During the summer of 2002, I worked at a summer literacy camp in Baltimore, Maryland, which solidified my love for Baltimore–and most Black cities, really. There were Black people everywhere, which was heady stuff coming from Austin, Texas, and I enjoyed the kids and the fact that when working at a summer camp, it does feel a bit like returning to summer camp, a privilege I enjoyed for several years during elementary school. Yes, I have been to band camp–three times…on purpose. This camp was my favorite kind of camp because the goal was to get kids excited about reading, which is one of my favorite pastimes. Every day after camp, the counselors took a nap for an hour from exhaustion, but it was still one of the best summers of my life.
What was not great? There was a White woman from Baltimore who called everything from the dorms where the counselors slept to the McDonald’s down the street as “sketchy.” All day and all night, all that woman had to say about this experience where we were all taken to historic site, luxurious field trips, sit-down dinners for three months was that everything was sketchy. Finally, when she was going on and on about the McDonald’s down the street–which she and several other fellow counselors attended with relish–was so “sketchy,” I finally said in a fake panicked voice, “Oh, do you need protection for your french fries? Oh, protect the french fries! Oh protect the french fries!” She and I miraculously found less to talk about for the rest of the summer, but my point was made: stop describing everything in predominantly Black areas as “sketchy.”
These days, it seems as if the United States cannot get enough about talking about how coffee shops are for White people and fast food is low-grade, environmentally disreputable, and only for trashy people who have no idea how to feed themselves without the Jamie Olivers of the world coming in to rescue them. Translation: only low quality people should be at fast food restaurants and only high-quality people people should be at coffee shops. People proudly admit that they have never set foot inside of any fast food restaurants, and coldly mock anyone who has–including those who work there. Even though the “Fight for 15” rallying cry began with fastfood workers of color, there are still too many actvists who believe themselves above taking the fight to where those who need it most live and work, instead relying on people–who truthfully reported making less than $15/hour–to find them.
What is interesting about the bourgeoisie who refuse to even look at fast food restaurants is that the fast food culture was forced on marginalized communities by a lack of capital. No one from those neighborhoods actually said, “You know, instead of using my culinary skills that have been passed down for generations and building up a positive food model for my community, I would like corporate people I never met who have no interest in me to dictate the dietary patterns of me and people like me for generations. No, I refuse this onslaught of investment capital that would help me develop my own business and strengthen the area against being sentenced as blight.” Corporate outsiders chose to industrialize food, market the process as “American,” and spread it throughout rural communities and marginalized urban areas. None of the residents begged for low-wage, dead-end jobs with no benefits, but just like the public is forced to clean up environmental messes, so are marginalized communities forced to endure the stigma induced by those demanding more money from poor people.
People go to fastfood restaurants because they make the most out of not qualifying for bank loans for community gardens, being denied the food handling permits, and the unwillingness of those outside the neighborhoods to see anything but garbage within those areas. When coffee shops were offering free wi-fi, fast food restaurants started doing the same. There are Wendys and Dairy Queens where I have written blog posts and have not been bothered for hours, just like many White people in the exhalted coffee shops. In marginalized communities, most businesses close early because of all the “dangerous elements” in the areas. Not so with fast food, which is 24/7 in most neighborhoods or at least late enough that people can actually work multiple jobs–if they can get the hours. Finally, the food is cheaper at fast food restaurants, and at businesses that require purchase, personal cost is a huge issue. Almost every fast food restaurant has a dollar menu; I have yet to see such options in coffee shops.
By no means am I suggesting that fast food restaurants are the way to revolution; however, I am stating that Black and brown neighborhoods are full of them. That is just the way things have been allowed to develop, which influences the dietary patterns of people who are punished if they so much as look at a live chicken. If society insists on maintaining segregation–and so far, the evidence has presented that they do–then those who are handed the least resources will make cultures and social norms with whatever is given. If activists are genuine about reaching the bulk of the working class, they will have to learn how to be in fast food restaurants without looking down their noses at the people in them.