Oberlin College Students: Cafeteria Food Is Racist

The noted liberal arts school explores new frontiers in getting offended.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

University dining halls aren’t exactly famous for serving gourmet dishes, but Oberlin students say their meals aren’t merely bad—they are racially inauthentic, and thus, a form of microaggression.

It’s one thing to quietly gripe about the quality of dorm food (students have likely been doing that for centuries). It’s quite another to accuse the dining room staff of stealing from Asian culture because they didn’t prepare the General Tso’s chicken with the correct sauce.

And yet, here’s what one Oberlin student had to say about the dining hall’s sushi bar:

“When you’re cooking a country’s dish for other people, including ones who have never tried the original dish before, you’re also representing the meaning of the dish as well as its culture,” student Tomoyo Joshi told The Oberlin Review. “So if people not from that heritage take food, modify it and serve it as ‘authentic,’ it is appropriative.”

Cultural appropriation, readers will recall, allegedly occurs when people borrow the traditions of another ethnic or religious group. Liberal students at a Canadian university, for example, recently shut down a free yoga class for disabled students because yoga has its origins in Hinduism, meaning it doesn’t belong to white people and they shouldn’t practice it. This kind of thinking is actually bafflingly illiberal—who’s to say that culture itself belongs to anyone?—and yet it’s usually left-leaning students waging weirdly nativist campaigns of forced isolation on foreign cuisines and customs.

The culinary critics at Oberlin, however, aren’t just mad that the cafeteria has appropriated their culture—they’re mad that it’s been appropriated poorly.

“It was ridiculous,” student Diep Nguyen told The Oberlin Review (the “it,” in question was a banh mi sandwich with the wrong bun). “How could they just throw out something completely different and label it as another country’s traditional food?”

For one thing, the banh mi sandwich is itself the product of the blurring of cultural boundaries: French and Vietnamese.

For another, there’s something deliciously ironic about Oberlin students—some of the most privileged people in the world, as evidenced by the $50,000 they pay annually in tuition—whining about the bun-thickness of meals prepared by lowly paid cafeteria workers. As academic and writer Fredrik de Boer noted on Twitter, “When you’re defending the cultural authenticity of GENERAL TSO’S CHICKEN, you’re a living Portlandia sketch.”

These students could certainly stand a bit of mockery. They could also stand to broaden their horizons. For some reason, too many otherwise liberal kids think cultural transformation is a kind of genocide—different societies have a right to stay exactly the way they are, untouched by modernity, they think.

But they are just plain wrong: Blending the best elements of different social traditions and creating something new (and possibly more fascinating) is praiseworthy and progressive. Maybe Oberlin’s banh mi sandwich should be judged not by how closely it apes the original, but whether it tastes as good?

Unfortunately, the cafeteria is not the only place where Oberlin students want a kind of cultural-appropriation-free safe space. The desire to re-enforce traditional cultural boundaries also manifests itself in a new list of demands recently released by black students.

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Among the 14-page document’s most notable items is this: Black students want a “safe space for Africana identifying students” set up in each of various campus buildings. Given that white student allies of protesters were ejected from similar black safe spaces at the University of Missouri and other campuses, it seems fair to assume these Oberlin radicals are proposing something akin to segregated safe spaces.

Previous generations of activists fought for equal treatment and equal access to facilities for all students, regardless of color. They fought against racial segregation on campuses—including at Oberlin, which betrayed its legacy of fierce opposition to slavery by segregating its campus in the 1880s.

But it sound like separate facilities are exactly what today’s radical students want. In addition to blacks-only safe spaces, they want to hire more professors, administrators, and psychologists of color—and they assert the right of black students (and only black students) to have the final say on the continued employment of these people. Consider this representative request:

“We DEMAND a written form that assures us of the institution’s commitment to increase the number of black psychologists within the Counseling Center. Furthermore, we DEMAND that Black students be able to sit in on the interviews of these HIGHLY QUALIFIED candidates in order to ensure that these professionals cater to the needs of the Black students. We also DEMAND the hiring of Black healers/non western health practitioners because not everyone finds comfort and healing solely from a psychologist.”

Activists also want black student leaders to be compensated $8.20 an hour for their organizing efforts. They want members of the Oberlin community who offended them banished. They want no fewer than four buildings renamed.

If all of their demands were met, two things would happen. First, since most of the items require separate and distinct services for black students, there would be a lot less racial intermixing. Second, because the cost of hiring all these new employees and providing so many services is prohibitive, tuition would skyrocket. Oberlin would become much less affordable for the very students most dissatisfied with the college; it would also become weirdly segregated.

Students have every right to make unreasonable demands—even if those demands are as ridiculous as racially-sensitive banh mi sandwhiches and racially-segregated safe spaces. But they deserve every drop of criticism they get in return.