28 February 2009

California Mayor "Unaware of Racial Sterotype That Blacks Like Watermelon"

When the mayor of Los Alamitos claimed that "he wasn't aware of the racial stereotype that blacks like watermelon" after sending a black person an email postcard that depicted the White House surrounded by watermelon fields, with the caption "no Easter egg hunt this year", there was a collective eye roll among black people across America.

In situations like this, you can count on it - the good old "I had absolutely no idea" explanation, which has to rank right up there with "the dog ate my homework" as one of the absolute worst excuses of all time.

I guess I'll have to bring up Eric Holder once again, because it seems that his statement becomes more apropos day by day. This is the kind of cowardice Holder is talking about, when a grown man who sends out an email that clearly uses a derogatory racial stereotype is not brave enough to admit what he was really thinking when he pushed the SEND button.

The thing Holder didn't describe in any detail is why we are cowards when it comes to having honest and open dialogue about race. Can you imagine, if this mayor had simply had a conversation with the recipient of the email, what would have been said?

If this mayor talks about why he is uncomfortable having a black man as the president of the United States, I imagine he will run out of verifiable empirical evidence that shows why black people are inferior human beings in about half a second, if not less. One of the reasons why we are cowards about race is because most of us don't like to say things that make us look stupid.

So the Los Alamitos mayor ends up sounding like your four year old when you catch them red-handed.

Maybe we should take another tack. Try something different the next time something like this happens. Instead of shaming these people into hiding, where they are likely to seek out like minded people for comfort as they lick their wounds, why not give them an outrage free eight minutes and a microphone? Why not let him tell us the mechanics behind the decision making process that goes into putting something like this on your "THINGS TO DO TODAY" list?

You might not be the mayor of Los Alamitos, but if you liked the postcard, or were thinking of sending one to your black friends, take a minute while you're here and let us know why. Eight words, eight sentences, eight paragraphs - I would just like to know.

IGNORANCE. It is one thing to say "I did not know."

DISREGARD. It is another thing to say "I know, but I do not care."

NARCISSISM. It is another thing to say, "I did not know or experience it, so it cannot be true or possible."

ENTITLEMENT. It is another thing to say, "I did not experience it, and therefore, I challenge the possibility that you ever experienced it. I did not suffer from it, so it is not conceivable or acceptable that you could suffer from it. And, seriously, I do not care so, therefore, it is not valid that you care."

From Lessons From The Watermelon Man

These are states of mind that are willfully achieved, not accidentally stumbled upon, or something that a person is casually coerced into going along with. These are states of mind that require a level of total and complete commitment to only acknowledging certain slices of reality.

There are times, even as the fate of our nation's future hangs in the balance, when I wonder if the die hard "Country First" contingent would rejoice in the crumbling of America if it meant the destruction of President Barack Obama.


  1. You know, I was willing to argue about the possibility of authorial intent with the NY Post's cartoon (more to play devil's advocate than anything). But how this tool could look at the post card in question and not know about it's racist overtones is beyond me. I mean I'm about as "white" as they come, and I'm offended.

  2. I was at a conference yesterday at the University of S. Carolina titled "Archeology of the Recent African American Past."

    One of the papers was about a tiny town in Illinois named New Philadelphia. The town, designed by a black man, was interracial around the time of the civil war--and needless to say unpopular. Although the Land of Lincoln was fiercely anti-slavery it was hardly above anti-black violence.

    New Philadelphia was eventually starved out of existence when the railroad that came through central Illinois was purposely detoured in an arc around the town. This was done at enormous expense to the company. The RR went in an awkward ark around the town over much rougher terrain. Economically, the detour was a non-starter. There is no discernible business reason for the detour. The firm took a loss, rather than build the RR through the town.

    Years later after the town disappeared, the RR moved the tracks down where they should have gone in the first place.

    So when you ask whether some people wouldn't mind seeing the country fail just to see Obama fail. The answer is, of course they would. Scorched earth is nothing new.

  3. Ignorance is no defense. This is so clearly a case where he didn't think he'd get caught. He knew what he was doing, but, as you say, this is a case of disregard.

  4. Could it be that the mayor merely thought it was humor and that his friends would not be offended?

    Perhaps it is cultural history and/or experience to send these types of jokes to his "friends"

    At times it appears contradictory for some black folk to want "oneness" and at the same time expect non blacks to adjust their behavior (however crude, perhaps mildly) and put on their "black filter" when communicating/dealing with them.

    Love the site, keep up the good work!

  5. anonymous -

    you lost me. please explain.

  6. Yes, I am aware that there is a stereotype associating black people with watermelon, and I believe fried chicken and collards (?) as well. What I don't understand -- as a white person -- is just what is so offensive about that association. And when I try to get an answer from my white liberal friends, it is THEY who roll their eyes and look at me like I'm pulling their leg. Last week at work (I work in large government institution), there was controversy because the cafeteria (run entirely by black people) came out with a "Black History Month" menu one day that included...you guess.

    So someone please explain this nonsense to me about watermelon and fried chicken being offensive. Black "folk" like both, as do I. What gives?

  7. "What I don't understand -- as a white person -- is just what is so offensive about that association...
    Okay, for kicks and giggles I'll bite.

    Two things:

    1. The association between blacks and Southern regional cuisine can ONLY be funny if one understands its historical context. That is, it is only possible to "get" the joke by understanding that those foods and blacks are paired together in a stereotypical relationship. In other words, although the food is truly regional, the pairing in the public mind is between with blacks -- NOT all Southerners -- and fried chicken, etc. (Other stereotypes however, like being dimwitted and slow in speech, are applied to all Southerners.) So, as far as this dimwit Mayor is concerned, what's actually offensive is his denial.

    2. An pairing of low status groups to particular cuisines is something you see all over the world. It has been a classic way, as part of public discourse, of disciplining low status people thought to have undeserved high status through ridicule. It's one way to ridicule those thought obviously out of their league.

    This public pairing of blacks' undeserved status with Southern cuisine reaches its peak during the Reconstruction period. For example, in my adopted home state of S. Carolina, blacks were elected to state office, including both houses, in unprecedented and unmatched numbers during that time. For their part, the unrepentant racists of that day did what they still do now. They opted for racist backlash. In the arena of public discourse, especially editorial cartoons and post cards, traded liberally among whites they caricatured blacks who were able to attain some means. They held special disregard for black elected officials, drawing them as unintelligent coons and beasts. An virtually ubiquitous representation that accompanied this racist caricature was blacks' presumed voracious appetite for fried chicken, greens, and watermelon. The food became part of the imagery used to signal to anyone just how unfit for higher status, and certainly public office, blacks were.

    Just as in Pavlov's famous experiments with his dog, it's the pairing of the symbol (i.e., the bell) with the meaning (i.e., this meat is salavatingly good) that's important. To focus on the bell rather than the pairing of bell and meaning is to miss the point. Pavlov's bell had no inherent meaning. Their constant pairing created meaning and a reaction. For Pavlov, eventually the symbol could create the meaning -- and the desired response (salivation) -- on its own.

    This is why, in most respects, the author's intent is mostly irrelevant. Cartoons can only deliver meaning through pairing symbols with systems of meaning, systems that are usually pre-existing and easily accessed by the reader. So, pairing a black man with Southern cuisine can only produce the desired result (laughter) BECAUSE of the long-standing historical associations between the symbols and meaning (i.e., black incompetence, undeserved status). No other possible reading could produce humor/laughter.

    As for the staff serving the same food at a Black History Month celebration... The problem here isn't the food--never has been. The food wasn't the problem when Fuzzy Zoeller made his snarky remark about having to change the country club's menu to feature fried chicken and collards in order to accommodate Tiger Woods years ago. The point is that Fuzzy committed what I once heard described as an "act of rhetoric." He was using symbolic language to make it clear that he didn't think Woods belonged.

    The staff at your workplace, obviously, wasn't delivering the same meaning as Fuzzy Zoeller. Southern regional cuisine is a staple of African American diets for a variety of historical reasons. The fact that groups of people are often readily identifiable by cuisine is what makes food particularly powerful symbolism to put to use in delivering meaning. But again, don't mistake the symbol for the meaning. Fried chicken, collards, and watermelon aren't racist. They're food. They are also, however, symbols that can be used to deliver meaning. The most powerful symbols are usually the ones steeped in particular historical contexts. What they can come to mean is a function of a lot of things, not the least of which is who is using the symbols and for what purpose.

  8. Damn, Dave - I've read your comment three times - it is a better answer than anything I would have come up with in a million years.

  9. Thank you brother, though in fairness it's worth saying that I'm teaching an advertising and promotions class right now. So, representation and meaning are top-of-mind right now.


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