Tag Archives: African-Americans

African-Americans with Watermelon: Always a Racist Image

Debbie says:

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.

white princess on vanilla candy package; black princess on watermelon candy package

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.

white house lawn as watermelon field

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.

Invisible Black People: One Aspect of the Invisibility Epidemic

Debbie says:

Laurie and I talk a lot about how closely connected body image is to visibility: if we don’t see positive images of people like ourselves, we have a very hard time seeing ourselves in a positive light. In this article, Ashton Lattimore discusses media-created invisibility from a Black perspective.

Writing about Black people is hard. There are more than 40 million of us in the United States alone, each running around with different ideals, interests, occupations, and income levels. With all of that going on, things are bound to get complicated. So how can the American news media—not renowned for its ability to cover nuance and complexity—engage with all of that?

Of course, they can’t. And they don’t try.

Lattimore, writing for NewsOne, reposted to The Root, identifies seven invisible groups:

1) The Black middle class
2) Gay Black people
3) Missing persons who aren’t white and female
4) Non-Christian Black people
5) Educated, married Black women
6) Africans who aren’t poor, starving, and living in small villages
7) Black police officers

Lattimore is sharp and funny (“If the constant hysterical repetition of the scary statistics is to be believed, you’re about as likely to run into a happily married, educated Black woman with children as you are to be handed a pot of tax-free gold by a leprechaun riding on the back of a unicorn.”/”How else but by ignoring the existence of minority law enforcement officials could media outlets continue to crank out new spins on the old classic “Black Folks Have Historically Fraught Relationship With The (Racist) Cops” story?”) and the points in the article are extremely well-taken. In the section on gay Black people, Lattimore also brings up the racist myth about the passage of California’s anti-gay-marriage Proposition 8: for more on why this myth is nonsense, read transgriot here.

Without in any way detracting from the value of Lattimore’s lists, we could make these lists for every group imaginable. Here are a few, off the top of my head.

Disabled people with good jobs, especially outside of the service sector.
People with disabilities that don’t result in wheelchair use.
Disabled people of color.
Fat people in good relationships.
Middle-class fat people.
Fat athletes, or fat people exercising.
Old fat people.
Transpersons outside of the sex work industry.
Transpersons in good relationships.
White people on welfare.
College students in a family context.
Nontraditional families of any kind (gay parents, more than two parents, interracial, whatever).
Moderate, liberal, or apolitical Muslims
Queer Muslims.

Give me suggestions: I’ve missed hundreds.

To return to Lattimore’s piece,

And when some subset of people doesn’t fit into one of these pre-set narratives? Well, they get the Loch Ness monster treatment: Some kooky blog or other disreputable source might rant and rave about their existence and importance, but you won’t find CNN or the New York Times taking much notice. But we true believers, we know they’re out there.

It’s really hard work to keep remembering what a tiny slice of reality we see in the big world. And it’s so worth the work.

Thanks to onyxlynx for the pointer.