On Thursday, presidential candidate Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) sat down for lunch with Rev. Al Sharpton at Sylvia’s, a soul food restaurant in New York’s Harlem neighborhood. She ordered the chicken and waffles. He ordered bananas and toast. Like so many other things related to candidates eating, it triggered a Twitter outrage cycle. Let’s examine, shall we?
The instigator: Dave Evans, a political reporter for WABC-TV in New York tweeted a now-deleted picture of the meeting with the caption: “Chicken & waffles. Seriously? For Kamala D. Harris & toast & bananas for [Sharpton].” It was the “Seriously?” that set people off. The responses fell into the following categories:
What’s wrong with chicken and waffles? Nothing! Especially not at a place like Sylvia’s, a popular soul food restaurant where many people have praised the dish in online reviews. Chicken and waffles are exactly the kind of thing that anyone would be enthusiastic to order in such a restaurant. That’s why Evans’s tweet confused some people.
It wasn’t even that she was eating the dish incorrectly, as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) was accused of doing in an incident earlier this month. (Yes, this is the second chicken and waffles-related incident on the campaign trail so far.) Gillibrand was mocked — some would say unfairly so — for eating the chicken with a knife and fork. When she noticed that other diners in the South Carolina restaurant were eating the chicken with their hands, she asked the restaurant’s owner how to eat it, and then ate the rest with her hands. New York Magazine columnist Frank Rich piled on, tweeting, “Is there anything Gillibrand has done that is not contrived and opportunistic?”
But no one was quibbling about how Harris ate her chicken. People wondered if perhaps Evans, who is white, didn’t know what chicken and waffles was.
Wait, was that tweet racist? But other people on Twitter read between the lines of Evans’s tweet — which quickly succumbed to the ratio before he deleted it — and inferred that he was contrasting Harris’s choice of meal with Sharpton’s to make a statement about her sincerity. Harris is half-black and half-Indian. She ordered a dish that has historical significance to African Americans in the South, while civil rights activist Sharpton ordered something more mundane. Sharpton has spent recent years on a strict diet for his health — some reports say he is a vegan, though he has said in previous interviews that he eats fish. Some people saw the tweet as questioning Harris’s blackness, which has been a recurring thread in questions asked of her on the trail.
“I’m black, and I’m proud of being black. I was born black. I will die black,” she said on a recent appearance on “The Breakfast Club” radio show, to hosts DJ Envy and Charlamagne Tha God. “I’m not going to make excuses for anybody because they don’t understand.”
Wait, was that tweet sexist? It’s not entirely fair to say we don’t scrutinize male candidates’ food choices on the trail: People made fun of President Bill Clinton’s love of McDonald’s and mocked John Kasich for eating pizza with a knife and fork. Philadelphians were horrified when John F. Kerry asked for Swiss cheese on a cheesesteak, and Mississippians were dubious about Mitt Romney’s claim that he ate cheesy grits.
But women on the campaign trail seem to face additional criticism for what they eat. That’s especially true in this case, because Harris wasn’t even doing anything wrong, unlike some of the aforementioned male candidates. She was just enjoying a delicious dish in a famous restaurant.
Is eating chicken and waffles “pandering?” That’s the other uncharitable read on Evans’s tweet, and one that Harris’s supporters did not take kindly to. It takes the premise of “questioning her blackness” into far more cynical territory, saying that her choice of meal was a calculated attempt to woo black voters and ingratiate herself further into that community.
Are we ready for the 2020 election to be over already?
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