When Did Fried Chicken Become a Symbol of Racism?


The news: Carondelet High School for Girls wanted to do what every American school does in February: celebrate Black History Month. But then things got ugly. Controversy arose when the Concord, Calif., school announced its daily lunch menu:

Item #1: Fried chicken.

Item #2: Watermelon.

Item #3: Cornbread.

School officials wrote a letter responding to all the angry parents who lambasted them: "I'd like to apologize for the announcement and any hurt this caused students, parents or community members," said Principal Nancy Libby. "Please know that at no time at Carondelet do we wish to perpetrate racial stereotypes.”

But the damage was done. Stereotypes were perpetuated. And Carondelet became the latest institution to let the nuances of American race relations fly right over its head.

What “racial stereotypes”? Let’s get the obvious part out of the way: a huge swath of the U.S. population enjoys fried chicken. KFC and Chik-fil-A are two of the nation’s 10 most popular fast food chains, beating out both Domino’s and Jack-in-the-Box. So wherever you go, you’re likely to find people of all colors, shapes, and sizes sucking lukewarm chicken grease off their grubby fingertips.

At some point, we were taught to associate fried chicken and watermelon with a stereotypical view of black America. It started with turn of the century minstrel shows and films like Birth of a Nation (1915), and persists today at awkward “themed” office parties and school lunches nationwide. Through the power of ignorance, these tasty staples became synonymous with the “laziness” and “stupidity” of black Americans. This was good for nobody.

For starters, it loaded these foods with negative subtexts that no one wants to deal with over a coma-inducing deep-fried meal. Digesting those calories is hard enough without racist emotions clogging your bowels. Second, it made it impossible for black people to casually enjoy these foods in public. Each bite becomes a self-conscious act – loaded with more history and assumptions than anyone should have to consider with melon stains on their shirt. Finally, it reveals the worst thing about stereotypes: put simply, they make us dumber. Presuming that these are “black foods” hides the fact that China is actually the world’s biggest watermelon consumer, or that fried chicken was introduced to black America by whites during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The Internet is so full of information it’s scary.

Image: CRI English

But how are we supposed to celebrate Black History Month? In short, stop being lazy. A more irritating subplot of the Carondelet saga is that they chose to “celebrate” without doing the one thing this month intends for people to do: think about black history. It takes the bare minimum effort to realize that A) fried chicken and watermelon have a complicated history that Carondelet officials are poorly equipped to deal with, and B) there are literally dozens of traditional black American dishes that are just as popular. Why pick the most stereotypical foods when there are so many other alternatives?

(NOTE: I’ve heard lots of black people like pizza, so if you really want to make us happy …)

Maybe these are America’s growing pains. Maybe in time, people will realize that lazy half-assed attempts to “celebrate” other cultures rarely end in smiles and congratulations. If the true intention is to honor a group, it’s generally a good move to consider that group’s cultural history, in all its nuance and complication. If you’re unwilling to do that, you might be better off skipping the party altogether.