Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Pop Racism

The picaninny was the dominant racial caricature of Black children for most of this country's history. They were "child coons," miniature versions of Stepin Fetchit. Picaninnies had bulging eyes, unkempt hair, red lips, and wide mouths into which they stuffed huge slices of watermelon. They were themselves tasty morsels for alligators. They were routinely shown on postcards, posters, and other ephemera being chased or eaten. Picaninnies were portrayed as nameless, shiftless natural buffoons running from alligators and toward fried chicken.

My good friend was wandering through a Target store when he found a soda can with a picture of a picaninny on its side. The can was, not surprisingly, attempting to sell a watermelon flavored drink, making the already flagrant racism used to hawk this product that much more transparent. As a way of pre-empting charges of bigotry, however, the company which makes the soda decided to include a picture of a white child enjoying the same fruit on the other side of the can. As is evident from the scores of YouTube posts on this topic, racists and those who lack the most elementary critical thinking skills walked right into the trap:

What's the big deal when there's a white kid on the can also?

There's also a white girl on some of the cans of Watermelon soda. People like you would find a way to throw racism into the mix if there was "only" a white girl on these cans by claiming it's racist that they don't have any black girls on the cans. Either way you're just looking to start a one sided racial dispute. Do you refuse to buy Aunt Jemima products just because a black woman's face is on the box? Should we attack Paul Newman because a white man's face is on salad dressing bottles?

seriously? welcome to our hypersensitive politically correct world.

there's a white kid on the other side of the can, so i don't know how it's racist. black people just like to cry about anything. WAHHHH there's a black face on a can of soda WAHHHH.

lol n*****s are always crying over shit get a life f**s

To these specific geniuses and the thousands like them who put up posts like this (and since they seem to lack the capacity for basic discernment, let me make it clear - when I call you "geniuses", I am being facetious), I would like to posit a hypothetical scenario:

You walk into a convenience store and see a bottle of water. On one side of the label there is a picture of a swastika; at the other end of the label you see a number '8' on its side.

It is natural for the hypothetical "you" to assume that this soda can is promoting Naziism on its label, since in its Western context the swastika has only been prominently associated with the anti-Semitic policies of the Third Reich. Yet when you bring this can to the public's attention, the manufacturers point out that the squiggles are each symbols meant to represent eternity, with the swastika being taken from Buddhist theology and the '8' on its side being the 'infinity' symbol preferred by mathematicians.

Those with less advanced powers of deduction (to say nothing of those who glory in racism, understand that overt prejudice has been stigmatized, and thus revel in watching others pull a fast one on the minority groups they hate) immediately assume that the matter is resolved - it wasn't racist, it was innocent, and the proof lies in the fact that the harmless symbol which appears on the other side of the product seems to put the offensive one in a more innocuous context. Yet there are two major flaws with this line of thinking:

1) It assumes the absence of any socio-political background behind certain images. The image of the swastika isn't associated in Western cultures with Buddhism, but rather with Naziism; the picanniny isn't thought of in this country as being just an innocent picture of black children, but instead as being a direct appeal to a rather degrading racial stereotype. While those with less than savory motives may profess innocence to being aware of these facts, the reality is that in a capitalist economy, people are constantly selling products by appealing to a shared foundation of cultural, historical, and social knowledge which they then attempt to use in such a way as to hawk their product. They select the images they use very carefully (as anyone who has worked in a marketing department can attest), since three-fourths of successful business lies in effective advertisement and self-promotion (the other quarter being having a decent product). To argue that the company who made this soda wasn't aware of the way that image would be interpreted is like arguing that the hypothetical water bottle company didn't know what a swastika would mean to most Americans - it's ridiculous, and those who claim otherwise are being disingenuous.

2) If their intention had been to simply use a picture of a black child and white child, why not select an unoffensive image of each one? Surely there are other drawings of black children that do not conform to the specific visuals of the picanniny. Why select an image that so clearly plays to racist stereootypes when you could just draw an unoffensive one using the most basic computer software? The picanniny isn't just a random picture of a black child, it is one that has a very specific history, all of it incredibly degrading to the African American people. If their intent was truly to just put a black child on one side of the soda can and a white child on the other, then why did they choose to use the picanniny?

Of course, I am under no illusions that I will be able to convince the doctrinaine members of the opposing side about the error of their ways. As the 1896 Democratic presidential candidate once astutely observed, "The mind convinces itself of what the heart wants to believe is true." The people who believe that the use of a picanniny is acceptable on a soda can because a white child is on the other side are likely so mentally and spiritually corrupted by their own bigotry that I would have more success talking to a dining room table than I would one of them (and yes, I am cribbing from Barney Frank). Yet I feel the need to make a point out the full ludicrousness of their arguments, so at the very least those who deicde to watch the link I post below won't be inclined to fall prey to their way of thinking.

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