The Tao of Potato Salad.
Can potato salad help heal race relations in America?
A couple days ago I wrote a piece about the rise of safety pins and how, for the most part, I didn’t care for the movement. But through interactions with people on Facebook, I came to understand how these accessories could lead to some White people taking action in the journey towards racial injustice.
In that post, there was a gentleman in the comments who brought up a good point: why don’t we just work on becoming friends with people who don’t look like us? If we’re friends, then we can talk things out face-to-face and learn from each other. He even invited me out for coffee the next time I was in his city.
I thought about his comment for the rest of the evening because it reminded me of conversation I had last year. It was about how black and white people can finally go about bridging our racial divide. The following is the story of how I tried to explain that concept to one of my white co-workers.
The (former) co-worker I speak of was the exact opposite of me in almost every way: I’m a black, Southern man who happens to lean towards being a Democrat and graduated from an HBCU (Historically Black College/University). My co-worker was a white, Midwestern woman who happens to lean toward being a Republican and graduated from a PWI (Predominately White Institution).
Despite those differences, we had a stellar relationship which led to some pretty dope conversations on many subjects: from sports (totally acceptable workplace banter) to politics (not so much) and race (definitely NSFW).
One day we were talking and told her that in the U.S., we live under this false narrative that we are “one people”, when the truth is we are far from homogeneous — and that’s NOT a bad thing. The problem with not recognizing our differences, however, is that it becomes easy to ignore the core values and beliefs that make us unique. I told her, “In my opinion, black culture has never been treated with the same level of detail as other cultures from around the world.”
Her face had a mixed tinge of both WTF and intrigue. Then she asked what I meant by that.
I said, “If you were going on a business trip overseas, you’d try to study up on that culture, right? Maybe watch some YouTube videos or hire an expert who could teach you the norms and traditions of whatever country you were visiting so as not to embarrass yourself or disrespect your counterparts.
White people don’t show that same level of respect towards black culture. And because black culture is not treated as a separate entity with its own standards and norms, there’s always a lot of confusion and anger between us. Which sucks because white people are so good at studying culture. That’s why National Geographic is so lit!”
She asked what kind of things matter to black people that don’t matter to white people.
With all the confidence in the world I responded, “Potato salad.”
Potato salad is neither a “black” nor “white” thing. We all eat it (unless you think it’s disgusting) which is the main reason I chose to use it in this analogy — it gave us common ground to work from. But, in my opinion, that’s where the similarities stop.
You see, to my co-worker, potato salad was merely a sidekick to the entrée. I happily explained that this is not the case for black people. For us, there is an entire “emotional ecosystem” centered around this dish.
All Hail Potato Salad.
Potato salad is a holy dish to black people. It’s in the holy food trinity along with sweet potato pie and macaroni and cheese. With that being said, there is an entire unspoken system that guides us on whether or not someone’s potato salad is worth consumption. Yes, you read that right: “Worth. Consumption.”
Imagine you’re at a black family’s potluck gathering where everyone is asked to bring a covered dish. BTW: the “covered” part is important. Bring a casserole to my Mama’s house without some aluminum foil over the top if you want to and see if doesn’t get put in the refrigerator “for later” (“for later” meaning “for the trashcan” because not covering your dish is just nasty and she don’t know what you do in your car!).
Regardless of what other food items are available, everyone wants to know WHO made the potato salad. The WHO matters. Because knowing who made it will determine if we’re going to eat it.
“Wait. Why does it matter who made the potato salad?” she said.
As I mentioned before, potato salad is a righteous delicacy and black people aren’t about to sully their tastebuds on anyone’s basic ass attempt for glory. It’s the one food that literally goes with any and everything. It works with Grandma Brown’s baked beans and makes Sister Bennett’s red rice palatable. Your vegetarian cousin can eat it (no such luck for your vegan girlfriend, but there is plenty of rice so she’ll be alright) and even your finicky nephew will partake.
Potato salad is truly the glue that binds.
It is as laborious to make as it is delicious to eat. There is never a written recipe telling you how much mustard to add or what the correct egg-to-potato ratio is yet you will be judged on meeting these invisible standards.
Being that it is considered the cornerstone item on any soul food plate, there is a huge amount of pressure on the person that decides to take it upon themselves to bring some to a family gathering*. And while we might politely eat a small portion of your crunchy greens to make you feel better, that same level of regard is not given when it comes to potato salad. You make some nasty potato salad and someone will talk shit about you.
When you combine how much time it takes to make potato salad, the mysteries involved in its creation (use a recipe from online if you dare), the importance of its role on the plate (“the glue that binds”), and the pride associated with becoming designated THE potato salad maker for the family — it’s no wonder why it means so damn much to us. Yes, read that right: many black families have a designated “potato salad” maker. It’s that important.
There isn’t enough space for me to fully explain why it matters so much, but hopefully this picture helps you get the idea.
*Honestly, no black person in their right mind would bring unsolicited potato salad to a family function. I’ve already discussed the time and effort it takes, but that aside, if we don’t know you (or have some there that can vouch for your cooking) we’re not eating it. Simple as that. This next section explains why.
The “Potato Salad Thought Process” explained.
For our discussion, let’s say “Aunt Vivian” made the potato salad. Once I see that bowl on the table my mind starts processing all kinds of variables that will determine whether or not I’m going to eat it. Thoughts like:
Does Aunt Vivian have a nasty kitchen? If she has a nasty kitchen, cancel Christmas! AIN’T NOBODY ‘BOUT TO EAT THAT POTATO SALAD WITH HER OL’ NASTY KITCHEN, EXPIRED MILK IN THE FRIDGE HAVING ASS!
Does Aunt Vivian have a cat? She does? I’m good on that. CATS DON’T GIVE A DAMN AND WILL CLIMB ON THE COUNTER WHILE HER BACK IS TURNED AND LICK ALL THE GOTDAM EGGS! ANN SAID THE LAST TIME SHE WAS AT VIVIAN’S HOUSE, THERE WAS CAT FUR EVERYWHERE! AIN’T NOBODY GONNA EAT HER “HAVING A CAT THAT WALKS ALL OVER THE KITCHEN” ASS POTATO SALAD!
I know, I know. If you’re not Black, this seems hella weird. But trust me that [WARNING: generalization ahead] the majority of the Black people you know have done this. We will not accept potato salad from anyone who may give us anything but a pristine offering. This MENSA-level scrutinization happens on a subconscious level so deep that many of us don’t event realize we do this until it’s pointed out.
Each one, reach one.
So what does this have to do with race relations? Everything! I guarantee that most of the white people that took the time to read this had no clue how deep black people got about their potato salad. By doing so, you have just participated in some entry level black sociology research. Congrats!
Just think of how our opinions of each other would differ if we studied each other’s cultures and idiosyncrasies (like the aforementioned potato salad) like we do for people who aren’t from the States. Maybe all this frustration and tension between us would give way to tangible change. Shoot, hire me — I’ll teach you everything I know (first assignment: read “How to Be Black” by Baratunde Thurston).
Before I close, I want to answer a question that may be lingering in the back of some of your minds. Near the beginning of this story I said that White people don’t study Black culture like they do other cultures. I know someone was just burning to type, “Well, why do WHITE people have to learn black culture?! Why don’t BLACK people have to learn WHITE culture?!”
I could write an entire post about why, but instead I’ll leave you with this:
I submit to you that white culture is American culture. American societal norms and traditions — from the language, to what is deemed mainstream or lauded as acceptable behavior — are not, and have never been, a representation of the minorities that live in this country. As such, people of color in this country have been learning white culture since the day we were born. If we can go through 12 years of school only learning about Black history one month a year, you can take a couple hours out of your day to learn about the dangers of reneging on the Spades table against black people.
At the end of the my explanation, my co-worker and I shared some good laughs and she said that she could see my point. By hearing me out, I believe that she was able to add a new layer to her current level of understanding black culture. Which led to her to feeling comfortable enough to ask about other things, giving us the opportunity to learn about each other on a deeper level.
I had no delusions that our talk would somehow change the world overnight. Truthfully, until I wrote this, I never thought about the ramifications of our conversation outside the confines of that room. But it was a start and hopefully you’ll be inspired to do the same.
Now, would someone care to explain the appeal of Pumpkin Spice?
KJ Kearney is a native of North Charleston who recently ran for a House of Representative seat in South Carolina, scooped up 45% of the vote — and still lost. No worries, this community relations consultant is a public speaker (BOOK HIM), has designed a hat for a minor league baseball team, was a 2016 national AAN award nominated columnist for his work in the local alt-newspaper, and wrote a children’s book about sneakers (it hasn’t been published yet).
Although is professional friends have advised him to start a LinkedIn profile, he hasn’t. But he IS on Instagram (FOLLOW HIM). Lastly, he will be selling lapel pins that attempt to lampoon the romanticized views of the old South through the Charleston Sticks Together brand starting next month — hopefully.