As a friend of mine was returning from her lunch break yesterday, a coworker asks, “Hey, what did you get for lunch?” My friend says, “A smoothie.” Her coworker replies, “What kind of smoothie? Watermelon?”
A watermelon smoothie? Seems odd, right? What if I told you that my friend was Black and her coworker, who upon hearing this story, I assumed was White, is Korean? Now the stereotype that Black people love watermelon comes into play. Did she make that comment intentionally as a joke? Or was she unaware of the stereotype altogether?
While my friend could have responded by irrationally hollering something along the lines of: “Oh! It’s because I’m Black and Black people love watermelon that you’re gonna just up and assume that I’m gonna drink a watermelon smoothie over any other type of smoothie, right? I see how y’all do my people!” she didn’t. She responded by asking, somewhat rhetorically, “Do they even have watermelon smoothies?”
As I listened to her tell the story, the same thought crossed my mind — do they have watermelon smoothies? Perhaps they do. And, perhaps her Korean coworker had tasted one before, thus her inquiry. Just because neither my friend nor myself (nor anyone I asked on Twitter) had tasted one, doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Maybe they’re common in Korea—I don’t know. (If you know of somewhere that they do have watermelon smoothies, please let me know because I’d love to try one. I’m a huge watermelon fan.)
At this point in the exchange, her coworker starts back-peddling, perhaps realizing that there may have been something wrong with what she said. She even said she had tried one herself. Who knows if that’s true or if it was just a technique to remedy the alleged misunderstanding.
Since this was the first “offense,” the first time this coworker had made any kind of off-color comment, my friend decided to let it slide. And I agreed that this was a good idea.
But at what point do you confront a person who makes a comment like that? Not that there was anything inherently racist or prejudice about her statement — we don’t know that — but at some point not understanding the stereotypes that exist could put her in a bad place. Had she made that comment to someone else, someone not as understanding as my friend, you might be reading a completely different story today.
There must be a time to teach people who, for whatever reason, don’t know about the prevailing racial stereotypes, about them and their history, but when? Is it whenever something “minor” like this happens? Or do you give them a “three strikes and you’re out” rule?
Personally, I would say it’s best to gauge the person and their general understanding. If, like this young lady, they really are aloof, perhaps they know sooner, rather than later. And if they don’t know that they’re making a mistake, then it’s likely that they’re be more apt to receive what you have to say. On the other side of the scale may be a person who knows the stereotypes and yet still finds it acceptable to joke about it because, after all, the fact that we are in a “post-racial” America means that everything is fair game, right? Wrong.
Often, it’s more ignorance than prejudice about people’s racial and ethnic histories that leads to these types of situations. But the ignorance must be done away with through education. And if our schools won’t do it, it must be individuals who take the time to care enough about each other to teach them what is and isn’t acceptable in certain contexts.
Yet the question of “when” still stands. What do you think? When should this teaching occur? The sooner the better? Let me hear your thoughts.