Tuesday, April 29, 2014

We Are Not Post-Racial (with a recipe for Bobotie)

Have you seen the tumblr blog "I Too Am Harvard"?

Of course you have.  It's gotten millions of views since it went viral in mid-March, and deservedly so; its powerful message spawned hundreds of copycat movements and reinvigorated the efforts of students at UCLA and University of Michigan who have been trying to communicate about their own experiences of bias.  And if you haven't seen it, it's worth watching: it holds up a harsh mirror to (mis)perceptions about race that students (and others) express on an elite college campus, where you might imagine people would be more likely to be tolerant or at least thoughtful (they're not).

I found myself thinking about that project last week as the Supreme Court handed down its opinion on affirmative action.  Noting Justice Roberts’s famous statement in a 2007 opinion that "the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race," Justice Sotomayor contended that "This ['simplistic'] refusal to accept the stark reality that race matters is regrettable [...] The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination."

We are so very good at dismissing difference--especially, it seems, racial difference, and especially in higher education.  We're post-racial, we say, proudly.

So how do we account for studies like the one NPR just covered, which found that faculty members were less likely to respond to mentoring requests from students they assumed to be women and "minorities," judging them based on the name they used to sign an email message? While there are additional mitigating factors like discipline (e.g. faculty were more miserly in fields tied to more "lucrative" careers, for example), it's still a disturbing trend.  To stop talking about it doesn't make the problem go away.  I'll never forget my trip to South Africa, and the conversations with educators there who praised our civil rights movement, imagining that we'd figured it all out.  We assured them that many of the same problems of inequality still plagued our public school system, and that the only difference between our system and theirs was our inability to admit that there was a problem in the first place.

Then there are things like the Donald Sterling tapes.  As Jay Smooth puts it: why do his racist words get any more attention than years of racist practices? Simple: if we don't talk about it, we can pretend it's not happening.  Naming makes it so.  Or not so.

I know how we can twist affirmative action in our heads.  I've done it.  I applied to graduate school (the first time) having checked a box that identified me as a Hispanic female.  My father was technically from Spain, so I probably wasn't the Hispanic they were looking for, but he immigrated to the U.S. via Cuba, and he worked hard to accumulate what we had, even if I wasn't Mexican or Puerto Rican (though I had uncles in Puerto Rico and Guatemala).  I was awarded a four year fellowship, and spent many days and nights wondering if I deserved the fellowship (because I was too white) and wondering whether I really belonged in graduate school (because I thought perhaps they'd admitted me to get "diversity" and that they'd find out at any moment what a grave mistake they'd made).

But I also know that left to our own devices, we're less likely to construct communities that are intentionally more inclusive, and that make us question our assumptions.  That the concerns voiced by "I Too Am Harvard" would not go away.  We are NOT post-racial.  As I see it, if we want to get past a place in which we need affirmative action, we need some kind of affirmative action.  We need to make sure that the diverse student body showing up at faculty offices for mentoring are not the exception but the norm, and that those students find the mentors they need.  We need to ensure that the students who started the movement at Harvard are present on our college campuses, challenging what we think about race in the 21st century.

We had about five hundred students visiting campus yesterday, and as I looked out at the sea of eager faces, I was grateful to see so much difference.  I'm lucky to work at a place that--even if it doesn't use affirmative action in admissions decisions--does see itself as responsible to students who are from first generation and low income backgrounds.  I'll look forward to their arrival on campus in September, when they, like the many classes that have come before them, remind me that I still have a lot to learn.

I had bobotie for the first time when I was on a study tour of private and public schools in post-apartheid South Africa.  The mix of salt and sweet and spice, the Dutch and South Asian influence, is unlike anything else I've tasted (though my husband calls it curried meat loaf).  You can make it with pretty much anything: the custard and curry/chutney mix are what make it distinctive.  Typically the custard floats on top, separated, its own layer.  I mixed them together a bit, knowing that some people in my family would be more likely to eat it when they couldn't identify the egg, and I prefer the mixed version, anyway.

2 small onions, finely chopped
1 lb. ground beef (fish or diced veggies of your choice--green beans, potatoes, carrots--would also work)
2 T. curry powder
3 T. mango chutney
2 T. apricot jam
2 T. thinly sliced almonds
1 small handful golden raisins
2 T. lemon juice
1/2 t. salt
3 eggs
2 slices white bread
3/4 c. milk
1/4 t. turmeric
4-6 bay leaves

Preheat oven to 350.

Place bread slices in a shallow dish and pours the milk over them; soak for about 5 minutes while prepping the rest of the dish.

In a medium saute pan, heat oil over medium heat and saute onions until just translucent but not browned.  Add ground beef (or veggies) and cook until browned.

Add curry powder, chutney, jam, almonds, raisins, lemon juice and salt. Stir well and adjust seasoning as needed. Remove from heat.

Gently squeeze the bulk of the milk from the soaked bread and crumble the moistened slices into the meat mixture, stirring well. Add 1 egg and stir well.  (You can also do what I did, and add all of the eggs together.  Your meat/veggies won't be quite as well bound, but you can also stir the custard in just a bit so that some of it is mixed in, and some remains on top.)

Beat the remaining 2 eggs in to the leftover milk and add turmeric.  Scrape meat/veggies mixture in to a casserole dish and flatten the top.  Pour egg mixture over the meat/veggies and top with bay leaves.  Bake for 45 minutes or until custard topping is set and lightly golden.
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  1. Shot! A very special South African dish made with love. Soul food par excellance!

  2. I actually hadn't seen the link yet, so thank you for that. Good post. The idea that America is "post-racial" is something that privileged white people tell themselves to make themselves feel better. Sigh.


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