The Current

Wildly popular Popeyes chicken sandwich doesn't have to be a 'referendum on black culture': writer

A new Popeyes chicken sandwich became a viral sensation, with customers lining up for hours, a lot of overworked staff, and some violence when the chicken ran out. But the online discussion quickly became a vehicle to shame black people, according to one writer. He argues that instead of a "referendum on black culture," maybe a sandwich can just be a sandwich.

Fame of sell-out sandwich fuelled memes about voting and black community

Popeyes sold out of a new chicken sandwich after posts about it went viral online. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

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The memes and online discussion about a wildly popular Popeyes chicken sandwich have become a "vehicle used to shame black people," according to one writer.

"Can't we just enjoy a damn chicken sandwich? Can't black folks just enjoy something without it being a reflection of an issue that people think we've caused to ourselves," asked David Dennis Jr., senior culture editor at Interactive One, a digital media company.

He told The Current's guest host Matt Galloway "the memes were essentially saying: 'You can line up for chicken at Popeyes, but you can't line up to vote.'"

The restaurant Popeyes debuted the $3.99 US sandwich earlier this month, featuring a fried chicken fillet, served on a brioche bun, with some pickles and mayonnaise. When rival chain Chick-fil-A tweeted about their own, very similar sandwich, Popeyes' social media team responded. 

Those tweets were the beginning of the #ChickenSandwichWars hashtag — and the publicity drove people to Popeyes in droves. Customers lined up for hours, harassed staff reportedly working 60-hour weeks with no breaks, and when the chicken sandwich sold out nationally, there were reports of violence at some outlets.

Tweeting about the phenomenon, singer Janelle Monae suggested putting voting booths at every Popeyes location, to get people to register to vote. She has since apologized for the tweet after criticism that her remarks did not acknowledge the alleged voter suppression faced by many black people in the U.S.

People wait in line outside a Popeyes restaurant in New York last week. There were line-ups all over the U.S. after a chicken sandwich became a viral hit online. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

Dennis Jr. said similar tweets and memes were based on "this idea that black people don't line up for things that are important, i.e. voting or jobs or supporting black business."

He said this is part of a trend that suggests "we are not allowed, as black people, to simply enjoy anything without it being some reflection of a larger issue that we have inflicted upon ourselves."

Dennis Jr. has written about the issue before. He's frustrated that "everything that black people in America do has to be a referendum on black culture and the state of black folks."

Other cultures have had products and fads that go viral in the past, such as the Tickle Me Elmo or beanie baby toys, but those have not been discussed in the same way, he argued.

"Nobody says white people are too concerned with Tickle Me Elmo, than they are with voting rights, so it's a double standard."


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Pacinthe Mattar, Danielle Carr and Marc Apollonio.

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