A Negro's Guide To Surviving A White Cookout

As a Negro, I grew up with a set of Negro norms that accompanied all family events. Especially the unique experience of a BBQ with norms that dictate behavior for an outdoor event held at someone else’s home.

As I grew up, I started to choose my own parties, with my White friends, instead of going whoever the hell’s house my mom told me we going to visit (Negroes like to make multiple trips to multiple homes), for BBQs on holidays.

The process of attending BBQs with White people was illuminating. It was honestly a culture shock and I couldn’t believe that there were racial/culture differences with BBQs in America. After ten years of regularly attending White folks’ BBQs, here are my helpful hints for Negroes, which I have learned, mostly by making many mistakes.

Here are my top 10 rules:

1) Arrive on time. Really. No, really. Like, if they say, the BBQ starts at 1pm, when you are arrive at 1pm, there is likely to be people already there and (get ready for this) food ready!

2) Always bring either wine or beer. When contemplating what alcoholic beverage to bring to the BBQ, skip on traditional Negro BBQ drinks: Skip the dark liquors: The Southern Comfort, the Hennessey, the oh so delicious, Crown Royal. Instead of a bottle of Hennessey, bring a bottle of wine. Always wine. But not Moscato, which ironically is the only acceptable wine for someone to bring to Black social events.

Okay, so you know every Black event has someone who wants to be a rapper? Well, the White equivalent of that is a sommelier. I honestly still don’t know how to pronounce it correctly. Basically, the personal secret goal of at least half of the white people at that white BBQ, is to be a sommelier, who is a person who can break down the ingredients and flavors in a bottle of wine. Why would anyone want to do that? Don’t ask. Why is June Bug 40 years old and still trying to break into the rap business? Each race has our things.

Okay, now if you want to go above and beyond and really impress your White hosts, go to Whole Foods (or any place that has a wine selection where a staff member is trained to answer questions about said wine) and ask the wine experts, “which wine goes best with BBQ?” Tape the explanation, memorize it in the car ride over, and then present it as information you already knew! You will instantly be a HIT! White folks LOVE wine that brings out the flavors of the meal! (I have drunk a lot of wine and never felt a difference, but, again, I am not White.)

Same rules with beer: if you bring beer, don’t bring “regular beer, like Budweiser, Coors, or even Miller High Life, a/k/a “the Champagne of beers!” Again, this is something that requires a trip to Whole Foods or a person trained to understand the intricacies of wine and craft beer. I’m not talking bad about the Jewel’s clerk or the corner liquor store staff; it’s just a different liquor knowledge. Ask the specialist what beer “goes best” with BBQ? Or ask, “What is the best summer beer?” If you happen to bring a wine or beer that no one has tasted, don’t worry. You actually were a hit! “Discovering” new wines and beers is a favorite of Whites!

3) Ask if the BBQ is meat from an actual animal or if it is a meat alternative. You don't want to be surprised when you pick up what you think is a hamburger and instead take a big bite of a "vegan bean burger.” They will insist, empathetically, that it tastes EXACTLY like beef, pork, or chicken. It does not. Not even with a lot of BBQ sauce. Find the smallest piece of alternative meat, and stack up on side dishes.

*Southern/Country White exception: If you are attending a White BBQ and your guests are Southern or country, you can assume it will be meat on the BBQ grill. However, you don’t know what animal. Ask first. I’ve been on the receiving end of taking a big bite of what I thought was beef and having someone laugh and say, “that was deer/squirrel/ rabbit!” If you don’t want to be a contestant on Fear Factor: BBQ Edition, ask what you are eating first.

4) Avoid political conversation traps! Most White people don’t have a lot of non-white friends (80% only have one). Most White people have never had a Black person over for a BBQ. Thus, there is a good chance you will be the first and/or only one of a handful of Negro guests many of the guests have ever been around socially.

Because of that, they have a LOT of questions. But, unlike Black people, white people are a little subtler. They will start with the standard bonding comments, which include but are not limited to:

A) They like jazz or hip-hop, or

B) They LOVED the movie 12 Years a Slave, or

C)The rare but also instant race bonder, they “once they dated a black person.”

The above mentioned are blatant attempts to bond, but they are harmless.

HOWEVER, this is the “NO GO” conversation topic: Do not, under any circumstance, enter any conversation about the Obamas! It is a trick! What White people really want to do is have conversations about Black Lives Matter, “Black on Black crime,” or any of the many suggestions the white people with no black friends have to “fix” Black Americans.

Also, there is bound to be at least one Republican and/or racist at the event. If you are lucky, your invitee will point them out (it’s usually grandma or grandpa and/or one of the only guest with a regular beer.) AVOID THEM.

The other white guest to avoid is the "devil's advocate." You will recognize them from every Social Studies/Political Science course you’ve ever taken. Okay, here’s what I’ve learned: the “devil’s advocate” really doesn’t want a conversation; they want to tell you their opinions. If you just nod and say comments like, “interesting,” or “I haven’t thought about it like that,” or “wow, your co-worker did sound unprofessional and it doesn’t sound like your comment was racist at all,” it will make the event move more smoothly. Smile and nod.

5) The silence! No, you are not crazy.  There is no music playing. White BBQs have no music. Maybe, if they want to make you “feel comfortable” they might have a jazz music softly (like so softly, you can’t hear it) playing in the background. But mostly it is BBQ sans the music.

6) White side dishes: Black folks have classic, traditional sides that we bring to every BBQ: baked beans (with ground beef), spaghetti or mostaccoli with cheese, potato salad, banana pudding, and/or peach cobbler. Standards. They are at every Black BBQ.

Nothing shocked me more than realizing that White folks DO NOT CONSIDER SPAGHETTI OR MOSTACCOLI AS A SIDE DISH! Seriously. I’ve brought spaghetti with the traditional yellow cheese and was embarrassed. Not just because I brought spaghetti, which apparently is an entrée not a side dish, but also because my cheese was what I called “yellow”; not brie, Gouda or Mozzarella. Don’t make my mistake.

7) Real dishes: Don't ask for the paper plates.  Most white people use real dishes at family functions. First, because of the environment and it's wasteful; but mostly, just because they use nice dishes for, gasp, social gatherings and not as a piece of decorative art! And, if you get a plastic water bottle, be cautious. You are expected to keep that same water bottle throughout the BBQ because the environment.

8) THINGS YOU CAN’T DO: There are certain things that are with off-limits for Black people in the presence of White folks. The most important of these at a White folks BBQ is, “the watermelon rule.”

Okay, here is the rule: If there is watermelon at the White BBQ, you can only eat it if its cubed or if it can be eaten with silverware.  Black people are not allowed to eat sliced watermelon, or watermelon with their hands, at majority white functions.

There are exceptions. You can only, only eat watermelon with your hands, if you have been in an intimate relationship with a white person for over 6 months and/or been friends with a white person for over 6 years. And even then, you can only eat the watermelon, only in front of that specific person. You can never eat watermelon in a crowd of white people!

9) More on meat: Most white meat is cooked at a standard "medium." If you don't like pink or red in your meat, ask specifically for your food to be well-done. Or just get a hot dog (that is probably not real meat. see rule 3‬). 

10) Garbage: So Black BBQs always have the big black plastic bag and all trash goes into the designated trash bag. However, things are more complicated when it comes to White people and trash. Basically, White people and how they trash is a major statement about how they are. Thus, there will be complicated systems to throwing away your food. There is usually a minimum of THREE CONTAINERS:

A) One is for garbage

B) One is for plastic/paper

C) One is for bottles.

Putting your garbage in the correct container is really important. There is also the chance that your White hosts are creating some sort of compost/fertilizer, and that they want coffee grinds, salad, and chicken bones to add to their formula. It is truly a maze of figuring out where to put your trash: perishables, plastics, food that they might be making into compost.  

I usually wait till no one is around and throw everything in the garbage. Sorry, my White friends.

Follow my tips and you are bound to be a hit at any White BBQ!


ShaRonda Knott Dawson currently resides in the west suburbs of Chicago with her two girls, ages 8 and 4, and her husband, Brian. She received her masters degree from The University of Chicago, School of Social Service Administration, with an emphasis on management and public policy. ShaRhonda has over 15 years experience in nonprofit program management. She also has worked over 20 years as a political organizer, focusing on engaging youth, and people of color.