(CNN) — When Kayla Eubanks saw a sign for a Black History Month special menu in a New York University dining hall on Tuesday, she was interested to see what they were serving.
“I figured it would be some type of southern cuisine,” the NYU student told CNN.
But she was stunned to see the full menu: ribs, collard greens, cornbread, smashed yams, mac and cheese and two beverages, red Kool-Aid and watermelon-flavored water.
Eubanks said she asked one of the cafeteria managers about it and was told, ‘”Yeah, it’s Black History Month.”
The student said she was having a hard time believing this was being served at a university like NYU, which prides itself for being diverse and inclusive. She then told others about what was going on.
A fellow student, Nia Harris, came to investigate for herself.
“I talked to the head cook who told me ‘black people put this menu together’ and assured me that it was not racially insensitive,” Harris said. Frustrated by that response, she sent an email to the head of the dining hall, copied several deans from the university and posted it on Facebook.
Within 24 hours NYU President Andrew Hamilton responded with a statement, calling the menu “inexcusably insensitive” and saying the school’s food vendor, Aramark, did not discuss the menu choices with them beforehand.
“That error was compounded by the insensitivity of the replies made to a student who asked Aramark staff on site how the choices were made,” Hamilton said.
After an investigation Aramark determined that two employees acted independently in creating the menu, Karen Cutler, a spokeswoman for the food-service company, told CNN. They have been fired, she said.
“We have zero tolerance for any employee who does not adhere to our values or contradicts our longstanding commitment to diversity and inclusion. Employees at NYU who acted independently and did not follow our approved plan for the celebration of Black History Month have been terminated and are no longer with the company,” said Aramark in a statement.
“We are extremely disappointed by this regrettable situation and apologize to the entire NYU community and communities everywhere for their insensitive and offensive actions. We are re-training all our NYU campus employees to ensure an incident like this is not repeated.”
The episode also dismayed the university’s Black Student Union, which issued a statement saying the menu was “problematic due to the inherent stereotypes associated with black people and southern soul food cuisine…”
But the student group was especially offended by the beverage choices.
“These drink options perpetuate harmful stereotypes that have existed about the black community for decades, and show an extreme level of cultural insensitivity,” they said in their statement.
Eubanks and Harris, both of whom are African American, said they were not expecting the reactions they received after complaining about the menu.
“Most of people were positive towards me about the letter but I was surprised that so many people do not understand the racist connotations behind Kool-Aid and watermelon in relation to black people,” Harris told CNN.
African Americans have long battled misguided stereotypes about their fondness for fried chicken, watermelon and certain other foods.
Harris said she has been referring people to an article by historian William R. Black in The Atlantic that details how the watermelon went from a symbol of self-sufficiency for recently freed slaves after the Civil War to a symbol of racism. And Kool Aid has been associated with black people living in poverty.
“I think everyone makes mistakes, and had the response to my questions been different and respectful we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Harris added. “I never wanted anyone to get fired.”
Both students hope the incident starts a conversation which helps make all minority NYU students feel welcome on campus.
“I never expected this kind of a response, but I also didn’t want this to get swept under the rug,” Harris said.
— Tony Marco
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