Post racial, or blatantly racist? Cookies that cheerfully ignore centuries of institutionalized racism...
This week, one of the best food culture sites on the internet, Eat Me Daily, posted about a new "Obama Homage Food" product from Spain, the Obamitas cookies by Neos Brands. The dark chocolate artisanal cookies are being sold only in Spain, and the company is thrilled at the positive response it's getting. (Above: The Obamitas cookies and their box)
Yet unlike other Obama Homage Foods--items that have President Obama's picture on them via sugar transfer or other food tech, such as the cookies at left, the Obamitas cookies look nothing like President Obama. What they do look like are the Golliwog and the Pickaninny, caricatures of black people that until well after the Civil Rights Era in America (and Europe) were casually used for product branding, as well as in literature, on the stage, and in film.
But Golliwogs and Pickaninnies were often thieves, miscreants, n'er do wells, incompetents. They were often depicted as half animal, rather than fully human, with claws for hands and feet, and tails. Golliwogs and Pickaninnies have been removed from public discourse, except as collectibles leftover from an unenlightened era. Children's literature featuring the creatures are banned from libraries, no brand would dare use the iconography now, and it's no longer acceptable in civil discourse to use the caricatures for anything. When depictions of President Obama as a Golliwog/Pickaninny emerged during Campaign Season, these were immediately decried. (Above: A 1930s-era Golliwog)
The Obamitas are cheerfully ignoring the history of civil rights in Europe and America through the 20th century, in which dark skinned peoples were treated as subhuman, and denied the rights afforded to people with lighter skin tones, in part because of the kind of stereotyped beliefs that the Golliwog/Pickaninny iconography encompasses.
The Obamitas cookies led to a fairly long e mail exchange with a pal at Eat Me Daily, discussing the racial implications. Eat was posting about the cookies as a fun new design, because the folks who write the site love all things in food that are well-designed and whimsical. The cookies clearly have masters at work in the packaging area; it's cute and bold. And the slogans on the packaging are all about love and goodwill: "Alegrate el dia," the main slogan, means "rejoice every day." "Piensa en positivo" means "think positive." "Reparte mas abrazos" means "give lots of hugs." "Sonrie" means smile. "Da mas bezos!" means "give lots of kisses."
On other packaging and on Neos Brand's website for the cookies, President Obama's campaign slogans are used in English, and there's a marketing video that even includes one of the President's most famous speeches--on race (video below). But the whimsy factor, and the good design adds to the problem with these cookies. While Neos Brands is trumpeting the cookies as "a viral internet phenomenon" spreading good will, hope and love, what they're really spreading is old stereotypes, caricature, and blithe racism. They're demolishing historical memory, eliding the distance between civil discourse and unacceptable hate speech. Delicious, artisanal cookies can't trump centuries of institutionalized racism.
The idea of a post-racial America was being trumpeted after President Obama's election, but clearly--if the Beer Summit case study alone is any indication--we're nowhere near a post-racial America. In March, when the Mayor of a small California town sent out postcards featuring the White House lawn with watermelons on it, it caused a huge national outcry, and the Mayor ultimately had to resign. (Above: The postcard)
Other Obama foodie "homage" items that have racist referents have caused controversy and been pulled from store shelves--the Obama Fingers, from Germany, are one of these; the commingling of the Obama name and fried chicken was deemed racially insensitive. And two fried chicken restaurants in New York that re-named themselves as "Obama" following the President's election win caused a fairly large outcry, and were forced to change their names to eliminate the use of Obama--not by the White House, but by concerned citizens. No one, then, was forgetting the power of symbolism, of racism, and cultural stereotypes. So can cookies be hate speech? Your intrepid blogger thinks that if these cookies show up in America, there's a good chance they'll be "banned." Or at least be the topic of much heated discussion...of course. We're nowhere near a post racial America, yet. And forgetting history and the power of symbols isn't going to bring us any closer to that ephemeral goal.
The Obamitas video from Neos--caution, it's slow to load:
Caso Obamitas from Neos Brand on Vimeo.
Neos Brands also put out a whole "Case Study" on their cookies, perhaps to prove that it's not a racist project; it's available here [PDF]. The website for the product is here.
*Another Obama food that encompasses historically racist referents, the Obama Ice Cream Duet Bar, is here.
*Photos via Eat Me Daily