The Racism of Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwiches

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The headline above was sent to me as a link by Jack, one of the brilliantly twisted minds behind Two Country Dykes. When I saw it, the first thing I thought was hoax. Then I realized I was on and hoax turned to bullsh*t. 

And b.s. it is.

PolitiFact Oregon gave the headlines a Pants on Fire rating for being about as far from the truth as you can get, but not before different versions of the same b.s. appeared on the DailyKos and Huffington Post.

The story was written by the Education Action Group (EAG), an anti-union organization. I get why they were on this story. They are, after all, right wingers who want to bust up teachers’ unions. But Huff Post and the DailyKos? How’d they get sucked into believing that Portland Schools are spending half a million bucks to convince kids that peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are racist?

Feeling a bit sensitive, perhaps?

PolitiFact Oregon gives us the 411 on this story –

Portland Public Schools has an ongoing contract with Pacific Educational Group, whose founder is author of the book, ‘Courageous Conversations About Race: A Strategy for Achieving Equity in Schools.’ The district has spent more than $1 million since 2007 for diversity and equity training in the classroom. In other words, it’s for more than just the rebranding of a sandwich.

But, according to the EAG, that built its story on the basis of another article appearing in the Portland Tribune (read, did not go to the actual source for confirmation of the facts),

Dr. Verenice Gutierrez, a principal with Oregon’s Portland Public Schools, has become convinced that America’s “white culture” negatively influences educators’ world view and the manner in which they teach their students.

For instance, last year a teacher in the district presented a lesson that included a reference to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Gutierrez says that by using sandwiches as an illustration, the teacher was engaged in a very subtle form of racism.

“What about Somali or Hispanic students, who might not eat sandwiches?” asked Gutierrez, according to Portland Tribune. “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.”

Gutierrez is not the only Portland administrator who has become obsessed with identifying such forms of alleged racism. Almost all Portland school leaders have gone through “Coaching for Educational Equity,” a week-long seminar on race that’s conducted by the Pacific Educational Group.

When the EAG was questioned about the story, spokesman Ben Velderman didn’t know if the principal actually called PB&J sandwiches racist, in spite of the claim in the headline. Instead, he leaned on The Portland Tribune article’s reference to “the subtle language of racism,” saying,

So if a peanut butter sandwich is the ‘subtle language of racism,’ I don’t think it’s a stretch that she thinks a peanut butter sandwich is racist…I try not to be inflammatory.

Thank you for trying.

But, according to a Portland Public Schools official questioned by PolitiFact Oregon, Gutierrez never used the word racist in the staff meeting referred to in the Tribune article. The “subtle language of racism” was the reporter’s wording. The official added that the idea of a sandwich being racist is “just silly.”

I concur with the official, though I’m pretty sure that I once heard a torta refer to me as “chino” while I was in Mexico.

Okay, I know that joke was stupid. But this whole story is stupid. Yet, stupid as it is, I wrote about it and posted it here because it’s a perfect example of how the right vilifies diversity education and liberals uncritically join the choir, as though anything that challenges white as the normative standard of American identity is reverse racism.

In closing, a couple of notes to and Ben Velderman:

  1. Teaching a classroom full of little American kids of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds that PB&J is a “normal” American lunch food has the effect of making them feel less, not more, like normal Americans. Doing that has the secondary effect of undermining their sense of belonging in America. And undermining their sense of belonging, dudes, tends to diminish the possibility of them identifying with the brand of narrow, chauvinistic patriotism you guys espouse.
  2. The system of race was created by human beings, not foodstuffs. Human beings can be racist. Human institutions can be racist. Sandwiches and other foods such as Butterball Turkeys, and french fries can’t be racist. Before going around claiming that educators are teaching kids that sandwiches are racist, you should check out what racism is or you might well end up looking like ignoramuses.
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By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.