The Cultural Anxiety of Office Potlucks
Illustration: Michael Kennedy

The Cultural Anxiety of Office Potlucks

For Black employees, breaking bread with White co-workers can play up some insecurities

Buckle up: The annual barrage of immaculate Thanksgiving feasts and struggle plates alike will fill our social media feeds in just a few short days. I know I said letting my co-workers follow me on social media was a strong never gonna happen, but I’ve gotta admit that I’m reconsidering this year — with Big ‘Rona shutting down the office, it’s my chance to see what the (in)famous annual company potluck would have held for me.

This being my first full year at the new gig, it was supposed to be my first potluck too, and I’d already heard enough to know it was a big deal in the office. Even so, I had no trouble imagining what my experience would’ve been: grabbing some biodegradable cutlery, picking around the buffet for a few quick bites, then keepin’ it pushing. Saying office potlucks can be a toss-up is an understatement; I’ve walked away with enough Ls to know never to expect too much.

I can hold my own in the kitchen, but the same nagging internal battle tends to arise around corporate Thanksgiving celebrations: Will I be perceived as the culinary ambassador for Black folks everywhere — and judged as such?

It’s not just the fact that I can’t bring myself to trust some co-workers’ home-cooking hygiene (or basic grasp of concepts like “seasoning”). At a deeper level, it’s hard to shake the sense that there’s an unspoken expectation for me to bring some sort of cultural dish to indulge my co-workers. I can hold my own in the kitchen, but the same nagging internal battle tends to arise around corporate Thanksgiving celebrations: Is my dish actually going to be good? Will they eat it? Hell, would I even eat this, or did I just look up some quick recipe because I didn’t want to go with the regular handy dinners that I normally cook for myself? Will I be perceived as the culinary ambassador for Black folks everywhere — and judged as such?

I don’t consider the dishes I make at home super ethnic; they’re just basic, balanced meals: meat options like chicken, pot roast, or steak; potatoes, rice, or mac and cheese as sides; trusty kale salad or broccoli for greenery; biscuits to make the cipher complete. In short, stuff my Black family would eat but that I wouldn’t tout as soul food. That’s where my friend Kash, a co-worker at my last Wolf of Wall Street job, truly shined. One year, she brought spicy collard greens to the corporate table, and my White co-workers ate it up. Literally. I was a little salty that it was such a huge hit. Nothing against her — she’s a bomb cook — but I just selfishly wanted more for myself. I had the heavy-duty Tupperware on deck and everything. I just knew my White co-workers wouldn’t know what it was and would skip it over for the casseroles and hashes of theirs I had no plans to sample. Of course, the joke was on me.

I hadn’t even got to the kitchen yet because I was still finishing up some work at my desk, and I overheard a gaggle of my White co-workers ranting and raving about that little bit of kick in her collard greens, then planning to grab seconds. They even wanted the recipe. Hol’ up. Do my ears deceive me? I had to hit pause on my tasks just to secure scraps. By the time I grabbed a plate, one of my co-workers who was on thirds already hit me with the “Dude, these were f**king good. You gotta try these collard greens, bro.” Thank you, Doug, I literally grew up on this s**t, so I’m aware. They really thought that I had never tried greens in my entire life. Have I been so lowkey at work that they actually forgot I was Black Black?

I wasn’t the only person who felt a way. The other people of color at my job had to pull Kash aside and ask her to make a batch just for us since it got snatched up so quickly by the greater office. Somebody must’ve dropped a note about it in Slack because I saw random White folks from floors that I didn’t even know we had show up just for the collard greens. Luckily, she had more to go around.

Must be nice to have your homemade dish be the talk of the building. The one time I contributed real, edible food to the group dinner, it remained untouched the entire evening. This was two jobs ago, and even though I was technically the only Black guy in the room, I still worked for a diverse team that was ready to turn the conference table into a United Colors of Benetton ad. My analyst was from India, my program manager was Chinese, my supervisor Southeast Asian, my manager a White Texan, and I had another colleague from Russia — and they all brought unique dishes that reflected their roots. Me? I brought a tray of mainstream-ass muffins from the local supermarket. (Don’t judge me. Dessert is important, too!)

I’d figured something sweet could balance out the more savory options — but aside from the occasional fly hovering above, they got passed over like a Jewish holiday. Me and my bruised ego shame-walked the full plastic container home, then scarfed them down while complaining to my Black roommate about how ungrateful my co-workers are.

Potluck just might not be my jam. I salute all my friends who are gung ho about rolling up their sleeves for office meals, making them from scratch, and priding themselves on that. It’s just not my ministry.

Muffingate helped me come to the realization that for now, my lane is bringing plastic cutlery, napkins, and all the other things that nobody’s really thinking about. If I’m gonna be a role player, so be it, but I also know that I’ll have a full plate because I brought the damn things. Eventually, I’ll rebuild the confidence to bring in my own version of spicy collard greens or something to that level — and, because we’re still in this lovely pandemic, I have at least a whole year to make it #Foodstagram suitable.

Read more: The Subtle Flex of Being the Fashionable Guy in the Office