Archive for Saturday, October 7, 2000

America has much to learn about racial sensitivity

October 7, 2000

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Maybe you've already heard about the racist potato.

If not, let me fill you in. It seems that in an effort to drum up tourism, the state of Rhode Island has dotted its landscape with 6-foot statues of Potato Head wearing various guises and going by various pun-filled names. "Edgar Allen Poe-tato" and things of that nature.

"Because if black people don't teach white people about the things that concern us, who will?"

And all was well in the smallest of the United States until a woman named Onna Moniz-John caught sight of "Tourist Tater" in the local paper. He's wearing a Hawaiian shirt, a hat, sunglasses, and has blackened skin. Kathy Szarko, the artist who created him, says she wasn't trying to offend anyone. The potato's skin was meant simply as an indication that he had been sunbathing. But for Moniz-John, Potato Head came across as less a tanned tourist than a racist reminder, an echo of the offensive images of African Americans with which our cultural history is riddled.

Moniz-John complained and state officials decided to take the statue down.

I may be wrong, but I suspect that at this point, many of you have rolled your eyes so far back you can see your own brains. Maybe you're muttering words like "silly," "hypersensitive" and "politically correct."

I might be doing the same thing, except that I just went online (www.visitrhodeisland.com/potato) and had a look at the spud in question.

Ouch, I said.

To make sure it wasn't just me, I printed up the picture and handed it to my wife without comment. Watched her face go slack, then angry. Small wonder.

"Tourist Tater" has black skin framing pink lips stretched around a cheesy grin. Give him a watermelon and the picture would be complete. And I wondered: How could Szarko not have realized this would be offensive? Frankly, it amazes me to think someone might not know that blackface makes black folks seethe.

Don't read that as an accusation. I don't doubt Szarko's benign intentions or the fact that she was caught unaware by this. I'm just trying to figure out how it could have happened for that matter, how the newspaper could not have known that a photograph of the statue would make somebody angry.

The answer, of course, is deceptively simple. People don't know what they haven't had a chance to learn.

I'm reminded of how we used to speak in terms of integration as opening doors of opportunity to black people. Truth is, it also opens doors of understanding to white ones. Or at least it might, if we weren't so busy pulling away from the ideal of learning to live together.

Nor is the pulling one-sided. African Americans seem largely disenchanted these days with promises of brotherhood.

I once met a Midwestern mayor who told me of his efforts to convene a meeting of blacks and whites in his town to discuss racial concerns. Neither side was eager to participate, but what surpriseed him most was the black response, which boiled down to: Been there, done that.

And so we have. But maybe we need to go back and do it again.

Because if black people don't teach white people about the things that concern us, who will? If all the white mainstream ever hears of us is complaint without context, it becomes easier for that mainstream to stop listening.

Yes, it's important to complain. But it's just as important maybe more so to spend some time at the water cooler, on the front porch, at the church, in the town meeting, reaching and teaching, sensitizing and educating in the moments before complaint becomes necessary. Just as important maybe more so that we learn to live together. And learn to learn from one another.

You'd hope we might someday reach a point where a white person would instinctively understand BEFOREHAND why a tanned tuber might give offense or a black person might not instinctively take offense. A point where we have evolved the ability to see the world through eyes other than our own.

As it is now, you say "potato" and I say regrettable reminder of blackface bigotry.

Which suggests to me that we've still got a long way to go.



Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

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