Sunday, September 4, 2011

The dumbest thing you'll ever read in your life

Back in July I wrote about some of the failures of higher education, and this weekend the Star-Tribune printed what will now be exhibit "A" in the case for the diminished value of sending so many people to college.

I'm going to reprint the entire op-ed here, rather than simply link to it, because I'm afraid someday the link will no longer work, and this idiocy must be saved for posterity.

Under the headline "The subtle racism around us (even in a cup of coffee)", someone named Hinda Mandell serves up something so....well, I'll just let you read it for yourself:


What do you do when a favorite coffee shop features various coffee blends with racially tinged names?

This is probably not one of life's great questions. But it's one I've been pondering lately.

I was sitting in this beloved joint in New York recently, with its hipster-hippie ambiance, when I overheard a conversation. I'm convinced that the barista and customer, both white, were oblivious to the racially charged nature of their utterances.

Asked the customer: "What type of roast is the Jungle Roast?"

The barista, who looked on the younger side of 20, answered: "It's a darker roast."

I sat there flabbergasted. These two women were engaging in a practical conversation -- is the coffee a light or dark brew?

But because of the name of the roast -- and its richer flavor -- they were in fact reinforcing the notion of the jungle and its people as "dark."

Perhaps you think I'm making too much of a simple exchange.

But consider, too, that while eavesdropping I was sipping on a luscious coffee blend that the shop calls Jamaica Me Crazy. It's seasoned with fresh cinnamon. Maybe that's what they drink in Jamaica? I don't know, since I've never been there.

But I do know that if the coffee was labeled Protestants A Plenty, Catholics Be Crazy, Jews be Jivin' or Blacks Be Boppin', there would be an uproar. Of course, Protestants and Catholics, as part of the religious mainstream, do not typically face the brunt of prejudice in the United States.

And most know that intolerance against Jews and blacks is not publicly accepted. Blatant bigotry is easy to spot, while covert bigotry -- where an entire group is used to sell coffee -- can be easier to stomach and therefore ignore.

It's been nearly a decade since I learned one of my biggest life lessons. Difference is all about perception.

This lesson came in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, when I was riding a campus commuter bus with a college classmate into Boston. I was retelling a story I heard on the radio. It was about a teenager who had an African-American parent and an Arab-American parent.

The newscast covered this boy's life in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, since the boy's skin was dark, but not in a "familiar" way. As a result, he was often met with suspicion by people ranging from clerks to security personnel.

"He must have been interesting-looking," I said.

That's when a fellow student turned around in her seat, faced me and said, "Why? Because he's black?"

I don't remember my response. But I remember feeling knee-jerk defensive, as one typically feels when accused of racism or any other kind of "ism."

Yet it took me the better part of a decade, until I began studying communication messages for a living, to understand this student's point. The teenager who is half African-American and half Arab-American is "interesting" because he is different -- at least to me, a white person with two white parents who grew up in mostly white neighborhoods.

I should have known better than to use the descriptive term "interesting," which is really code for "different," especially since I grew up as a Jew in Minnesota.

One summer in high school, I attended an all-girls' basketball camp. I was the only one under 5 foot 7 inches. And the only non-Christian. One night, a girl who slept on the bunk above mine was complaining about her ex-boyfriend.

"He's weird," she said. And then, as an afterthought: "He's Jewish."

Uncomfortable with the direction of the conversation, I spoke up. "I'm Jewish," I said.

My bunkmate then reached out her hand. "Give me five," she said.

I did. And I never felt like such an idiot, high-fiving a person because I was Jewish and therefore different -- to her.

It's this distance of difference that allows the coffee shop to offer its blends without protest. After all, what's the likelihood that someone from Jamaica -- or the jungle -- would walk into this cafe in upstate New York cafe?

People tolerate intolerance if it's not directed at them and if it's dished up in a cutesy format.

I have not been back to that coffee shop for a while. Not out of protest, but because it would force me to confront myself. Do I embarrass the cafe manager by saying something? Do I become complicit by ordering a medium Jamaica Me Crazy with steamed milk, please?

Deciphering these messages might be the easier part. Figuring out what to do with them afterward is a lot harder.


My first thought was that this had to be a parody. I had to make sure I wasn't at The Onion's website. No one could possibly be stupid enough to really think that calling a coffee blend "Jamaica Me Crazy" is "covert bigotry." But as you read on, it's impossible to escape the conclusion that she is totally serious. It's not a parody; She is actually "flabbergasted" that there is a blend of coffee called "Jungle Roast," and that people aren't ashamed to say the words out loud.

By her standards, there must have been incredible racism afoot in the land when people began selling Belgian waffles, French toast, Canadian bacon, German chocolate cake, Swiss cheese, Spanish rice and Swedish meatballs.

How did those poor people from a city in Germany ever deal with the racism and bigotry of having people across America eating Hamburgers? Should I now feel racial guilt for ever ordering Peking duck? And if you've ever eaten Chicken Kiev, Brussels sprouts or Irish stew, you're probably guilty of "covert racism" as well!

What about a Milky Way candy bar? Isn't that offensive to any would-be visitors to our planet from elsewhere in the galaxy? Was it the consumption of Polish sausage that make all those high school Polack jokes palatable? I probably have to apologize to Hank Hill for having ever eaten Texas toast. And everything Thanksgiving we must be offending the entire country of Turkey!

The rest of her silliness speaks for itself, but here's what I find really scary: She is described at the bottom of the column as "a 1998 graduate of Edina High School and an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York."

First off, if I'm running Edina High School, I'd revoke the diploma immediately. Who needs the bad publicity that comes from having a total nitwit claim to be a graduate of your school? Secondly, you really have to think twice before writing those large tuition checks to any higher education system in which someone like Hinda Mandell can become an assistant professor.

In all seriousness, the real tragedy is this: Sadly, there are still vestiges of racism and bigotry in the world. But when the name of a coffee blend is considered "racism," then the word "racism" has no meaning anymore, and it becomes more and more difficult to combat real racism. It's not just that Ms. Mandell is an intellectual featherweight, the fact is that her kind of thinking is a huge obstacle to the noble goal of a color-blind society.

And finally, the fact that an editor at the Star-Tribune found this piece of gibberish worthy of printing tells us a lot about the value of their judgments as well.

UPDATE: I don't know for sure that it's the same person, but there is a "Hinda Mandell" on Facebook who lives in Rochester, New York. She lists her colleges attended as Brandeis, Syracuse and Harvard, which makes you think mom and dad didn't quite get their money's worth with little Hinda's college fund.


  1. Recently I had a beer at Big Swedes Resort in Lake Holcombe WI. Sadly, after reading this, I'll never be able to go back there.

  2. I'm embarrassed to admit I once had an Irish whiskey.

  3. All I can learn from that "article" is that Jews don't like high-fives.

  4. I think as we all know, the word "Hinda", the first name of our author, means female deer in Hebrew. On behalf of all of the female deer that populate the earth, I am shocked, offended and hurt. I can hardly imagine the insensitivity of her parents in naming her HInda, nor in the author in continuing to use a name of such gross insensitivity.

    Abe Fromen,
    Sausage King of Chicago