Yes, I’m black. No, I don’t eat chicken.
Frustrating food complexities of African-Americans
“Chicken is meat!” she declared. I’ll never forget this moment in my early days as a vegetarian. It came from a co-worker, a black woman, who’d just heard me say I’d gone meatless around 2005. I’d done it off and on during my college years, whenever I wasn’t eating my mother’s cooking during spring and summer breaks. By the time I’d earned my undergraduate degree in 2003, I’d decided that I didn’t like meat much. I still ate seafood on occasion, but it was harder to tell someone, “I don’t eat anything that has eyes” when that’s the one thing staring right back at me from grocery store aisles. So I threw in the towel on everything with eyes.
But on the “chicken” day, my editing team was about to order food for a few co-workers’ birthdays. I requested a black bean version of whatever was ordered, and the sista stopped me. She wanted to know why I ordered that particular item. I told her, “I don’t eat meat.” That’s when she hit me with the accusatory chicken comment. I paused, thinking how problematic it was for a black woman to assume another black woman must eat chicken, and dropped my shoulders.
“Have you ever seen me eat chicken the entire time I’ve worked here?” I asked her.
She paused. “You don’t eat chicken?”
If she was white, I would’ve been pretty pissed off by now. I snapped, “Clearly if I just said I don’t eat meat, I don’t eat chicken.” But the dumbfounded expression on her face at the thought of someone black not eating chicken made me feel a way. I turned around and walked off.
This memory came to mind while reading Sondra Rose Marie piece, “Should I Eat Watermelon in Front of White People? The hassle of navigating an ugly stereotype.” America’s history has given black folks a food complex, and sometimes the issues are internal.
When comedian Wanda Sykes joked that she felt like her daughter was making fun of her, while happily munching away at watermelon, I felt that. There was a whole lot of truth in that “joke,” and I fully understand why black people get weird about eating watermelon in front of non-black folks. I am not one. Put a platter of watermelon in front of me, and you just lost out on a platter of watermelon. I am eating the whole thing. I am a vegetarian who loves all fruit (minus tomatoes). Judge me. But put a pan of chicken in front of me, and it’ll grow stale and cold. I cannot stand the smell of it.
When another co-worker friend of mine at the same job (also a black woman) asked if I would help her plan a Black History Month party, I was 100 percent on board. This sounded like so much fun. We were taking monetary donations and/or food contributions, whichever guests preferred. A white female co-worker sent an email asking, “What do you bring to a Black History Month party?” I didn’t miss a beat before I sent out a flood of soul food options. My friend shrugged, saying she would’ve sent the same response if I hadn’t responded already.
Shortly after, we both received a lengthy email from a black male co-worker, complaining about stereotypical foods and how this party was an insult to all things black. I rolled my eyes. He was every possible characteristic of a hotep, who always felt the need to send me spoken word poetry emails and talk about a bunch of nothing every single time he saw me. I found him painfully annoying and would take a different hallway to get away from him. But I never expected him to get so mad over a list of soul food items. I barked back that if he had a problem with black folks liking soul food, then that’s on him. That’s something we have historically made for centuries, so why would we not have it?
Why would he get so mad about something that was clearly so common? I responded that I would lose no sleep if he didn’t come. If he was insecure about soul food, that’s on him. (It wasn’t until weeks later that I played devil’s advocate with my own opinion: Could the sista who assumed I must eat chicken feel the same way? Touche.)
My co-worker friend emailed him back, encouraging him to come and said she was comfortable with my food choices, but he was welcome to bring whatever he preferred. I rolled my eyes, still hoping he’d take the day off. The last thing I wanted was someone spoiling what would be a positive and educational day to celebrate with a diverse group of people. I’d never been to a Black History Month party, never mind helped to organize one. (Four years later, I found out what Juneteenth was and celebrated it in a major way.)
I shook my head when he showed up to the party with hummus, crackers and a few black history T-shirts. He refused to come sit or hang out with the hundreds who came and went, and I was relieved. Let him be mad by his damn self. Our party was a success.
My third food battle happened last year, looking at Lizzo’s Juneteenth photograph — fried chicken, watermelon and high fructose drinks. Ugh. Why, of all the food to choose from, was that it? But then I thought about my own reaction to the hotep. He had a problem with the Black History Month food, which spiraled into the black vegetarian (me) who had a problem with the chicken assumption. This. Is. Entirely. Too. Much. Pressure. Over. Food.
Nowadays, I just don’t care anymore. If black folks want to eat watermelon and chicken and soul food and anything else they so choose, that’s their black ass business. They will eat what they want. They will dress how they want. They will do what they want. But carrying the weight of not only historical concerns regarding what black folks can and cannot eat robs us of simple pleasures and is leaving us under an involuntary microscope. At some point, we have to take the power out of food labels and just let people be themselves. Now excuse me while I go back to unapologetically eating a plate of watermelon and not giving an absolute fawk who sees me.
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