I’m typically a pretty confident human being, especially about race; I’ve been proud to be black my whole life. But something happened to me recently that made me check my self-righteous black pride.
I was writing one afternoon in a swanky cafe on the North Side, when a middle-aged black woman walked in. She wore a navy top and pants with lime green accents. Her caramel-colored hair was cut short into a natural. When the teenage, blond girl behind the counter asked for her order, the woman asked, "Do you have any yellow cake with chocolate frosting?"
The girl told her that the cakes in the case were preselected flavors. "Let me go get the list," she said.
"I'm just looking for yellow cake with chocolate frosting." The woman spoke clearly, like she was talking to a child.
"I don't know what's in the case today," the girl replied, her face knitted with confusion. "I have to check the list."
As she turned her back to get the list, I cringed. Look around you, Sister, I thought. Does this look like the kind of place where you get yellow cake with chocolate frosting?
“What's the big deal, Jess?” you're thinking. “The woman's in a bakery. She's got a reasonable expectation of finding yellow cake with chocolate frosting.”
You’re right; yet I was mortified, watching the exchange play out. Here's the problem: yellow cake belongs to the black community. Yellow cake with chocolate frosting is served at black Baptist church picnics, beside fried chicken and potato salad. Yellow cake is dessert at both my grandmothers' holiday dinners of turkey, chitlins, greens with ham hocks and macaroni and cheese. Yellow cake reeks of "black folk". Yellow cake is not what you see in counters of posh bakeries beside colorful French macarons and cupcakes with names like “Berry Patch” and “Ginger Dreamsicle.”
When I was a young girl, my father told me never to be late. He didn’t want anyone assume about me—and by extension about him—that I was a black person running on “colored people” time. I’d worked hard at overcoming stereotypes like these. But that afternoon in that café, I couldn’t hide from yellow cake. Dig: it’s yellow cake; not vanilla, not banana or lemon, but yellow. What the hell kind of flavor is yellow?
Yellow Cake had found me. This woman showed our shared stereotype to a white girl, and she did so proudly. She can’t do that; stereotypes don’t inspire pride, they create disgust. This woman walked into a bakery with the word patisserie emblazoned on the wall in fuchsia neon, and had the nerve to ask for yellow cake. She’d thrown down her black club membership card with authority, daring that little white girl to say boo at her. She'd outted herself, and she'd outted me, too.
The girl returned to the counter with a paper with a heavy, annoyed sigh. She read off several cake flavors: almond cake with chocolate crème brulée filling and chocolate buttercream frosting?
"No," said the woman with a shake of her head.
Banana cake with chocolate mousse filling and vanilla buttercream frosting?
"That's all we have in the case," said the girl, resting the paper on the glass.
“You mean you never have yellow cake with chocolate frosting?”
“Well, you can preorder a cake whatever you want, basically.”
“Oh,” said the woman, visibly pleased.
I tore myself away from the exchange and tried to return to my work, but I couldn’t shake this feeling. I was angry at her. That woman looked ridiculous coming in there trying to order yellow cake. Where did she think she was, the supermarket bakery? These shi-shi white folks don’t know nothin’ about yellow cake. She made us all look bad when she did stuff like that. Based on the education in her voice, she ought to know better than to ask at a tony bakery for yellow cake. She should show some thoughtfulness and not look so much like a country bumpkin.
The heat of my reaction stunned me. Immediately on the heels of my surprise, my shame deepened. How could I have judged this woman this way? What right had I to believe that a black woman with a wallet full of money doesn’t have the right to walk into a business and order any damn thing she pleases, regardless of whether the clerk has heard of “yellow cake?” When I watched that woman order, I’d wanted to hide my race, to pretend my identity didn’t exist. She’d thrust her blackness, and mine, into my face and the faces of every white person there, and rather than feel pride or delight, I’d felt shame. By trying to control her behavior, I made a statement about my hang-ups over stereotypes, about my racial identity. I may think, “I’m black and I’m proud,” but not that day. Instead I was insecure and nervous, afraid of being called pickaninny.
I left the café stinging with humility. My mind’s not always as broad as I might like for it to be. But I’m not so far gone that I can’t learn to make space for some stereotypes. If I really love my identity, I have to be willing to “do black” however I do, and to accept this woman’s version of “doing black” too. Yellow cake may be part of the black story, but it’s not the single black story. Stereotypes like yellow cake are harmful when it’s all that we share; but when we acknowledge it as a small part of our larger, collective experience, then we can appreciate it for the tasty treat it just might be.