9/1/03

Get rid of that watermelon!


Part 1:

When I was a youngster I used to collect Confederate money, posters and photographs with caricatures of blacks, and "No blacks allowed signs." I loved the money because it was a reminder of how far the sorry Confederacy had fallen. I had one poster of a dark-skinned black boy munching on a watermelon. I would look at that small poster and wonder, "What in the world is wrong with anyone wanting to eat watermelon?" Yes, white people, I'm talking to you. Your parents, grandparents, and other ancestors who thought making fun of blacks for eating watermelon were crazy!

Even people who say that nothing has changed in race relations must acknowledge that the many stereotypes of blacks are no longer prevalent. But then, there are also some ready to remind us of days-gone-by by debunking stuff that doesn't need to be debunked today.

According to the Washington Post:
The sound you just heard was yet another racial stereotype going kersplat!
Some Post staff members came across a survey about ethnic preferences for watermelon. The Post notes:
"Asians and Asian Americans top the list of watermelon lovers, according to the National Watermelon Promotion Board's latest survey of more than 2,800 consumers, followed by Hispanics, non-Latin whites and, finally, blacks.
"Overall, nearly eight in 10 Asians -- 78 percent -- had bought a watermelon in the previous year, compared with 76 percent of all Latinos, 67 percent of all non-Latin whites and 65 percent of African Americans, the survey showed."

I checked the organization's Web site, but didn't come across the newest survey. But in a previous survey, people were asked, "Have you purchased any watermelon over past year?"

Two observations about this watermelon survey:

1) Is a kersplat about watermelon eating newsworthy? And do others who sell fruits and vegetables conduct surveys based on ethnic eating preferences?

If I ever write a book about race relations, the title of it will be, "Get rid of that gorilla." Back in about 1990, one really sensitive soul (at either the Boston Globe or Herald) saw a stereotype with The Gorilla, the mascot of the NBA's Phoenix Suns, running around the court and dunking a basketball. The writer then said: If the NBA really wants to help minorities, it would get rid of that gorilla. It was said in all seriousness, at the end of a serious column about the lack of minority pro coaches. I had seen that mascot running around and acting a fool and never thought, "They're trying to make fun of black people!"

That's not to say that everyone is pleased with The Gorilla. He was ejected from a game after "borrowing" Pat Riley's suit coat, tie and hair gel.

NBA journeyman Oliver Miller filed a complaint after The Gorilla waddled around the court wearing a jersey with Miller's number on it. Miller was also upset because his family was at the game. That hadn't been the first time someone made fun of his weight--in college, the crazies at Duke University tossed Twinkies on the court when he was shooting free throws. When he was first drafted in 1992, he weighed 270 pounds. He is now kicking around in minor basketball leagues, still struggling to keep his weight under 375 pounds (he is now listed at 350).

Miller's lawyer, Jeff Blakely, filed suit, saying, "For an obese, black ugly ape to portray a professional African-American basketball player was very offensive." On another occasion, the lawyer said: "We were very disappointed with the portrayal of Oliver as a fat, ugly, black ape."

I suppose some might still think there was racism, since The Gorilla mocking Riley had on a suit and tie but a jersey when he was making fun of Miller. But then, that is how each was dressed in games...

2) I'm suspicious of any self-reporting surveys when it comes to stereotypes. There is great concern in black America about stereotypes. A lot of it, rightfully so, goes back to the slavery and Jim Crow. If you don't believe me, just call in to a black radio show or mention a stereotype about blacks in a black discussion group. There is concern that blacks are portrayed as criminals in movies. That blacks are portrayed as being AIDS carriers. That blacks are said to be oversexed. That blacks are athletes, not scholars. The fight against stereotypes seems to be a number one priority for some. It isn't just the rabble-rousers who are concerned.

The stereoypes of yesteryear now lead people to go on an endless search for stereotypes today (as John McWhorter notes very well in a chapter of his latest book, Authentically Black).

Black people who are sensitive to the stereotype of blacks allegedly being super watermelon eaters probably won't give truthful answers to someone asking if they had bought a watermelon in the last year. At least, not before getting a long explanation about why someone wants to know about their watermelon purchasing habits.

Was the survey conducted over the phone? I can just imagine someone like Jesse Jackson getting a call at home: "Mr. Jackson, we'd like to ask you a few questions about watermelons." He'd probably hang up, thinking it was a crank caller. If not a phone survey, then were black people coming out of supermarkets asked about their watermelon eating habits?

There could be an example of what Claude Steele has called "stereotype threat." According to some tests he has done, black students supposedly score lower on tests when they are told that their race will be recorded. It could be that black people feel their race is being singled out when someone is asking them about watermelons, and will lie.

The concern with stereotypes can explain various websites and organizatins that have been created just to fight stereotypes. My favorite one is www.Yaaams.org (Young African Americans against media stereotypes). Of course blacks supposedly love Yams a lot, so I suppose there needs to be anti-Yams group, too.

Some guy who makes a living or picks up extra money dressed in a gorilla suit is in no position to be poking fun at other people. And the NBA players don't seem to be offended by him. On the same page with the Riley costume, there's a photo of The Gorilla teaching former NBA stars Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan how to moonwalk. Those athletes were just having fun with The Gorilla and probably didn't think about it making fun of them or that the Gorilla needed to be gotten rid of--and why didn't Michael Jackson file a complaint?

Some seem to be more interested in knocking down stereotypes than in knocking down actual problems.

I'm still not sure why I should avoid eating something I enjoy because of a campaign waged by a dead Confederate or racist from the 19th century.


"The Gorilla" got ejected after dressing like Pat Riley, a white basketball coach


"The Gorilla" got sued after he dressed up as Oliver Miller, an overweight black basketball player

Part 2

Learning to Live with Stereotypes

A few weeks ago I hosted a major conference on urban education. One thing I loved about the event: audience participation. I've come to expect this whenever the audience is at least 30 percent black. When the issue directly impacts blacks, I'm not surprised that blacks at a discussion show their feelings. As one colleague told me after the conference, my events have the type of energy that makes it seem that people are ready to rush the stage. Yeah, that's the way I like my events. Just short of a riot, yet informative...

* * *

Disclaimer: Stereotypes about groups are usually inaccurate. Some are based on racism. Others are based on history told by the victors. Some are also based on ignorance. If discussing and evaluating stereotypes may bother you, you might want to find something else to do during the rest of this post.

* * *

As I may have previously mentioned on this blog, I lived over in Asia for several years. If you can believe the travel guides, then when someone visits the home of someone Korean and noisily eats the food served to them, they are showing their Korean hosts that they are enjoying their food. That is one thing I love about Koreans: their eating habits. Really fantastic. You can slurp your food or make other noises while eating and not feel like a barbarian. It is fun to make a lot of noise while eating with Koreans, just to see if any of my fellow diners will be surprised. They may be thinking to themselves, "Gee, I didn't realize Americans were such noisy eaters! Great!"

Also, what is really cool is that your hosts won't think you're a pig for eating half the food they have. Instead, you are showing that you appreciate what they have cooked for you and that you believe the mother who cooked the food is the best cook in the world. Can it get any better than that? If you eat at a good Korean restaurant, they will often serve several side dishes and will give you refills--but don't be a pig about it at a restaurant.

I've eaten lunch with several Koreans working at think tanks in town, had a few Koreans in the area over to my home. They were all nosily eating without worrying about the Americans around them (that is, the Koreans who haven't been told to be careful about the way they eat when they're in America and around Americans). I was wondering--should I politely tell them that Americans might think they are uncivilized? Or should I conclude that it is the Americans who are being too uptight? Perhaps both are true. Or perhaps there is nothing to conclude.

* * *

Another stereotype--when you attend a meeting that is predominately black eventually you will start to feel like you are in church (even when you're not in church). I've noticed this for quite a while in meetings where everyone or almost everyone is black. Blacks do seem, in the minority, to try to control emotions, to be "professional" when whites are around. Leonard Jeffires, who either popularized or described in his analysis blacks as the "sun people" and whites as the "ice people," might agree with me: It gets cold in the room when whites are around.

If a speaker is saying something interesting you can expect a lot "uh-huh, that's right" from blacks. After Gore and Bradley had their debate in Harlem, some whites I debate with on a discussion board said they were disgusted by the audience. I thought the audience was great. The only thing that could have topped it: The audience being armed--with rotten tomatoes.

* * *

In December 2000 I was at a Heritage Foundation discussion about school choice. Clint Bolick and Howard Fuller were on the first panel. If you don't know anything about Bolick, I would recommend that you read one of his books (Affirmative Action Fraud, Transformation, Tyranny of the Majority) or check his institution's Web site. He is a bleeding-heart libertarian. Before I ever saw a picture of him, I was sure he was some rough black guy like Thomas Sowell. On the one hand, Bolick is very much against affirmative action, but he has also been the lawyer crafting the legal strategy for school choice and has fought to help blacks get around government-imposed restrictions that harm economic liberty. I wish I had known about his organization a few years ago, I may have even gone to law school to work for it.

Fuller is the founder of BAEO (Black Alliance for Education Options). After the first time I met him, I asked what I could do to help the organization. It isn't easy to peg Fuller's politics. I've heard that he was a radical in the 1960s who ran off to Africa to fight against apartheid. Apparently he was using an African name for a while. I've seen him give a couple of speeches now and every time he shows up to point out to others the point they're missing. At Heritage, he made one point (among others) clear--school choice will never gain legitimacy among blacks as long as the leaders of the movement are (1) Republicans (2) whites. The whites on the panel doubted that, but there were several "uh-huh, that's right" around the room. Shouldn't be that way, he said, but that is the reality. And until Republicans and whites realize that, they should give up having school choice ballot initiatives in states that have large black populations. No matter what national polls among blacks say, 90 percent of blacks will come out against school choice.

During the discussion there was a black man in the front row who kept doing the "uh-huh, that's right" when he agreed with a speaker, as well as "what? That's crazy!" when he disagreed. It was probably disconcerting for some of the speakers, to have a guy sitting in the front row constantly muttering his agreement or disagreement. Turned out that his wife was one of the parents who spoke on the second panel about getting their children into private schools with vouchers. I could see that the guy was looking over at me, expecting me to join in with him. Everyone else in the front rows was white. He had been griping earlier, under his breath, that most of the speakers didn't know what they were talking about. He was completely quiet, however, while his wife spoke, sitting with his head bowed as his wife talked about struggling to get their kids out of the public schools (and I think that included the Malcolm X Academy). Was I hesitating to join in with him because I didn't really agree with him or because I didn't want to look in public like one of those black people who shouts at the TV or the movie screen?

* * *

There were really some moving stories from the parents. A white woman sitting in the front row showed off her compassionate conservatism--she was crying as she listened to the stories of parents struggling to get their children into better schools. Or she may have been surprised to hear such moving stories from people who obviously weren't intellectuals or policymakers.

These days when I go to panel discussions or parties I find myself looking around at the room, studying the people as much as I listen to the speakers. I may still be going through reverse culture shock. I'm noticing more often the way blacks act when whites are around and when there are no or few whites around. It isn't the same. People I know will change the way they talk and act when whites are around. (Of course many don't.) When the setting is predominately black, the atmosphere changes. I'm sure if I wrote this in a newspaper that blacks would deny it and whites would think I was an extremist. I wonder if Koreans are the same way. I remember reading in the Korea Times or Herald a few years an editorial or news article in which one Korean told another Korean to stop acting foolish because there were foreigners around. Maybe one day we'll reach the dream of a color-blind society. Could be a dream world, could be a bland world.

* * *

When I was in college I attended numerous events hosted by the Nieman Fellows at Harvard. Every year journalists are invited to Harvard via the Nieman program for a year to research. As we were talking the food was brought out. Oh, man--the main cooked food was fried chicken and the main dessert was watermelon. Okay, so white people will think fine, you're hungry, go ahead and eat. But there have been numerous stereotypes about black people and food. There are some blacks who will avoid eating fried chicken and watermelon when whites are around. Just as there are some blacks who will avoid playing basketball because of the stereotype of blacks being great athletes (probably about 3/4s of NBA players are black, although many more can't play at all). There are some blacks who will avoid rap music because of the stereotype of so many young blacks being rappers. Just saying what I've observed and heard.

That day at the Nieman Fellows I stood there talking with the guests, hosts, my friends. And very hungry while doing so. There was no way I was going to eat. A friend of mine, a Jewish woman who worked on the school paper with me, asked me why I wasn't eating. I said something like, Hey, come on, I'm not going to eat that stuff. She asked--Why not?

Then I started talking about the stereotypes, and about feeling uncomfortable. Her response--and I'll never forget it--"Don't be such a fucking asshole! If you want to eat the Goddamn food, then eat. You're dumb if you're not going to eat some good food because of what someone may think." In a movie she would have been munching on chicken she was holding with one hand while getting ready to eat some watermelon in the other hand.

I ate, but I still felt uncomfortable. I could remember those times when I was even younger. My brothers and I didn't want to be the one to carry the watermelon from the grocery store. We'd make jokes about it. One beautiful thing about being in Korea is that native Koreans have no idea about stereotypes of blacks. I'm sure that Korean-Americans will spread the word at some point. At times, ignorance can be bliss..

Talking to a friend of mine who has lived overseas I mentioned to him one big difference after traveling--Short of anyone calling me a rapist or murderer, I don't care about what anyone thinks about me. He said he had a similar feeling. I then asked, bluntly, and probably to his surprise--Do you eat watermelon when white people are around? He thought about it, then said no, he still couldn't do that. The guy is Harvard-educated, lives on Wall Street, lived in what appeared to be a very expensive high-rise in Hong Kong. Before he moved to Wall Street we were at Fresh Fields one day. A white guy walked by, lugging two watermelons, a watermelon on each shoulder.

* * *

Some people embrace the stereotypes, as a defense mechanism. Like blacks who call themselves and other blacks "Nigga." Gays who refer to their group as "queer." Supposedly one rationale for such tactics is to take the sting out of the insult.

I've never been able to adopt that tactic. I figure these days that it is better to enjoy the things I like without worrying about what others may or may not be thinking. I'm not going to put on Black Face in order to make a point to someone I don't know or respect.

Koreans constantly apologize about the smell of kimchi. I'm still not a fan of most kimchi (although I love to eat beck kimchi, especially when I'm reading or writing). I've never been bothered by the smell of Korean food, even the stuff I'll only eat when there is nothing else. Oh, the irony! I used to avoid food I like, but I'll now eat food I don't like.

I could go negative on Koreans who apologize about eating Kimchi Chigeh or Dwenjang Chigeh--Don't be such a fucking asshole! If you want to eat the Goddamn food, then eat. You're dumb if you're not going to eat some good food because of what someone may think.

CJL