Spud left in sun goes bad
September 30, 2000 12:30 PM   Subscribe

Spud left in sun goes bad... when Rhode Island Tourism did its version of the faddish "funny statues on parade" promotion (q.v. New York, imitating Chicago, imitating Zurich), they chose Giant Mr. Potato Head statues dressed in a variety of outlandish themed costumes. One of them seems to have sparked a racist imagery controversy ... you be the judge. (See them all at the official site.)
posted by dhartung (18 comments total)
Ok...I can understand blatant racist stereotypes but where's the problem with this picture? To me it looks like a potato that's been out in the sun too long either with a deep tan or dark sunburn.

I wouldn't have even thought this could be regarded as racist unless someone point it out.

posted by bkdelong at 1:25 PM on September 30, 2000

Adam covered this pretty well. It might be reading too much into it, but it does resemble old racist imagery. Whether or not most people can see the resemblance or even think of the resemblance is certainly up for debate. But it is blackface, is it not?
posted by mathowie at 2:05 PM on September 30, 2000

I see your point, but I think we'd have to ask the artist to find out whether it was blackface or again, attempts to make it looked like a dark, tanned tourist (to go with the beach hat and hawaiian shirt look).
posted by bkdelong at 2:48 PM on September 30, 2000

I thought it might be overblown, too, from reading the articles. But then I had to know for myself, so I went looking for the photograph ... and my jaw dropped.

No, I don't think it was intended at all to be racist. But the resemblance to Sambo & blackface imagery is unmistakeable. I'd be the first to argue for an intelligent acceptance of both the Sambo story and the vaudeville talent in blackface performers, but they just can't be used today. I don't think the Confederate flag is per se racist, either, but it shouldn't be used as the official flag of a statehouse for a multiracial people. Nor should this be an officially sanctioned, even promoted, civic statuary. It's just too easily associated with the stereotypes.

How this got past the presumed review process is beyond me.

BK, nobody is saying it was intended as racist. It's just woefully misguided.

Why black? Why not don't-touch-me red?
posted by dhartung at 3:07 PM on September 30, 2000

new orleans has fish on parade. Icythosist bastards.
posted by capt.crackpipe at 3:42 PM on September 30, 2000

Pack your kids, and cameras, because you won't want to miss all the fun-filled photo opportunities you'll have when you and your family arrive here. You can't miss Rhode Island's native son, MR. POTATO HEAD®. Why? Because in his fun-loving spirit, we've "planted" dozens of 6-foot tall MR. POTATO HEAD® statues all over our scenic landscape.

Only natural that the state of Rhode Island should associate itself with its "native son", a "fun-loving" toy brought to you by "Rhode-Island-based" Hasbro® Inc....right?

Um, maybe not.

Let's talk about an uglier kind of racism, a kind the corporate press apparently regards as less newsworthy:

1) Hasbro® has taken full advantage of NAFTA, firing its Rhode Island workforce and moving to Mexico, where it operates maquiladoras under appalling conditions. According to Public Citizen, Hasbro® has acquired 1,531 NAFTA-TAA Certifications as of August 3, 2000. For more info see this fact sheet from Corporate Watch, and this article from the Nation.

**Consistent with the economically racist and sexist status quo, Hasbro®'s sweatshop workers are most of them women and all of them non-"white".

2) According to Greenpeace, Hasbro® has the worst PVC record among the major toy companies (production and disposal of PVC are a significant source of dioxin emmisions; dioxin is a serious human carcinogen).

**Consistent with the environmentally racist status quo, emmision of dioxin and other toxic substances by Hasbro® has a disproportionate impact on non-"white" peoples -- both in the US and in the Global South.

I don't live in Rhode Island, but if I did, I certainly wouldn't want my state to associate itself with a company that has contributed to the impoverishment of Mexicans under NAFTA; a company that continues to produce PVC-containing toys despite evidence of carcinogenicity; a racist company that obstructs the movement for environmental and economic justice by locating its anti-worker, anti-environment factories away from the gaze of the priviledged -- and largely "white" -- consumer.

The corporate press would have us believe that placing moral integrity before tourist income is too much to expect in this age of neoliberalism. If they are right, then so much the worse for the age of neoliberalism -- Ya Basta!
posted by johnb at 4:08 PM on September 30, 2000

I think we should all make useless comments over something that shouldn't even be happening.
posted by Satapher at 5:04 PM on September 30, 2000

johnb: "The corporate press would have us believe that placing moral integrity before tourist income is too much to expect in this age of neoliberalism."

Yet another reason to Vote Nader! ;)
posted by bkdelong at 6:26 PM on September 30, 2000

I think we'd have to ask the artist to find out whether it was blackface or again, attempts to make it looked like a dark, tanned tourist

The artist has said she was only trying to create a 'tanned potato' look -- but that's beside the point. Racism isn't (necessarily) located in intentions but in the effects of individual and collective action or inaction. In this case, the incidental resemblance of the potato statue to 19th century racist imagery connects it to the devastating effects of such stereotyped characters upon Black people & other people of color (and to a lesser extent upon society in general -- racism hurts everybody folks.)
posted by sudama at 9:41 PM on September 30, 2000

"Consistent with the economically racist and sexist status quo, Hasbro®'s sweatshop workers are most of them women and all of them non-'white'."

Well of course they're all non-"white," the factory's in Mexico! Duh. As for them all being women: men can probably get better jobs. This is, from an American viewpoint, a sad reflection on the state of Mexican sexual equality, but I don't think you can reasonably hold Hasbro responsible for failing to liberate Mexican women in one fell swoop.

Let's apply Economics 101, shall we? Low wages are a sign of an underutilized labor pool -- i.e., there are way more workers than suitable jobs. As long as your neighbor needs your job as much as you do, you take what you're paid because, if you don't, he'll be happy to have your job. (In fact he might even be more desperate than you, and therefore willing to accept an even lower wage. So you hold onto that job for all you're worth.) Wages naturally increase when demand for labor rises to meet the supply. Therefore, the solution is to convince more American companies to tap into Mexico's cheap labor, not by boycotting the ones that do.

Yeah, some of the factories are going to be seething pits of inhumanity. But it's even more inhumane not to give these people the chance to pull themselves up out of poverty by their own bootstraps. That's exactly what you do when you insist that companies opening up shop in third-world countries provide first-world working conditions and wages. If these companies wanted to do that, they'd just open up another factory in the United States, now wouldn't they? And what good would that do the poverty-stricken Mexicans? I think your average poverty-stricken Mexcan would tell you that a crappy job is still an improvement over no job at all.

Capitalism ain't pretty, but unfortunately it's the only economic system that's been proven to actually increase wealth and raise standards of living. (Inequally, to be sure, but even the slow progress of the American poor is better than the complete lack of progress you see in Communist Russia or still in Cuba.) We in the States, having been through this entire industrialization thing some time ago, know all the pitfalls, and there's nothing wrong with trying to help other countries avoid some of the traps, but let's try not to sabotage the effort before it even really begins, m'kay? If a thousand American companies open factories in Mexico, workers will gain the leverage to demand better conditions, they'll be able to organize effectively, they'll get labor laws passed. The only reasonable goal is to get a country's economy to that tipping point, where the labor of the worker is in demand, as quickly as possible. Placing barriers in the path of every American company that dares to move some of their operations south of the border retards, rather than accelerates, the process.

Let the Mexican workers and their government worry about working conditions in their own country. I'd say they're far better judges of what's best for themselves than we are.

posted by kindall at 10:07 PM on September 30, 2000

[Warning: this post does not mention MR POTATO HEAD® --ed.]

Isn't it amusing how seemingly every few days a rabid enthusiast for "free trade", fresh from passing his first economics exam, enters the fray to write a long post in which the anti-corporate movement is "exposed" as a protectionistic impediment to third world development? Take this Kindall fellow. Clearly the corporate PR firms have trained him well in the art of confusion; so well, in fact, that in response to an attack on corporate protectionism, he launches into a defense of free trade! Can't get more confused than that.

Notice, Kindall, that in my post I didn't even mention 'free trade'. That's because free trade doesn't exist and probably never will. Under the present political system at least. And why not? because corporations don't want free trade, and they effectively own politics in America. Every year politicians give away hundreds of billions of our tax dollars in corporate welfare, and they're not going to stop any time soon, given the structure of the political system and the mass media. If corporations had wanted free trade, then the US would long ago have unilaterally eliminated all trade barriers and immigration restrictions, would have stayed far away from the WTO, and would have withdrawn support from the World Bank and IMF -- just as the Libertarian Party advises in its platform. In fact, every major third party in America, on both the right and left, has advocated abolishing these global bureaucracies -- including the libertarians, constitution party, reform party, natural law, greens, etc etc; (gee, I wonder why they still exist then? might it have something to do with the Republicrats' campaign "donors"...? ;)

In any case, a utopian world of "free trade" -- with no restrictions on immigration, no bailouts etc -- is simply not reality, and therefore not even remotely relevant to what I was talking about above. Now there's nothing wrong with a utopian vision for society -- indeed, I've got my own, and we can debate your utopia versus mine at length at some point. But for purposes of this discussion, let's stick to reality -- by which I mean the so-called "Washington Consensus" -- i.e., neoliberalism as embodied in particular global institutions like the WTO, and particular trade agreements like NAFTA, GATT etc. M'kay?

So then the question becomes: do these entities really help to alleviate third world poverty, or do they in fact exacerbate poverty? do they contribute to genuine development, or rather contribute to reversing it? Would people be better off if the money devoted to these institutions were redirected to other organizations, say the UNDP (or Oxfam for that matter)?

Let's take NAFTA, since that's what I was talking about in the Hasbro post. It's got "free trade" in its name so it must be about free trade, right? Wrong. Sure, certain corporate-friendly aspects of free trade have been incorporated. But it would be more accurate to say that NAFTA fits the neoliberal pattern, which has consisted of:

- elimination of environmental and safety regulations
- drastic, across-the-board reductions in corporate taxes
- privatization of essential social services such as education, health care, and water provision.
- give-aways of hundreds of billions of dollars in corporate welfare to transnations.
- capital mobility without labor mobility
- imposition of protectionistic intellectual property regulations on developing countries, aimed at protecting corporate profits while retarding genuine development

And so on. Under such conditions there is simply no way Mexico is going reduce poverty. This is Economics 101. But let's put theory aside and look at the empirical data. According to this useful summary of the impact of NAFTA over five years,

"Mexican Wages Plummet Since NAFTA -- NAFTA was supposed to lift living standards in Mexico so that Mexican citizens could develop into a consumer society, thus creating a relationship between two mature trading partners. Yet the earnings of Mexicans have declined precipitously since NAFTA's enactment: In 1997, 7,771,607 Mexicans were documented as earning less than Mexico's legal minimum wage of $3.40 a day, 20% more than in 1993.(87) Among Mexico's working class, salaries at the end of 1997 had fallen to 60% of their 1994 value.

Mexico's level of development has regressed under NAFTA -- Poverty is greater, the middle class is smaller, wages are lower and maquiladora employment offering sub-living wage jobs and diminishing the quality of life along the border has burgeoned. While things have gotten easier under NAFTA for foreign investors seeking to exploit the low-wage export processing zones, the vast majority of small to medium-sized Mexican firms have suffered from financial, capital and administrative problems. Indeed, when asked, 67% of Mexicans say that Mexico has had little or no success with NAFTA."

Of course, the results are the same in other places where the neoliberal approach has been applied. In the case of capital market liberalization, as Joseph Stiglitz (former Chief Economist at the World Bank) points out:

"There never was economic evidence in favor of capital market liberalization. There still isn't. It increases risk and doesn't increase growth. You'd think [defenders of liberalization] would say to me by now, 'You haven't read these 10 studies,' but they haven't, because there's not even one. There isn't the intellectual basis that you would have thought required for a major change in international rules. It was all based on ideology."

Likewise for the rest of the "Washington Consensus". So why is it so popular among policians? Um, maybe because of its efficacy in increasing corporate profits...? Naw, couldn't be.

Another problem I have with your "response", Kindall, is that I can't figure out who you're responding to. For example, you say

But it's even more inhumane not to give these people the chance to pull themselves up out of poverty by their own bootstraps. That's exactly what you do when you insist that companies opening up shop in third-world countries provide first-world working conditions and wages.

I "insisted" no such thing. Next time, read the post before responding, m'kay?

Look, Smith's Neoclassical Fantasy World is well and good, but what we need to talk about is Reality. And the reality is that (a) corporations own the political process in America; (b) corporations don't want free trade, they want trade agreements that protect their (short term) interests; and (c) corporations nonetheless spent hundreds of millions of dollars spinning NAFTA as a win-win "free trade" deal -- when in fact, it's an win-lose protectionist deal, where the vast majority of people lose. (as well as the environment, of course, but that's another post)

Let the Mexican workers and their government worry about working conditions in their own country. I'd say they're far better judges of what's best for themselves than we are.

That's precisely the problem. NAFTA undermines national sovereignty by tranferring power to an undemocratic, nontransparent, corporate-controlled bureaucracy, preventing the Mexican people from democratically determining their own local labor and environmental regulations.

You should really consider reading the text of NAFTA. It's very educational.
posted by johnb at 2:39 PM on October 1, 2000

Hi, my name is John and I'm a trade policy addict...

Rereading this thread, I noticed a rather obvious breach of netiquette on my part: contaminating a perfectly interesting conversation with one-dimensional discourse on my own pet subject. (I confess it's a bit of a stretch to connect racist imagery to environmental racism via Mr Potato Head). In compensation for this grave act of mental pollution, I hereby promise not to use the term "corporate globalization" for a period of two weeks, starting today

(unless absolutely necessary ;)
posted by johnb at 11:06 PM on October 1, 2000

And I thought this was all about a racist potato.

Boy, I never thought I'd see myself write that.
posted by solistrato at 2:45 PM on October 2, 2000

I'm always arguing that intentions mean nothing, and that results are all that matter, and I am loathe to sway from that POV, but sometimes a potato is just a potato. Isn't it?
Assuming the potato is suposed to be a black person, would there have been an acceptable way to portray them in potato form? The skin is very dark, is that the problem? I see where all the fuss is coming from, but the worst I can pull from the picture is a happy black tourist. It does not appear to be stupid or abused. It is dressed nicely and on vacation, just like any other potato.
My habit of anthropomorphizing everything is setting my lower lip to quiver, poor unloved potato.
posted by thirteen at 3:20 PM on October 2, 2000

I am not looking for a fight, but I was hoping someone might explain to me why my impressions may be wrong. I realize some reasons have already been posted, but none answer my particular questions. I have not heard anything about this in the media, and I am assuming most people feel as I do.
posted by thirteen at 7:46 AM on October 5, 2000

thirteen, there's a whole vocabulary of racist imagery, and this potato statue is like a newly-coined word or something. i'm not sure how to clarify this for you. it's the big red lips, the exaggerated grin with bright white teeth, the monkeylike ears, the extremely dark skin etc etc.

unfortunately in my relatively brief search i didn't find any sites which showcased many good examples of the images. if you're really not familiar with that stuff, consider yourself lucky. if you really want to educate yourself about these issues, let me know. start with the links i collected, and i'll dig up some more stuff to illuminate the connections.

i know you understand that the problem isn't that the potato statue on it's own would necessarily be taken for a caricature of blackness -- but in context it turns out to be a hurtful thing. i'm not sure what you think you're missing.
posted by sudama at 8:08 AM on October 5, 2000

I defer to anyone when I am told something is offensive because obviously it is or there would be no discussion. I am vaguely familiar with the imagery that you mention, but the immediate codifying is lost on me. Without context it seems impotent. I checked out several of the other statues in the link, and did not find the to make the potato in question to appear to be inferior. Except for the dark skin, the ears and mouth remind me of the accessories that come with a Mr. Potatohead. There is something lurid about the execution, but I am more inclined to chalk that up to the skill of the person who put this together. Assuming harmful stereotype was not the intent of the artist, this just seems like an accident. There is nothing wrong with having very dark skin, so why can it not be portrayed? I guess my real question was, if someone set out to make a black Mr. Potatohead is there a way to do it that would not be considered wrong?
That all said, they probably should have realized this was not going to fly and found a different solution for the entry.
"Fraid that no one around me, understands my potato, think I'm only a spud boy, look for a real tomato"DEVO!
posted by thirteen at 9:03 AM on October 5, 2000

i'm sure it would be possible to come up with a Black potatohead that wasn't offensive in an over-the-top sort of way, though it's fundamentally problematic in some ways to imbue a mr. potatohead figure with Blackness -- because doing so reinforces the denial of agency (in the dramatic/literary sense) which these other stereotypes we've been discussing perpetrate -- stereotypes that narrow and define people as characters, safely circumscribing their spheres of influence as entertainers/servants etc. -- denying them agency most fundamentally in defining themselves. to portray a member of an oppressed group of people literally as a toy whose appearance and concomitant identity can be reconfigured from without but not within doesn't sit well with me ...

but it's quite a leap from that level of theory to the very real damage done by many other forms of racism, so i wouldn't be too concerned about that. if you want to make a black potatohead, give it tight curly/kinky black hair, a broader nose. suggest a darker skin tone with highlights/lowlights (which i expect this artist was trying to do -- it's been said that the photos on the web come across as quite a bit darker than the statue does in real life.)
posted by sudama at 10:15 AM on October 6, 2000

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