The Portland Tribune published an article last week titled, “School beats the drum for equity“, which itself became the subject of an article, “Is Peanut Butter and Jelly Racist?“, published in several news outlets (I found it via The Huffington Post).
The gist of the original piece is that a K-8 principal in the Portland area is working to make her staff more aware of subtle racism in everyday speech through a series of training sessions and “Courageous Conversations.” The peanut butter and jelly sandwich was provided as one example of subtle racism:
…in conjunction with recent equity training in local Portland schools, one principal is raising questions about the mention of the sandwich, arguing it has broader implications about race, the Portland Tribune reports.
The sandwich was reportedly mentioned in a lesson plan last year. Verenice Gutierrez from the Harvey Scott K-8 School used it as an example of a subtle form of racism in language, according to the report.
“What about Somali or Hispanic students, who might not eat sandwiches?” Gutierrez said, according to the Tribune. “Another way would be to say: ‘Americans eat peanut butter and jelly, do you have anything like that?’ Let them tell you. Maybe they eat torta. Or pita.”
Now, let me clarify up front that I don’t have a problem with having Courageous Conversations. I facilitated one myself last fall at Georgia Highlands College on the use of the R-word. I’m also not denying that racism exists (as does ABLEISM, though it receives much less media attention), but if this is it, we’ve hit the level of absurd.
I’m sure there are at least a few (maybe more than a few) kids who don’t eat PB&J sandwiches in Portland, whether due to their ethnicity or (just as likely) due to a nut or wheat allergy or other dietary restrictions. PB&J is a well-known, commonly eaten food, but that doesn’t make it universally consumed.
And I don’t think it’s okay for people to use language in a way that disparages others – words like nigger, retard, and faggot are never acceptable. But using an innocuous phrase like “peanut butter and jelly sandwich” as a club to bludgeon the majority is…dare I say it?
Sarah Kate’s elementary school holds a fundraiser each year, Jump Rope for Heart. You’ve probably heard of it – kids jump rope and fundraise for the American Heart Association.
But what about the kid who can’t jump rope?
Not only can Sarah Kate not jump rope, she can’t jump at all. Yet the elementary school participated in an event centered around jumping. Did it bother me a little? Yes. Did it bother Sarah Kate? Probably (I asked her about it as I was writing this piece and she said, “It made me feel a little weird because I couldn’t jump.”) Did I go up to the school and demand that they change their fundraiser to a universally inclusive activity? No, I didn’t, because that would be…wait for it…absurd.
Being different from the majority isn’t something to be avoided at all costs.
In fact, being different – especially the kind of different that’s instantly recognizable – can build character. Remember my friend Mark, who was born with albinism? He hoped his daughter would be born with it, as well, because he felt it made him a better person.
Both of my children are different. Odds are good that they’ll both face discrimination at some point (and maybe many times) in their lives. But alleging that a commonly-consumed sandwich is racist is an affront to all of the people who came before us who fought REAL discrimination. Having a school participate in Jump Rope for Heart isn’t the same as denying an education to children with disabilities, and including the phrase “peanut butter & jelly sandwich” in a lesson plan isn’t the same as segregation.
If someone wants to be a victim, they’ll find a way.
It’s an admirable endeavor to work to eliminate racism (and ABLEism, lest people forget!), and I’ll continue to fight casual use of the r-word because it’s never a compliment. But I will also teach my children that sometimes they’ll be in the minority, and sometimes that’ll make them feel a little weird, but that’s okay.
Those times when they feel different – that’s when they’ll have the opportunity to grow and learn. Call me crazy, but I’d rather teach my kids to rise above their challenges than to have them suffer through life believing themselves to be victims.