In 1976, when President Gerald Ford proclaimed February as Black History Month, he promoted the effort by urging everyone to "seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans."

What he wasn't seeking was the kind of attention generated last week after word spread that Carondelet High, a private girls school in Concord, would mark the occasion with a lunch of fried chicken, cornbread and watermelon. You think nitroglycerin is explosive?

Detractors blasted the menu as stereotypical and degrading. School officials pleaded ignorance and apologized. A firestorm of raw feelings erupted on the school's Facebook page.

First, two misconceptions: The Black Student Union did not propose the idea, as was mistakenly reported by a Bay Area TV news team, nor did the administration, which still has scorch marks from tamping out smoldering cinders.

The menu that launched 200 online comments sprang from parties unknown -- or, at least, unidentified by school officials -- and caught fire when it was announced (without approval) on the public address system.

"Please don't just dismiss feelings about the incident," one person wrote on Carondelet's Facebook page. "If you don't know the history of the 'fried chicken and watermelon' stereotype, it's explicitly meant to degrade black people."


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"Good grief!" wrote another. "What's the big deal? Plenty of blacks and whites alike love this type of food, myself included."

Then: "If someone cannot see the insensitivity in this, it is doubtful any special class or training will help."

And: "No feelings are being dismissed. The school already apologized ... for something they never intended. How many times are other cultures stereotyped and don't react like this?"

If you digested the entire dialogue, which featured students, parents and outsiders -- plus references to tacos on Cinco de Mayo and corned beef on St. Paddy's Day -- you recognized viewpoints cultivated by widely disparate experiences.

Some felt the sin had been exaggerated and forgiveness was in order. Others thought to minimize the offense was to minimize those offended. A few amped up the outrage, mislabeling Carondelet a racially tone deaf school for the privileged. (About 60 percent of its students are white; 25 percent receive financial aid.)

Unwittingly, though, the uproar spurred some healthy discourse.

"Now talks about diversity, injustice and stereotypes are not just limited to class period," Carondelet spokeswoman Christina Ditzel said. "It's talked about in our hallways, at the lunch table and even on social media."

The takeaway from a whirlwind week is not easy to articulate, but past student body President Ada Okoye, now a University of Southern California freshman, gave it a try:

"The event is unfortunate but by no means is it appropriate to label Carondelet as a school made of up racist, privileged individuals. As a former minority student at this school, I have experienced no such racism in my four years. I was treated just as any other student, given the opportunity to excel in my academics with the help of passionate teachers and counselors. ... Since we never formally recognized Black History Month while I was a student, I was proud of Carondelet for finally trying to do something to celebrate the rich history that such a small percentage of the students share."

Next February, you can be sure the school will be better prepared.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.