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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?”

“Nope.”

“What, you really think they check?”

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

Rimshot.

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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