The Racial Dimensions of Potato Salad

Years of working in multi-cultural environments taught me only one true thing. Ninety percent of the time I am completely ignorant of the racial dimensions of anything and am relying almost entirely on the good will I hope I can generate by being a decent person. This has worked for me over a long career, this driving down the road as if I don’t see or understand big huge neon signs alerting me to construction ahead.

I know that professionally I am often indulged by African American and Hispanic colleagues because my motives seem good and my instinct is to be inclusive and respectful. So I skim over the differences but still know and appreciate when people are indulging me, forgiving me for mistakes I don’t even know I’m making. It’s like my husband told me about trying to speak Spanish in Nicaragua, “they will love you for trying.”

At a public health conference many years ago, I sat with our city’s delegation as lunch was being served at a fancy D.C. hotel. Everyone in the group of nine or ten women was African American but me. On the plate was a nice piece of roasted chicken and potato salad made with red potatoes, olive oil, probably shallots (I am already over my head describing this dish) with a healthy grind of fresh pepper on top. Since I am from Michigan and worship the potato as the original and only true food, I was happy with lunch but I noticed that everyone else at the table was pushing the potato salad to the side and just eating the chicken.

The table chatter zeroed in on the potato salad. How inedible it was, how it was too fancy, how it shouldn’t even have been called potato salad, how it was really offensive that the conference wasn’t serving real potato salad. Black potato salad. After all, nearly everyone in the room was African American, why didn’t they think to make the food more culturally appropriate? The level of annoyance among the women at the table was significant; the potato salad was emblematic of the conference sponsors’ insincerity about race; had they taken the time to determine what would be appropriate, we would be eating black potato salad.

I spoke not a word at the table even though I really wanted to know about black potato salad.

That there would be something this significant about African American culture that had evaded me was no surprise. I was so dumb that I once went to a major awards ceremony in the African American community and it was there that I learned that there is such a thing as the African American National Anthem (Lift Every Voice and Sing) when all 500 people stood and sang, loud and sure as if they had been singing this anthem since they were babes in arms. How did I not know this, I thought? I am an idiot and blind and deaf.

So when we were all back in our planning session, our group together trying to figure out strategies to address the disparities in health care, I asked, “so what is black potato salad?” Everyone laughed. It’s fun and a little embarrassing to be everyone’s kid sister which is how one feels being the only white woman in a group of black women.

“It’s potatoes, eggs, a little onion, mayonnaise.”

Oh. This is basically my grandmother’s recipe for potato salad and my mother’s and mine, before I was influenced by my mother-in-law to add equal parts of sour cream to the mayonnaise. I sometimes add radishes and have considered adding pickle relish but it seems heretical so I’ve backed away from that idea.

They were talking about potato salad as I know it, the potato salad I piled on a cheap paper plate with an overdone hamburger and lime Jello salad at every Sunday afternoon barbecue in the backyard of my house growing up. This was my potato salad!

I murmured. I distinctly remembering murmuring, “yeah, that’s pretty much how we make potato salad, too.”

So today I was thinking about putting pickle relish in some deviled eggs to eat while we watched the football game. Pretty radical step this pickle relish move but then I thought, what’s the big deal if it doesn’t work? Is this such a risk? To add pickle relish to some mayonnaise and mustard and the yolks to make the filling for the deviled eggs? What’s the big deal here?

And then I remembered about the potato salad and how, even after all these years, I’ve resisted the notion of pickle relish, having already amended over my culinary heritage to allow sour cream in my potato salad, and, of course, that made me think of black potato salad. And then I reflected again on the things I don’t know, the meaning of things, what people hold dear, what they believe is unique to them, what they want others to respect.

And I thought of this story and wrote it down.

16 Comments on “The Racial Dimensions of Potato Salad

  1. Pingback: The Potato Salad Issue – Food Tells a Story

  2. Sweet pickle relish, mustard, a crumbled up beef stock cube, gherkins, corn, red onion, crispy bacon bits – makes an awesome potato salad 🙂

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  3. Loved the story. Although, I do love a really “exotic” potato salad being black myself.

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  4. How naĂŻve we all are about each other. It’s good to think of something as simple as potato salad that comes from early childhood family culture to the grown-up culturally different world. My mind has been opened wider. Thanks.

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  5. Oh. So “black potato salad” Is really just “Mom’s Potato Salad”–i.e. neither “black” nor “white”. Rather than being a racially sensitive issue, I think that this –in this particular case–is just an issue of people seeing unfamiliar food and not eating it, because the labeling–“potato salad”–doesn’t fit the label for the food they’re used to eating. As a former public health nurse, I understand your point, but I’m not sure that this is a good example.

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  6. i like this and i like that you are open and non-judgemental. i am the same and yet at times i find myself in exactly the same situation, not sure about the racial implications/history/reasons for things and i amazed when they are pointed out to me.

    Liked by 1 person

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