Lipscomb University’s President Putting Cotton on a Table at a Black Student Dinner Shows Why Cultural Awareness Matters

The president of Lipscomb University serving collard greens and cornbread to students with cotton centerpieces raises deeper questions about cultural awareness and white privilege.


Earlier this week, to the horror of many, a Black student from Lipscomb University — a predominately white school — wrote about her experience while attending the president of the university’s home for dinner, which featured eyebrow-raising centerpieces of cotton stalks in jars along with collard greens and cornbread to eat.

What was more alarming than the insensitive décor and Southern-style fare were the comments under the president’s apology on Facebook, which probes the deeper issues surrounding cultural awareness and the intersections of privilege.

When Lipscomb University President Randy Lowry invited a few of his school’s Black students over to his home in the Tennessee area for a hosted meal, they were highly offended by what one student described as being provided what resembled “many black meals” featuring traditional “mac n cheese, collard greens, cornbread, etc.”

So I attend Lipscomb university and as most of you know that is a predominately white school. Tonight AFRICAN AMERICAN students were invited to have dinner with the president of the school. As we arrived to the president’s home and proceeded to go in we seen cotton as the center pieces. We also stood and ate dinner, there were no seats to sit in and it felt very uncomfortable. We were very offended, and also the meals that were provided resembled many “black meals” they had mac n cheese, collard greens, corn bread etc. The night before Latinos also had dinner at his house and they had tacos. They also DIDN’T have the center piece that we HAD tonight. A couple of minutes went by, the president was coming around and asking for our names and what our major was. He finally got to our table and my friend @kay_cyann asked why there was cotton on the table as the center piece. His response was that he didn’t know, he seen it before we did, he kind of thought it was ” fallish”, THEN he said ” it ISNT INHERENTLY BAD IF WERE ALL WEARING IT ” then walked off. Later on all of us that were there were invited into the home, and we had the impression that we were coming to speak about how us as Black people feel about Lipscomb. The whole entire time we were in their home they only talked about themselves( how they met, got married and ended up at lipscomb) & the ONLY question that we were asked was our transformation coming to lipscomb. A couple of women answered the question but they sugar coated it. They said any other questions that we may have can be emailed to the advocate for the Latinos and that a second meeting may be held. Also we don’t have an advocate on campus, the only African American advocate we had, no longer works here. The only advocate available to us is the advocate for the Latinos. They claim to have funding for minorities, BUT you have to live up to the expectations of a typical Black family to even get the 1000$.There is NO FUNDING for just us black students. #share

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And although one could argue that the meal is standard Southern cuisine embraced by many homes and restaurants throughout the South, the night before was, according to the same student, a dinner for Latino students that did not feature the same meal or cotton and twigs for centerpieces. Instead, they were served tacos — something equally as eyebrow-raising.

In an effort to diffuse the situation, Lowry apologized in an email that was shared on the school’s Facebook page that read, “Several students shared with me their concern about the material used for centerpieces which contained stalks of cotton. The content of the centerpieces was offensive, and I could have handled the situation with more sensitivity.”

The president of the university further added, “I sincerely apologize for the discomfort, anger or disappointment we caused and solicit your forgiveness” before encouraging students to spend more time engaging in conversation in “either small groups or individually.”

The sensitivity that seemed to be lacking aside from the disastrous meal was the awareness of Tennessee’s Southern backdrop that’s rooted in racism and what that means for many who are not white — particularly during a time of peaking tension in post-modern racism here in America. Though reluctant to secede at first, Tennessee, a state below Kentucky, was still a Confederate state during the Civil War, which can leave many on edge who do not have the privilege of blending in with the 78.7 percent white-majority.

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In fact, several people responding in the nearly 800 comments under Lipscomb’s Facebook post appear to misunderstand “white privilege” and, ultimately, fail to accept responsibility for not being more aware of how the intersect of privilege operates.

One person wrote, “I am a white person, raised very poor, had a Mother and Father who picked cotton right beside black people. They didn’t feel oppressed. They were just glad to make a little money in order to feed 12 children. By the way, my daughter attended [Lipscomb] when it was a fine Christian College, and didn’t get involved in any Political Correctness nonsense. ‘Cotton’, for crying out loud.”

Another person replied, “My momma was a dirt poor sharecroppers daughter who cotton her whole life & was proud to do it! She doesn’t dwell on the past or think anything of it. It was a living. Good grief This PC mess has got to stop.”

What many fail to realize is that Blacks were forced into picking cotton as slaves with no rights. It’s hard to be proud of having to pick cotton when you were at one time referred to as 3/5 of a human simply based on the color of your skin.

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Yes, many must make a living based on their circumstances, but when you aren’t even seen as a person in the eyes of many, paired with no life-advancement options and little control of your destiny — it’s hard to truly compare the scenarios. This is especially important considering that if a poor white person who picked cotton polished himself up, created a new name and walked into a store, he could physically blend in with not only white people, but also the wealthy white people that surely judged him for being poor.

Such costumes don’t exist for Blacks, unless they are born with extremely European features. Had the roles been reversed, the Black person would have immediately been called a derogatory name and thrown out of a store. For the most part, the fact that a Black person’s life circumstances were a direct reflection of their skin pigmentation is something that should be acknowledged and not awkwardly compared to the other side as though it’s not true. They were at a disadvantage in a situation where being white had the advantage.

Gina Crosley illustrated a similar point in a blog post on the Huffington Post called, “Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person,” where she initially didn’t understand how she could be privileged because she grew up poor. “When that feminist told me I had ‘white privilege,’ I told her that my white skin didn’t do [explicit] to prevent me from experiencing poverty,” Crosley wrote.

It wasn’t until Crosley read Peggy McIntosh’s 1988 piece “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” that she began to see how “being born with white skin in American affords people certain unearned privileges in life that people of other skin colors simply are not afforded.”

For example, she referenced many of McIntosh’s points: “If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.”

Along with: “If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area, which I can afford and in which I would want to live.”

Aside from race, privilege can operate in situations regarding citizenship, sexual orientation, ability, class, sex and gender identity.

Although I am a Black female who is at a disadvantage in two ways regarding climbing the corporate ladder based on both my gender and my race, I am at an advantage as a person who is heterosexual. I am also at an advantage in comparison to my Black male counterparts when pulled over by a white police officer.

When a student asked Lowry why he decided to dress his dinner table in what could be easily considered insensitive to people of color, he responded that he “didn’t know” and thought that it was “fallish.”

“THEN he said ‘it ISNT INHERENTLY BAD IF WERE ALL WEARING IT’ then walked off,” the student wrote.

Serving meals based on your own meal prepping expertise or traditional family recipes that would impress the taste buds of any individual is vastly different from serving a meal to a person that you can barely cook yourself — solely based off their skin and what you assume they would eat based off stereotypes.

Understanding concepts such as both cultural awareness and privilege is important for any person to learn, no matter what race or cultural predispositions one might have, in order for everyone – as a whole – to truly move forward. You can’t solve a problem unless you understand it.

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  • Thank you for addressing some of the other privileges out there. I’m White, but I’m also female, elderly, disabled and grew up dirt poor, and we all need to be aware of the advantage and disadvantages — both conscious and systematic — associated with our various attributes.

  • Charity Dell

    The president of this “Christian” university failed on so many levels, and frankly flunked HOSPITALITY 101.
    The only message these students received was that the president saw them as cotton-picking slaves left
    over from 1619, unworthy of a “seat at the welcome table.” Some way to start an academic year!

    1. You do not invite students to a home, then have them STAND to eat a meal.
    COMMON COURTESY demands that you invite your guests to SIT around a table, like civilized folks.
    This was the MOST OFFENSIVE feature of this “dinner”–inviting people to your home, only to treat
    them as if they were derelicts out on the street, not good enough to sit on your Special Sacrosanct
    Chairs at your Super Sacrosanct Southern Table.

    2. You do not use cotton plants as a substitute for floral centerpieces. You purchase FLORAL
    centerpieces with FLOWERS–not flax stalks or cotton bolls on dead twigs.

    3. You serve a buffet of VARIETY, with different HEALTHY foods available, and not just your ptiful version
    of a Black Church picnic. All African-Americans do not eat just “southern fare.”

    This so-called “Christian” university president must have trained at the Darth Vader School of Exclusionary
    Ethnic Hospitality.

  • People are not understanding that it’s not just the cotton, but the entire evening. If the President of Lipscomb were actually interested in what the students had to say, if there had really been dialogue, and if there had not been such a conscious effort — including the two different menus — to assume what a dinner theme should be for both sets of students, and if they weren’t told to mail any questions they had to the Latino advocate since they didn’t have one for these students, the cotton might have just been a centerpiece and the students would have let that slide. And don’t get it wrong, students at schools across the country, not just the South, do have similar experiences.

  • It’s very upsetting that the president of a college would have so little awareness of why his actions are so insulting. Even more upsetting are the comments of the two white woman who’s families were poor and picked cotton. Is it that hard to understand the difference between being poor and working hard at a job, and being a slave forced into hard labor? Your white families could have easily chosen to do something else, leave, not worked and starve if they had wanted to. The point is, they could choose! There is nothing that comes close, and even I am sickened at the way these silly unthinking white people comment about moving on, and political correctness.

    • Charity Dell

      DAWN–The very fact that the students never SAT for the meal–and had to STAND for the entire
      dinner–said it ALL. It was the most eloquent of statements and it set the tone for the entire evening.
      YOU ARE NOT WELCOME AT MY TABLE is a statement of CRUEL REJECTION…did the president
      and his wife make the Latino students “stand for the meal” or any other students “stand for the meal?”

      The message clearly conveyed was: “YOU BLACK STUDENTS AREN’T WORTHY ENOUGH TO

  • Michael J. "Orange Mike" Lowrey

    My first reaction to collards and cornbread is “Yum!”; as a poor Tennessee (white) boy, that’s what I grew up on. But if President Lowry (no relation) doesn’t ROUTINELY offer similar meals to his white guests, he’s just being a stereotyping bigot. And the cotton bolls? That’s just plain UNTHINKING.

    • I agree with you. I was a trustee of an historically Black college (Bennett College) for 10 years. Every trustee dinner at the president’s house had the same menu – fried chicken, ribs, greens, cornbread, peach cobbler. The dinner was cooked and served with love and honor to the to the emancipated people who bought the land after the Civil War to create the college.

      But this was something different – it was a caricature pulled together by a man who apparently can’t think of non-white people in any other way than stereotypes. Ignorance is curable, but is unforgivable in a university president or a CEO. They are paid to know better – and there are categories of information around which ignorance is a fireable offense. This is one of them, but that awareness is just beginning to emerge.

      • Individuals that don’t understand the difference between being a poor white and Black at any economic level make my head hurt. That’s why they frequently vote against their own self-interest.

        Those in power use their ignorance of reality to keep the people at the bottom fighting each other and keep themselves in power.

        • It’s hard for me to imagine how the poor white people for the backstop support for this fraud of a president don’t see the truth. He is just the circus act for a cabal of billionaires – ExxonMobil, Goldman Sachs, Wilbur Ross, et al.

          He is human sleight-of-hand for the billionaires to strip out environmental regulations, industry regulations, healthcare for the masses, financial controls and world peace.

      • Charity Dell

        LUKE–It is inexcusable for ANY professional couple–let alone a college president and his spouse!–to deliberately
        invite students to your home, just to MAKE THEM STAND AND LOOK AT SYMBOLS OF SERVITUDE on your
        dining room table!! This is so appalling it defies description…in 2017, a “Christian” college president invites students
        of color to his home to remind them that, as descendants of African slaves, they ought to be “grateful” they were
        allowed to “stand in the Big House” to “eat with the Mastah and the Missus?”

        1. So what did this man and his wife do while their “guests” were forced to stand while eating?
        This sounds like what my parents had to do in the 1940’s…taking their food out of places, since
        they were not allowed to sit down at the lunch counters…

        2. Did the Latino students also have to stand while eating?

        3. Did the president and his wife ALSO stand while talking?
        Again, what was the purpose of THAT? To establish dominance?

    • Charity Dell

      MICHAEL J. “ORANGE MIKE” LOWREY–Actually, the cotton bolls were not “unthinking.”
      They were a DELIBERATE SYMBOL OF SERVITUDE, designed to remind the students
      of their “place” in this president’s mind. Despite their student status, “King Cotton”–and all
      the crushing sorrow that came with it–is what this president believes the students ought
      to remember, in case these “uppity Black students forget their PLACE” as disenfranchised
      brown bodies that ought to scrub his Precious Plantation Mansion–errrr…Academic Residence
      and cook for the Missus of the Campus.

  • What some of you white people commenting are failing to realize is that your ancestors got paid to pick cotton. My black ancestors were forced to pick cotton or risked being mutilated or killed. When you try to deflect pain and discomfort instead of truly listening to it that’s when white privilage comes into play. God! That’s whats wrong with this country now. Stop brushing black people’s hurt and pain to the side and seriously try to understand where it’s coming from. Nothing will ever get better until white people shut the fuck up for once and REALLY listen without making excuses.

    • Muirheadhere

      I agree, Dee. Listening is not the forte of many Americans. Defensiveness, well, that’s another story. They have that one down to a tee… I have this argument often, even with my family. I also hate the “move on, that was ages ago” argument. Nothing says privilege like feeling you have the right to tell others how to feel, how they “really” feel, how long they can feel, etc.

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