Watermelons, Shirts, and Accidental Racism

A sorority at a university in Alabama passed out some t-shirts. They had a party and wanted keepsakes, as one does. I don’t know from sorority life, but I imagine that happens often enough. Since the shirts would commemorate their special day rather than any old thing off the rack, they ordered up a custom printing. It appears that they submitted the design to the university for approval. On getting a firm no, they ordered the shirts anyway. Ordinarily, you might smile a bit at college kids sticking it to the establishment. You’d smile less on learning that the shirts bear a map of Alabama decorated with images of slaves picking cotton and a black caricature eating a watermelon. You can view the shirt at here.

The image of the black person inordinately fond of watermelons, and fried chicken for that matter, has a depressing history:

the stereotype that African Americans are excessively fond of watermelon emerged for a specific historical reason and served a specific political purpose. The trope came into full force when slaves won their emancipation during the Civil War. Free black people grew, ate, and sold watermelons, and in doing so made the fruit a symbol of their freedom. Southern whites, threatened by blacks’ newfound freedom, responded by making the fruit a symbol of black people’s perceived uncleanliness, laziness, childishness, and unwanted public presence. This racist trope then exploded in American popular culture, becoming so pervasive that its historical origin became obscure.

The Jim Crow Museum has more information on that explosion:

It seems almost silly to say that watermelons have been racialized, but that is exactly what happened in this culture. For much of this country’s history, postcards showing Black people comically eating watermelons were popular among White Americans. Many of these so-called “Coon cards” show Black people stealing watermelons, fighting over watermelons, even being transformed into watermelons. The Jim Crow Museum houses a 1930s parlor game called, “72 Picture Party Stunts.” One of the game’s cards instructs players to “Go through the motions of a colored boy eating watermelon. The card shows a dark Black boy, with bulging eyes and blood red lips, eating a watermelon almost as large as he is. This is racial stereotyping as family entertainment. The museum has dozens of three dimensional objects showing African Americans eating watermelons, including banks, ashtrays, toys, firecrackers, cookie jars, match holders, dolls, souvenirs, doorstops, lawn jockeys, and novelty objects. These objects not only show Blacks lustily eating watermelons but often portray African Americans in physically caricatured ways: hideous faces, over-sized bright red lips, darting eyes, and ragged clothing. The problem is not that African Americans are shown eating watermelons. Rather, the problem is that Blacks are portrayed as contented Coons, Toms, Mammies, and Picaninnies, with all their hopes, dreams, and fears sated by eating watermelons under the shade of great trees.

In the course of learning about this today, I came on the claim that one must either study white supremacy or have more than the usual number of decades under one’s belt to recognize the watermelon trope. Given we still see frequent recurrences, I have my doubts about that. But the argument raises an interesting question. Suppose that someone did come on the image innocently. To this person, it only shows a man eating a watermelon. It lacks the punch of a person engaged in violence, theft, or some obvious sin.

We must not have had a particularly observant innocent either, as one needn’t know the entire history of a trope in order to recognize a racial stereotype from context. But we have the hypothetical person we have. If this person buys the shirt, does the image remain racist? Does the person?

One wants to deny it. Most of us, I hope, try to extend some charity to others. We have all made honest mistakes. Nobody knows everything and muddling through with imperfect, incomplete understanding leaves everybody on the wrong foot now and then. We didn’t set out to mistreat anybody, but it happened anyway. We feel terrible, apologize, berate ourselves a bit, and move on.

We shouldn’t. Our intentions matter, but so do our actions. Even if we made an honest mistake, we still made it. What we may take as a small thing, and what we know or pretend we did without malice, can still hurt. Furthermore, Americans live in a deeply white supremacist culture. You don’t have to study up in some hilltop castle, with lightning striking the parapets, cackling like a Disney villain, to imbibe racist tropes. Just living in the culture will do the job, filling our minds with concepts about how “those” people behave and acceptable conduct toward them that can take a great deal of work to remedy. We naturally know that the same rules don’t apply to people like us, as we find it far easier to understand ourselves as individuals than people we learn to see as other. Undoing all that, if one can do it at all, takes more than a bland assertion that one had no idea. It took centuries to build the edifice of white power out of stolen land and lives. Why would we expect it to vanish with no more than a whim?

More goes into human interactions than one party’s intent. We understand that as a matter of course in almost every other situation. We may get caught up in our own feelings. Our anger, excitement, and all the rest can drown our our consideration for others. But when they do and we upset someone, say something we didn’t mean, or phrase something poorly, we own up and apologize. It may take us a while to work it out, but when we realize the situation we do our best to make amends. When others don’t do the same for us, we naturally think less of them. At the very least, we don’t pretend that they just meant well. We understand that they either meant whatever they did precisely as we received it or simply don’t care either way.

The sorority chose the shirt they did, presumably putting a fair bit of thought into it. One doesn’t order custom keepsake items at random. In doing so they acted out whatever intentions they genuinely had, but those intentions exist in a larger cultural space just the same as everything else we do. Though more Americans than we’d like to believe probably still skew closer to malice than innocence in such matters, meaning well would not excuse them. Whether they wanted it or not, they acted out the white part of a frequently violent drama centuries in the making. White skin means you don’t have to say you’re sorry. You get to define the terms by which others must understand you, rather than have them dictated. You even get to decide how and when others should take offense at your actions. In an entirely unanticipated turn of events, we cast ourselves as the innocents every chance we get.

We all get on the wrong side of these things now and then, unless we live very fortunate or very segregated lives. We can say we meant no harm, but words come easy. Actually meaning no harm asks more of us. I don’t get it right all the time; I don’t know anybody who does. But pretending that we only do harm when we act with depraved hearts accuses rather than excuses. By doing so we don’t aim for improvement. Instead we dismiss the experiences of others and the painful histories we share as trifling impediments to our self-esteem.

We can fall into racism by accident or inheritance. We choose to stay there.

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2 comments on “Watermelons, Shirts, and Accidental Racism

  1. Andy Hall says:

    My daughter is in a different sorority at a school in another state. The commemorative tee shirt thing is very common; large college towns have businesses that thrive entirely on providing customized clothing, banners, wall plaques, and other “Greek” gee-gaws to local fraternities and sororities.

    I can also tell you that kids today are astonishingly ignorant of some things, especially things that fall outside their experience in their own, narrowly-drawn worlds. Samford University is a private, Baptist institution in the Birmingham ‘burbs, so I suspect the sorority students there are yet more oblivious to things than normal, which is pretty bad to begin with.

    But they have to learn, one way or another. This debacle could easily have been avoided. Presumably the school nixed the shirt because of its imagery, but hopefully also someone sat down and explained to the sorority exactly WHY it was rejected. This sort of thing is one of the reasons student organizations have adult advisors, and should listen to them.

    At the end of the day, “we didn’t know” doesn’t absolve the exquisite stupidity shown in this case. Hopefully these young women, at least some of them, will be better for it.

    • I don’t mean to be too hard on ignorant kids; we’ve all been there. The business with the administration telling them not to get the shirt and their getting it anyway is a puzzler, and may always be to anybody not in the room at the time. I can imagine a situation where they got some form letter that didn’t give them any reason at all and just ignored it. I might do the same. But it’s also easy for me to imagine a bunch of white kids deciding that the image was either innocent fun or just not their problem to deal with. I knew a lot of kids like that growing up in Michigan back in the 80s and 90s.

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