The first time I encountered a black person offended by being served watermelon, I was about 14, which means it was about 1965. We ate watermelon all the time in my house, and I could not understand why our guest took it so personally. It was one of my first encounters with the “innocent” racist act, where something a white person does combines with the context to create a problem. And I hadn’t learned then that the only thing to do is apologize, remember not to do it again, and move on. Or that “intent” and “innocence” are not the important issues in fighting institutionalized, embedded-in-the-culture racism–not to mention in excusing oneself for causing pain to another person.
Walt Disney Corporation engaged in a perfect example of embedded racism when they put their only black princess, Tiana from The Princess and the Frog, on their watermelon-flavored candies.
This choice does two terrible things at the same time: first, it hurts and offends African-Americans. Second, it reinforces the underlying stereotype for everyone who isn’t aware of it. Sociological Images examines the roots of that stereotype here.
According to David Pilgrim, the curator of the Jim Crow Museum, defenders of slavery used the watermelon as a symbol of simplicity. African Americans, the argument went, were happy as slaves. They didn’t need the complicated responsibilities of freedom; they just needed some shade and a cool, delicious treat.
The stereotype has never gone away, and it came back in a new ugly form when Barack Obama was elected. If you want to upset yourself, Google “obama watermelon racist.” Here’s one of the milder images; this one caused a furor in 2009 because the mayor of a small town in Orange County found it funny enough to email to town notables sharing it.
This all happened almost two weeks ago. Disney hasn’t made a public comment and, as far as I know, they haven’t removed the product either, despite a significant amount of internet furor. The only respectable thing Disney can do here is what they won’t do–because they haven’t done it by now. And that is: apologize, take the product (and ideally the whole series of flavors) off the market, and hire some high-end diversity consultants of color (they can afford it) to work with the marketing team that had the idea.
They could start by regularly reading Racialicious, where I first saw the story.