Back in early January, I wondered aloud if President Obama would be mocked with watermelon and chicken imagery, stuff from very old white racial framing. Well, we need not wonder any more. A quick google check of the Internet today came up with 850,000 hits on “Watermelon” and “Obama.” Many are about Mayor Grose of Los Alamitos, California, who recently sent out an email showing the White House front lawn planted with watermelons and captioned, “No Easter egg hunt this year.” The Chicago Sun Times shows it thus:
According to MSNBC
Grose has apologized and said he wasn’t aware of the racial stereotype that blacks like watermelon.
That is very hard to believe. Yet he did get the political message, and apparently will step down as head of the five-seat council.
During the 2008 election there were many mocking references to Senator Obama that made use of the watermelon imagery. The New York Times, for example, quoted one white worker in the South as mocking Obama thus: “He’s going to tear up the rose bushes and plant a watermelon patch. I just don’t think we’ll ever have a black president.”
The watermelon imagery doubtless goes back into at least the early 19th century, in connection with the southern rural reality in which most black Americans lived. Whites put this mocking imagery into the white racial frame of that era. In an article on racism and popular culture, sociologists Danielle Dirks and Jennifer Mueller have commented on how old and pervasive this “watermeloning” of black Americans has been in white popular culture:
Postcards depicting black Americans in various states of childishness and need have provided some of the most interesting snapshots of white thinking and imagination of the time. As if it were an aesthetic rule, adults and children could not be depicted in any print media without being coupled with watermelons.
They interpret this mocking thus:
Although the sale of real black human beings ended in 1865 with the official demise of the state-supported US slavery system, the consumption of blackness through popular culture ideas, images, and material goods marked an easy, if figurative, transition in the Postbellum South. From blackfaced caricatures found on postcards, children’s toys, and household items to Nineteenth century minstrelsy, these examples provide only a smattering of the racist iconography and ideology found throughout Western culture. As such, images of coons, pickaninnies, mammies, bucks, and Uncle Toms were born, to live out lives distorting the image of black Americans for centuries to come.
What’s with this extensive type of white-racist “joking” about President Obama and other Americans of color any way? Leslie Picca and I explore this in our work on Two Faced Racism. Let me summarize our arguments there:
One reason why white-racist joking is so prevalent is that it allows whites to minimize and downplay the significance of racist performances by themselves and/or others. Racist ideas, images, and gestures are exchanged and perpetuated while simultaneously they can be dismissed, if necessary, as not meant to be taken seriously. Under the guise of “just kidding,” white instigators and protagonists toss racist comments around with few or no apparent consequences for themselves or their immediate listeners. Indeed, much blatantly racist joking slips under the radar of whites’ active consciousness, or at least that is what many claim. A dissenting person who interrupts racist joking often has to answer questions such as: “What’s the matter with you?” “It’s only a joke.” “It isn’t doing anyone any harm.” “Don’t you have a sense of humor?” Instead of the joke teller being held accountable, the challenger often must defend her or his intervention.
Sigmund Freud did a serious analysis of racial joking as hiding aggressive feelings and thoughts. In his view, such jokes allow individual joke tellers to break societal taboos and thereby gain pleasure from expressing normally repressed feelings and views. In a civilized society, particular individuals use racist jokes to siphon off subconscious aggressive feelings that cannot otherwise be released.
However, this Freudian analysis misses the broader sociological reality that much conventional racist joking by whites involves an already shared framing of society and thus actually builds white group solidarity. Certainly, racist joking can operate to test the waters of a racial topic, but most racist joking and smiling performances and commentaries imbed or reinforce group views and solidify existing networks. Racial joking often adds fuel to the fire of aggression against its racialized targets–—for the joking individual and his (or, less often, her) group. Interactive racist joking often relieves tensions in a social setting and unites a group. Even in an apparently light-hearted joking context, the racialized “fun” of whites usually reveals hostile and deliberately hurtful sentiments that are typically part of a larger white white-racist framing. By making racist jokes and by insisting that they are only jokes, whites promote their acceptability, persistence, and harmful impact.
Ironically, this story of a white mayor who says he does not know about this racist stereotype of black Americans and watermelons was reported by MSNBC on the same day it reported the story about the 50 percent increase over the last few years in neo-Nazi’s and Klan-type groups.