Racism of the Absurd: Chia Pets & Fried Chicken

For all the talk of a post-racial America with the election, there’s a lot of news about the persistence of the most retrograde, even absurdly so, racist stereotypes.    Back in January, I wrote about the bakery here in New York that was producing (and selling at a brisk pace) “Drunken Negro” cookies.   These cookies featured distorted and caricatured features of President Obama in a truly bizarre racism that the baker tried to pass off as homage.   A few months ago, I might have said that this was an isolated incident, but not it looks as if this sort of racism of the absurd is becoming a trend.

Two recent news stories highlight this trend.  Again, here in New York, there are two fried chicken outlets that have recently changed their names to “Obama Fried Chicken.” Writing in today’s Chronicle of Higher Ed, John L. Jackson, Jr. correctly notes that:

“Both stores advertise themselves as serving halal food prepared in accordance with Islamic mandates, and some defenders would like to use that fact as a way to let the owners off the hook. These are people of color, the argument goes, serving black communities and trying to express a kind of flat-footed solidarity with their customers. They might have miscalculated. heir strategy might backfire by offending the sensibilities of certain segments of their local communities, but they definitely can’t be equated with KKK-esque attempts to purposefully lampoon Obama by deploying age-old tropes of racial savagery and difference. The latter may be true, but that doesn’t satisfy many residents in those neighborhoods, some of whom have already uploaded their own YouTubed video responses to these new stores.”

Jackson goes on to explain that in one of those neighborhood-created created video responses to these stores, the videographer is “laughing about the utter absurdity of the store’s name.” Jackson concludes by calling this development “crazy.”

My current vote for winner of most absurd expression of racism, is the “Chia Obama” recently pulled from the shelves of Walgreens’ stores in Tampa and Chicago.  Walgreens spokesperson Robert Elfinger said, in a telephone interview:

“We got some complaints from people that they thought it was racist.”

Really?  Ya, think?

Part of what is happening with the rise in what I’m calling the racism of the absurd is how tone deaf people are about the ways that language and images involving race and racism reverberate in the broader culture.   The mere fact of an African American president of the U.S. provides an opportunity for people – of a variety of skin colors and racial/ethnic identities – to have discussions that otherwise might remain in the backstage of private conversation erupt into the frontstage (for more on this, see this post and read, Picca and Feagin, 2008).    Thus, what might have seemed funny in a private conversation, suddenly appears absurdly racist in the frontstage.