New York Times columnist David Brooks recently wrote a piece on white privilege in which he pointed out all the ways American society is subtly tilted in favor of people who are already well off, so they and their offspring can become more so. As proof, he cited the discomfort that a friend “with only a high-school degree” experienced when they went out to lunch together.
The friend didn’t know what to make of sandwiches with names like “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata so this was presumably an Italian deli like we have in upstate New York. So they regrouped and “ate Mexican”. I’m hoping this was not Taco Bell but an actual Mexican café with foods and ingredients like tortas, cotija and ideally chapulines, which presumably would have been just as unfamiliar to Brooks as the Italian names were to his guest.
The missed opportunity here was for Brooks to introduce his friend to a new experience, describing the foods and perhaps equating them to the things she enjoys and was familiar with. (A torta, for example, is a lot like an Italian sub, but with mayo and avocado instead of oil and vinegar dressing.) Because sharing food is a prime gateway drug to opening one’s eyes to a different culture.
One could argue that white privilege generates a feeling of self-confidence that would make it easier for Brooks to try something new than for his friend, who’s probably had some rough experiences in her life in which she did not appear to fit in. That should be true, but in my experience it isn’t. Upper class white people I’ve known are often very uncurious and wary about unfamiliar foods and restaurant environments; their loss. While the folks you’ll find in a barbecue stand in Texas, spanning multiple ethnicities and I am pretty sure education and income levels, delight in discovering new tastes.
So, instead of asking your friend what they are comfortable eating like this critic suggests, tell them you’d like to share a dining experience that’s special to you, explain why you think they’ll like it, and listen carefully to any concerns. Then adjust the dining experience accordingly. You’ll both be better off as a result—especially if you are the person with the high school degree, broadening the horizon of a privileged but sheltered person with an experience they would never dare on their own.