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On Racism: Benihana and Brazil Nuts

So my twin boys, Corbin and Cornelius, turned seven this week. We took them to Benihana for their birthday last night, and Corbin announced that he wants to be a Benihana chef when he grows up. I considered that a worthy goal, although the thought of my son flinging sharp knives all around the room is more than a little disconcerting.

My brother-in-law was sitting next to me, and I asked him whether you had to be Asian to work there. He corrected me.

“Not just Asian,” he said. “You have to be Japanese.”

“Japanese? Really?” I said. “You can’t be Korean or something?”


“What, you really think they check?”

He thought for just a moment and said, “Nope, you can’t be Czech either.”


Now, of course, Benihana has no racial hiring requirements at all. Yet there was only one non-Asian chef working the tables, and that got me thinking about race. That’s always a dangerous thing to do, because any discussion about race opens you up to the charge of being a racist, which, as we learned during the OJ trial, is far worse than hacking your wife’s head off with a butcher’s knife. I hesitate to even bring my goofy Benihana exchange, because to many on the Left, even acknowledging the slightest racial differences is tantamount to genocide. Everyone is so ready and eager to take offense. If race is the topic of discussion, it becomes a game of elimination where the first person to say something even marginally insensitive loses.

I really think we’d all be better off if we just got over it.

Easier said than done, sure, but we ought to let more things slide than we do. In my own admittedly white-bread experience, I’ve found genuine racial animus to be relatively rare. Boneheaded racial mistakes are far more common, and I don’t think they reveal much more than just provincial or cultural ignorance. I remember an incident on my mission in Scotland, where we had just baptized a great family that, all the same, were pretty hardcore leftists, and the husband was wont to wear a “Free Nelson Mandela” button on his lapel on a daily basis.

After the family was baptized, they were taught the New Member Lessons by a kindhearted elderly missionary couple from Bountiful, Utah, that I will rechristen Elder and Sister Kimball. They didn’t mean any harm to anyone, but the husband, particularly, was a pretty odd duck, and he had no idea who Nelson Mandela was, and he seemed utterly befuddled when this new member tried to explain why apartheid was not such a great idea.

It was his unassuming wife, however, who committed the racial faux pas that I will never forget.

I don’t remember the occasion, but it was some kind of church social function, and this new member family had brought some Brazil nuts as part of the potluck spread.

And as soon as Sister Kimball saw them, her eyes flew open wife and she said “Oooh! How wonderful! N—ger toes!”

“Really? her husband said. “I love n—ger toes!”

It was if someone had instantly sucked all the air out of the room.

Everyone was aghast. Especially me. If I could have dropped dead on the spot, I would have.

Things eventually went back to normal, so I pulled Sister Kimball aside, and she could tell I was upset about something, but she couldn’t imagine what.

“Why did you call these nuts ‘n—ger toes?’ I asked. “

She didn’t understand the question. “What do you mean?”

“That’s really offensive,” I told her.

“Why?” she asked. “That’s what they’re called.”

Turns out that she’s right, although somewhat outdated. “N—ger toe” was a common colloquialism for Brazil nuts through most of the 20th Century, and I’m willing to bet Sister Kimball probably hadn’t ever used the word to describe a human being. Yet I was terrified that the new members would be offended and would lose their faith over this.

I needn’t have worried. The new member mother cracked a Barzil nut and handed it to her two-year old daughter and whispered, with a smile in my direction, “Here, sweetheart. Have a n—ger toe.” Then she laughed, I laughed, and everything was cool.

Sure, we probably ought not be calling Brazil nuts “n—ger toes.” But should we ostracize an elderly woman for not knowing any better? Or should we all have a good laugh and get on with our lives?

I’m not trying to minimize the corrosiveness of real racism. In fact, I think that’s exactly what we do when we equate a stupid provincial mistake with being a closet Hitler.

I don’t really like Brazil nuts that much anyway.

Whither the Ozone Layer?
The South Valley Arts Alliance

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  1. Yeah, I have an issue with that. They should not be called n toes. That’s really offensive, it just is.I also had a boss that called the candy Sugar Babies “N Babies” Not good at all.

  2. It’s a fine line between truly overt and malicious racism and the type of ignorance you describe. Unfortunately, we live in a society that is moving away from distinction of motive and calcifying into extremes. It also is fascinating that the charge toward extremism is led and bolstered by the political left – the group that claims to be so sensitive to and caring for the individual. I find the term to be disgusting, but I also can’t condemn the woman who said it – since she obviously didn’t understand the offense. More than anything else, I admire the way the sister responded. That is truly meekness (being gentle, forgiving and kindly generous) at its finest.

  3. My father called them that, but in private. I think it was falling out of favor at the time and he knew it – this was 40 years ago.There were many insensitive nicknames coined back in the day. I’m sure it’s even happening now (as in “that’s so gay”).I think we should elect SC the next President…..And then we can get over that, too.

  4. The term “gay” was co-opted by the homosexual movement to try and lessen the stigma associated with homosexuality. It is beginning to have the same stigma as other offensive names which have previously been used to describe the group.A linguistics professor I had taught that it doesn’t matter what label you put on a group of people, eventually that label will become just as offensive to the group as previous labels if the actual perception of the group doesn’t change. Witness the various labels for African Americans over the years, from “Negro” to “Colored” to “Black” to “People of Color” to “African American.” I’m sure that African American will become just as offensive if the realized perception of the group doesn’t materially change.

  5. <>Yet I was terrified that the new members would be offended and would lose their faith over this…<>And this was the most important aspect to you? Losing a new member of the Club?Something which is factual can be quantized and qualified from an empirical standpoint. Things which are non-empirical will always be deficient in self-esteem.

  6. I don’t understand your comment, anonymous. Was I supposed to be mortally offended by the old woman’s use of words when I knew she meant no harm by it?