Oberlin College in Ohio is at the center of what is either a general racism controversy or non-issue, depending on who you ask. According to the New York Times, students at Oberlin College have called out the cafeteria food for being culturally insensitive, if not outright appropriation.
“Some students at Oberlin College are taking their demands for diversity and racial inclusion to the dining hall, asking for more traditional meals and criticizing what they consider poor efforts at multicultural cooking.
“It is the latest skirmish in a year marked by protests and other actions by college students to challenge the cultural and racial status quo on campuses across America.”
Much of the concern seems to center on the representation and authenticity of Asian or Asian-American dishes. For example, Vietnamese student Diep Nguyen told the Oberlin Review how disappointed he was when the Banh Mi Vietnamese sandwich on the cafeteria menu didn’t remotely resemble the traditional dish he was used to. Banh Mi is made with “a crispy baguette with grilled pork, pate, pickled vegetables, and fresh herbs.” The sandwich the cafeteria offered “used ciabatta bread, pulled pork, and coleslaw.”
Nguyen called the item “ridiculous.”
“How could they just throw out something completely different and label it as another country’s traditional food?”
That seems to be at the heart of criticism of the campus dining department and Bon Appétit Management Company, the college’s primary dining vendor.
— Eater (@Eater) December 20, 2015
It would be very easy to dismiss these non-white students’ concerns, as Gawker writer Sam Biddle has, as just a case of entitled college students protesting over nothing.
However, a closer look at the problem could help one understand why this cultural insensitivity can pose a serious issue. In the video included with this article, you find out that certain cultural dishes are supposed to be vegetarian. However, closer examination by students led to the discovery of meat in what’s labeled as a meat-free menu item.
This was particularly disturbing to the Nevada-based Universal Society of Hinduism. The organization expressed concern that mislabeling and misrepresentation by Oberlin College could lead Hindu students to eat beef — an act that would be considered sacrilegious.
— The Atlantic (@TheAtlantic) December 22, 2015
Michele Gross, Oberlin’s director of dining services, issued a statement in response to the controversy.
“In our efforts to provide a vibrant menu we recently fell short in the execution of several dishes in a manner that was culturally insensitive. We are committed to making sure these missteps don’t happen in the future.”
Gross added that the school had already met with students “to discuss their concerns” and that the school intends to continue to dialogue about the issue.
— World News Tonight (@WNTonight) December 23, 2015
Some have dismissed the calls of racism and cultural insensitivity, declaring these students to be anything from spoiled brats to people seeking acts of bigotry where they clearly aren’t intended. It’s interesting that the individuals try to claim that because General Tsao’s chicken was the creation of Chinese immigrants that non-Chinese Americans are free to make little to no attempt whatsoever at authenticity.
It’s also worrying that in an effort to cover this story, many mainstream news organizations seemed to have completely glossed over the fact that certain dishes are meant to be prepared a certain way because of a cultural lifestyle (not eating meat). It’s hard to argue that knowingly putting meat in a non-meat dish where it would be sacrilegious to consume the food item isn’t disrespectful. Yet, some seem to be trying.
Do you think that it was racist of Oberlin College to have cafeteria foods from foreign and non-white cultures if no attempt would be made to be “respectfully authentic?” Share your thoughts below!