'Black olives matter': Just a joke or real disrespect?

Restaurant owner Rick Camuglia, center, sports a "black olives matter" T-shirt in a photo with two customers.

Story highlights

  • An Italian restaurant in Albuquerque put the phrase on its sign
  • A professor says many think it trivializes Black Lives Matter

(CNN)A New Mexico restaurant generated controversy -- and profits -- this summer with a play on "Black Lives Matter."

Now it's coasting on the uproar that began with its sign and has printed hats and T-shirts with the phrase, jumping straight into the seemingly never-ending national conversation on race.
    Rick Camuglia, owner of Paisano's, an Italian restaurant in Albuquerque, put the phrase "black olives matter" on his sign last month to help sell a new tuna dish with black olive tapenade. It worked like a charm, bringing in more business, with some people adding black olives to every dish they ordered.
    Of course it upset some people too, who said that Paisano's was trivializing the Black Lives Matter movement, which has protested the police killings of black men in the past couple of years.
    Others who have been accused of this -- like the people who have said "All Lives Matter" in response -- have apologized for their words. But not Paisano's. Camuglia refuses to apologize and says he won't stop selling hats and T-shirts with the "black olives matter" phrase on them.
    "People have filled the restaurant and told us to leave up the sign," Camuglia told CNN affiliate KOAT. He said he made the T-shirts and other items after getting messages of support from people around the world who wanted to buy some sort of souvenir with the phrase on it.

    The view from the other side

    That doesn't sit well with others, said Dr. Finnie Coleman, an English professor at the University of New Mexico who's teaching a course on the historical events that led up to the Black Lives Matter movement.
    "Many people are very much against any kind of usage of that term or playing on that term or punning that term because people's lives are at stake," Coleman said.
    The debate over "black olives matter" is playing out on social media, with people divided into two predictable camps: those deeply offended by the reworked phrase, and those outraged by the outrage over what they consider just a restaurant's cute play on words.
    One Twitter user found the olives phrase "so disrespectful" ...
    ... while another says everybody needs to lighten up.
    Of course there's a third camp: the jokesters who can always find the humor in almost any situation. One Twitter user posted a photo of a black olive holding a "black olives matter" sign, and a green olive calling the black olive a racist.
    As for Paisano's, Camuglia said he was only trying to sell more food, not stir racial tensions, so for now, "black olives matter" lives on at the restaurant.
    "It's just something to do that's kind of fun," he said. "It's a little bit different than selling pasta."