"I'm writing to ask your advice about my upcoming wedding. We have asked our favorite jerk-chicken takeout restaurant, run by an immigrant Jamaican family, to cater a BBQ picnic for our wedding. Their food is fantastic, and we feel good about this.
"However, we (the couple) are two half-Jewish white women, and the optics (h/t Ralph Ellison) are not good. We are particularly concerned that our friends who are working-class and/or of color not feel uncomfortable. As a result of the location and timing of the wedding, only between eight and 15 will be people of color, depending on who can make it at the last minute. And of those, at most five will be black, and one will be my fiancee's former babysitter-nanny. The other guests of color will be young lawyers, academics and activists, who will definitely notice any lapses of racial etiquette.
"Another potential pitfall is my racist, Zionist, Republican uncle and his equally tone-deaf daughter.
"In a way, hiring a Jamaican family to cater our wedding simply makes more apparent the privilege that our whiteness generally allows us to overlook. In that sense, if we and some guests feel moved to reflect on that privilege, all the better. But is there anything we can do—or shouldn't do—to make our guests of color, our caterers and ourselves feel more comfortable?" —Bride Bothered by Bias
I'm sure you remember one of the missteps that ultimately got Paula Deen fired from the Food Network and made her the topic of the infamous #PaulasBestDishes hashtag mocking the television chef’s views on African Americans. In one of the nonpostracial highlights of 2013, she said she wanted to plan a plantation-themed wedding in which she would enlist "black men to play the role of slaves." Because, in her world, that would be really whimsical and fun.
The whole thing was jaw-dropping because it revealed a longing for a time when being black in America meant major injustice and suffering, as well as a total lack of regard for how an event of that type might affect people who are around today.
You are not Paula Deen. Your wedding is not that wedding.
Your guests and your caterers know that. I know that just from reading your letter. I wish the Paula Deens of the world gave a fraction of the amount of thought that you do to how not to be a jerk to people of color.
I do think your concerns about how this event looks are legitimate, if a little misguided.
After all, sometimes racial optics do reveal something significant. Like when not very many of the people onstage accepting Academy Awards ever seem to be brown, or when the board of directors of a corporation just happens to be all white men.
But sometimes optics are just optics.
Focusing on how things look from the outside and how that might make people feel versus the actual experiences people are having is what causes people to get token black friends. It's what puts those mysterious few black people just behind the podium, in the camera's line of sight, every time a Republican politician makes a speech. All anyone thinks when they see that is, "Wow, someone really made an effort to make things look a certain way. Nice try."
Perhaps the fact that only a small percentage of the guests at your wedding are people of color reflects that we still live in a world in which many Americans don't have a whole lot of close friends of different races. But I don't see it as perpetuating stereotypes or causing race-related pain. It's certainly not a "lapse in racial etiquette" that Jamaican people run a Jamaican catering business and that you want Jamaican food.
Perhaps the only mistake you're making here is underestimating the people of color who are involved.
Your good intentions may be clouding your judgment about what's actually happening here.
First, remember that the caterers are the professionals in this situation. They're not servants or subservient. Running a successful family business that makes great food is in no way unfortunate, uncomfortable or demeaning. In fact, they very likely might make more money than some of the young activists and academics who are just starting out in their careers. My best guess is that they will see themselves as fulfilling a contract—possibly, even, doing something they love—versus being participants in a racial drama or reflections of your racial politics.
As far as your nonwhite guests—the lawyers, academics, etc.: Let me assure you, these dynamics will not be new to them. Each of them is likely used to being the only person in color in the room with the exception of the person who is serving the food or carrying the bags or working security. Will they notice? Sure. They might even be reminded of economic inequality, workforce stratification or broader themes about America's racial history. But I doubt your wedding will cause any unusual discomfort in the moment.
I'm so glad you asked what not to do, because the only thing that will make this really awkward is if you go overboard being condescendingly kind ("Oh, stop cleaning up—we'll take care of that! Come dance!"), over-complimenting ("This is the best food ever! It is so unfortunate that white people are so culturally lacking that we can't make this") or overexplaining ("We chose this restaurant in a colorblind fashion because it's the best food around and we're going to tip the caterers very well—in fact, we're going to pay twice as much as they asked").
As for the Zionist Republican uncle (I had to cut part of your letter detailing all of his racist antics, but readers should know that they're pretty bad), I'm kind of an extremist about these things, so my first instinct is to tell you to leave him off the list. Short of that, part of being a good host is making sure your guests aren't antagonized or insulted. Be prepared to call him out if he gets out of hand, or even assign someone watch him. Make it clear that it's your day, and he'll be asked to leave if he can't respect your friends and your values.
Your deep anxiety about this is a reminder that you care about racial inequality, about how the legacy of racism manifests in our society and that you want no part of perpetuating it. That's a really healthy and admirable feeling to have, so by telling you to calm down about this wedding, I'm by no means telling you to stop thinking about it overall.
I have no doubt that you use respect and decency and do your best to be aware of your privilege in your individual interactions. Beyond that, I think you and your fiancee want to harness your instincts for inclusiveness and equality in your respective professional fields by advocating for diversity, checking your own assumptions, making sure the voices of people of color are heard and using whatever influence you have to ensure that stereotypes and biases don't get in the way of people's tenure, partnership or annual reviews.
There is nothing wrong with being preoccupied with race and racial inequality, but your life will tell the story of where you fit into those dynamics much more than this one event will. You should relax and enjoy your big day, remembering to focus on the way things are, rather than the way they look.
The Root's staff writer, Jenée Desmond-Harris, covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture. She wants to talk about the complicated ways in which ethnicity, color and identity arise in your personal life—and provide perspective on the ethics and etiquette surrounding race in a changing America. Follow her on Twitter.
Need race-related advice? Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Previously in Race Manners: “White Dad Wonders How to Raise His Biracial Kids”