU president said that no school officials were offered input on the meals, and that going forward, any menu for special events ought to be run by the “existing student advisory body and campus cultural groups.”
In her original email, Harris wrote that it was inexcusable for NYU “to claim to be a ‘diverse’ and ‘global’ university and just to ignore this.”
“If you [want] to learn how to celebrate black history and culture during this month, you can ask black students at this school instead of patronizing us with Kool-Aid, watermelon and ribs,” Harris wrote.
The incident, though high-profile, is far from isolated: Many of the students who shared Harris’ posts offered up their own horror stories of racist Black History Month meals on their campuses, the New York Post noted.
Harris considers Hamilton’s statement and the firing of the employees a “victory,” she told the Times in an interview Wednesday. Still, she says that if she had not publicized the incident, the university wouldn’t have felt pressured to “do the right thing.”
“The burden of teaching people how to be respectful to [black students] is falling on us,” Harris told the Times.