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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Wolley: What to take away from children’s museum watermelon salad fiasco

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The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis watermelon salad fiasco is a teachable moment for Black people and all involved.

I’ve never received so many calls and texts about a salad, but again most people don’t try to make a watermelon salad part of a Juneteenth celebration in as awkward a way that occurred at the children’s museum.

Apparently, a watermelon salad was introduced as a menu item in the museum’s food court in honor of Juneteenth. There wasn’t much explanation around why the salad was connected to Juneteenth, only that it was meant to be a celebration of the holiday.

To the children’s museum’s credit, I believe the CEO, who I spoke with directly, was appalled and upset about the situation. The museum has a diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion committee that focuses on other issue areas, so they weren’t involved with the watermelon salad decision.

In speaking with the CEO and a Black board member, their learning seems to be around the need to monitor their contractors and do appropriate sign-offs more carefully. They both instantly understood the problem, and museum staff took immediate steps to remove the offending item.

The museum still has a responsibility to monitor its contractors, but it was the contractor, Levy, a food services company, that made the mistake and seems to have owned up to it according to media reports.

Unfortunately, Levy did throw a nameless Black food services professional under the bus.

So, as the blame has shifted, we end up with a Black employee who seems to have had good intentions but isn’t a PR professional — they are a food service professional.

One of the callers who reached out on this issue made it a point to tell me that the person who made the decision to put the salad on the menu was Black. As if that changed the fact that the decision was wrong.

This column isn’t for beating up Black people. I think the larger point is being able to understand multiple publics.

I had multiple callers question why we would allow the racist trope of watermelon stimulate outrage. Honestly, these were probably the most frustrating calls as we would trade our knowledge on watermelon as a racist trope, but they ignored the reality that a conversation on racist tropes doesn’t get kicked off at a children’s museum cafeteria line.

There is a time and place for everything.

What happened was wrong. I think all of the parties involved now get that, so how do we move forward?

Beyond the clear takeaway that a contractor can create public problems for an organization and must be monitored, we also have to consider how conversations about race and Black history and culture mix on the job.

We as a people don’t get too many opportunities to learn about ourselves. I didn’t really get a chance to learn about Black history until I went to college and majored in African American and African Diaspora Studies and then pursued a Master of Arts on the subject. I learned quite a bit, but I still don’t know anywhere near everything I want to know about the Black experience in the United States.

It isn’t fair to assume all Black people know the answers to complex questions like when is it a good time to deal with racist tropes and how is the best way to do it?

Being Black in and of itself doesn’t make one a DEAI expert.

In situations like this, I also consider how many people could’ve said something to stop the watermelon salad fiasco. Why didn’t they feel empowered to do so? Or did they just not care? Or did they just want to keep their jobs and not create issues?

Black folks are often in impossible positions — especially on jobs.

Folks can and should feel however they want to about this issue—but my hope is that given the work that the Children’s Museum has put into exhibits over the years dealing with Black issues — sometimes with some community concern — that we can appreciate good intentions executed improperly led to bad outcomes this time.

I think accountability looks like an expectation of improved contractor management, continued work for the children’s museum DEAI committee and our community watching to see if anything else happens.

My two cents.

Marshawn Wolley is a lecturer, commentator, business owner and civic entrepreneur. Contact him at marshawnwolley@gmail.com.

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