PBJ Sandwiches, Racism, and Hidden Power of Words Series, #4

Slightly over a year ago the Internet, liberals and conservatives alike, erupted in fury over Dr. Verenice Gutierrez’s comments about peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the school where she is principal. These stories have been buzzing around the Internet again. (Surprisingly, I didn’t hear about it the first time around.)

The controversy started when a teacher used the peanut butter and jelly sandwich as an example in an exercise a while back and Gutierrez discussed how the teacher could have been more inclusive.

People are seemingly mad because they say that Gutierrez said peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are innately racists – one article even furthered it and said something like, is wheat bread less racist than white bread?

These views miss the point. Completely.

What Gutierrez actually said and the philosophies she clearly embraces are more complicated, more important, and show her true commitment to actually embracing multiculturalism.

As Gutierrez explained in an interview with the PortlandTribune:

What about Somali or Hispanic students, who might not eat sandwiches? Another way would be to say: ‘Americans eat peanut butter and jelly, do you have anything like that?’ Let them tell you. Maybe they eat torta. Or pita.

Indeed much of education and everyday life privileges the “default” “White” “middle class” ideals and mores, as I have written about on this blog many times.

Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches alone, of course, are not racists. This cultural artifact, however, is racialized and culturalized by the very existence of vastly different cultures and peoples. These differences should be embraced. Gutierrez’s school is 50% Hispanic, 15% Black, and 9% Asian. Given these demographics, diversity is important in entirely different ways (notice I did not say more important- because every one needs to be taught with true diversity) because people racialized to minority groups have their histories and cultures minimalized far too often and far more than we could ever possibly know without walking in their shoes for a lifetime plus.

Gutierrez used the PBJ as a simple example and as a way to discuss manifestations of whiteness and ways to be more inclusive, not exclusive. Sadly, though, when we use simple examples, people make fun of us – when more complicated examples are used, they make accusations that we are too elite and high-minded. Diversity training and minority experiences lead to an increased ability to critically examine such concerns.

Moreover, the very reaction from so many individuals, shows how sensitive and important these issues are. The comments left by people on various sites with this news story are shocking. The reactions these people have when asked to simply entertain a thought and entertain diversity reveals the true racism and the true problem. It’s people, not the PBJ sandwich that is ultimately racist or closed-minded.

In addition to my sympathy and concern for others, as a scholar of cultural and racialized matters and as having conducted multicultural workshops, I am very aware of these issues. You can take them as silly and pointless if you like, but there is much to be considered.

Language matters.

Before closing, I want to briefly share an abridged version of one of the exercises I do in my multicultural workshop. It goes…

Is this either a diverse or multicultural group or both – what do you think?


What about this group?


Or this group?


Then we begin what will be a two-to-three hour long conversation about what diversity truly is. If you’re basically like every group I have given this presentation to, you said the first image was very diverse and multicultural. This is based purely on appearances and assumptions. Remember, Dr. Martin Luther King’s goal of having children who were not judged by their skin? In an imagined scenario, the second image with the three women, could actually represent the most diverse group. True diversity and multiculturalism exists when there is true acceptance of all kinds of values. It’s much deeper than the skin. The people in the first image, while appearing diverse, could well be perpetuating stereotypes and be very closed-minded.

So while this is not multiculturalism


And neither is this

Screen Shot 2013-11-23 at 12.56.15 AM


Screen Shot 2013-11-23 at 12.56.02 AM

See the full Hidden Power of Words Series postings, too!