By Carrie Tilton-Jones
Lisa Wade at Sociological Images recently wrote about the history of the use of watermelon as a symbol of how “simple” black folks are. Wade does a great job of showing that this is not an innocent stereotype — it was actively used to dehumanize black people and justify keeping them as slaves. The argument went: If a watermelon is all it takes to make black people happy, this indicates their suitability for slavery and un-suitability for citizenship. (Warning: the images on this page are pretty disturbing.)
Pretty horrifying, right? Well, at least we don’t do that anymore. Or so we’d like to think. Soon afterward, a reader wrote in to tell Wade about this:
Yeah, that’s real. That’s a candy package featuring a covered-up, dewy-eyed white princess advertising the vanilla flavor and a bedroom-eyed black princess — the only one in the Disney canon — in a strapless dress advertising watermelon. This packaging was produced by a Fortune 100 company in 2012. So much for this symbolism being a historical curiosity. Worse yet, notice how Princess Tiana’s bare shoulders and direct, sultry stare contrasts with the demure styling and shy smile of Sleeping Beauty. This calls to mind the racist stereotype of Jezebel, the sexually insatiable black woman, which was used to justify the rape of black women and even to deny that it was possible to rape a black woman.
I’ve been in rooms where marketing decisions were made. Even in small organizations, several people — from the big boss to the marketing staff to the graphic designer — got a look at any product that would see the light of day. I’m not sure which possibility is more disturbing: that no one among Disney’s highly educated and qualified staff objected to this, that someone did notice and didn’t feel safe objecting, or that someone did object and got shot down. And these are the more charitable options! The ugliest possibility is that someone with decision-making power thought this was funny — when a 10 second search on the Internet would have told them how horrifying it was.
Whatever actually happened inside the Magic Kingdom during this decision-making process, any of these possibilities strongly suggests that Disney needs to require that every person who came anywhere near the design or production of this incredibly racist packaging needs some cultural sensitivity training pronto. NOW.
Why is this a big deal? Well, imagine you’re the black mother of a black child, and you come across this candy at the grocery store. You’re angry and sad. You think about your enslaved ancestors and how images like this were used to rationalize their sub-human status and justify unspeakable violence toward them. And now one of the most beloved and successful companies in the world is using it to sell your child candy. What do you say to your child? How do you begin to express all this in the middle of Aisle 12? What a horrible moment for any of the millions of black mothers in this country! And how unnecessary — all it would have taken was one person at Disney saying, “Um, wait a minute, y’all …”
Are you furious yet? Because we are. So here’s what you can do:
If you see this at a local retailer, let the manager know you find it offensive and ask that it be removed from the shelves. Use this online form to write to Disney — tell them they need to apologize and should institute cultural sensitivity training to ensure that staff who make these kind of decisions act in keeping with Disney’s stated anti-discrimination policy and do not engage in this kind of offensive symbolism.
If your local chapter is mad about this, go protest at your local Disney store! Make a petition asking the company to pull the product and mandate cultural sensitivity training, and get people to sign it. Send the petition to Robert A. Iger, President and CEO, The Walt Disney Company, 500 South Buena Vista St, Burbank, CA, 91521.