Damen Dining Faces Backlash for Black History Month Food

Jane Miller | The PHOENIXOn Feb. 8, Damen Dining Hall celebrated Black History Month with what some students called stereotypical black food options.

It was meant to be a celebration of African American culture in honor of Black History Month. But a display in one of Loyola’s dining halls sparked anger among many students who saw it as stereotypical and insensitive.

On the menu in Damen Dining Hall: fried chicken, maple mashed sweet potatoes, collard greens and “black eye peas salad” was served. Grape-flavored Kool-Aid was offered early in the night, but was later replaced with water and its sign hidden from diners.

The sign explaining the food offered Thursday night read: “Black History Month: Try our African American cuisine popular in the African American community.” Around the food options, signs highlighted African American inventors such as George Crum, the 19th century founder of the potato chip, who was depicted above the french fries. The controversial display was short-lived.

After student backlash, Dine Loyola, owned by food service giant Aramark, released a statement on its Facebook page Friday afternoon apologizing for the display. “One of our core values is integrity and respect always,” the statement began.

The display was the work of a single employee and wasn’t part of an officially planned event. But, the statement read, Aramark “fully recognize[s] that the execution of the promotion was done in an insensitive way.”

A spokesperson for Aramark declined to identify the employee who set up the display, but did confirm the employee is African American and didn’t mean to offend students with what was intended to be a celebration of his or her culture.

Sophomore Sarim Zaman said while he understood why a black employee might have wanted to put on such a display, he also understood why so many were offended.

“I just don’t think that kind of display is relatable to everybody,” Zaman, a marketing major, said. “It’s like saying the only food Indian people have is curry.”

Sophomore Amer Karahmet agreed. He said he felt Aramark should’ve been more cautious.

“You don’t put on a public display like that,” Karahmet said. “Not everyone takes stereotypes to offense, but that doesn’t mean someone won’t. I think, for the greater good, they should never have put it up and found another way to celebrate [Black History Month].”

Other student responses to the initiative were mixed, with some calling the tribute to Black History Month irreverent.

“I think it’s disrespectful on a level because they pulled out the stereotypical meals, but it could have been worse,” Karrington Jones, a black student studying Health Systems Management, said.

Jones, 19, added the initiative could’ve been executed better with an event highlighting special recipes typical of the black community rather than as a normal dinner offering in the dining hall.

But Keion Humphrey, a black student studying political science, said he didn’t find the food offensive.

“Personally, I don’t find it damaging in any kind of way,”  Humphrey said. “How are you supposed to diversify yourself and your background if you are not being exposed to different things?”

Humphrey added, “Labeling something as ‘African American cuisine’ isn’t the best way of doing it, but who is it hurting?”

Jocelyn Dillard is a member of the executive board for Loyola’s Black Cultural Center (BCC). She said Damen’s choice to label the food selection as “African American Cuisine” was problematic because it generalized the black community and failed to acknowledge the specific and unique cultural food traditions practiced by individuals within their “own type of black culture.”

Robin Branton, president of BCC, said the Kool-Aid was the food offering that she found to be most distasteful.

“[The dining service is] basically advertising black poverty. People drink Kool-Aid because it is 10 cents and all it requires is water and sugar,” the sophomore studying biology said.

While the three agreed that Damen Dining’s desire to acknowledge Black History Month is positive, they said it was an issue the black student body opinion wasn’t asked for prior to the event.

“I think the response that they received … was the result of speaking for minorities instead of allowing them to speak for themselves,” said Mena Enuenwosu, a member of BCC. “When you characterize an entire population or an entire race/minority just off of one socially constructed stereotype, I think it is very difficult for you to call yourself a culturally unbiased and sensitive university.”

Dillard said the university didn’t reach out to African American student groups when it planned Black History Month displays, adding that it isn’t the first time Loyola hasn’t connected with its black students. Dillard noted Loyola’s failure to consistently include BCC in the recent planning of Martin Luther King Jr. events was one such example.

“We continually find ourselves picking up the slack for a lot of different departments that forget about students of color,” Dillard said.

Aramark stated it’s reviewing its operations and will undergo a retraining process for all staff at Loyola on Aramark-approved promotional activities.

“Aramark takes diversity and inclusion very seriously,” the statement said, adding this was an “isolated accident” and that it would not happen again.

Loyola’s university marketing team also sent a statement to The Phoenix Friday in response to the incident.

“Recently, our food service vendor, Aramark, offered a menu in Damen Dining meant to celebrate Black History Month, which was interpreted as promoting stereotypes of the African American community,” the statement said.

Loyola also noted Aramark has apologized for the menu selection offered.

The signage, deemed “insensitive and inappropriate,” was said to be a mistake of one Aramark employee and the issue is being handled, the statement said.  

“Loyola has the utmost commitment to diversity and inclusion,” the statement said, adding that it’s working with Aramark to ensure that the issue doesn’t happen again and students with concerns can reach out to the Dean of Students.

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