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I am a homeschooled student who takes an online class of American Sign Language (ASL). This article features an email I sent a few months ago, when recognizing a stereotypical and racist subtlety in a video in one of my ASL assignments. As I explain in the email, the video showed a young black woman who was signing about items inside her grocery bags. One of the bags had in it according to her:
My issue was the chicken and watermelon part. Looking back, the “tea” was a little suspect as well. Now, I’m not “fluent” for lack of better word, in my sign language; nor have I studied ASL for years as a second language. I am no expert, but I definitely know what “chicken” and “watermelon” looks like. I also know what racist stereotypes look like. Can you imagine a black girl mentioning specifically chicken and watermelon as the first two items inside her bag…? *Inserts sarcasm* yea that’s not stereotypical at all….
I don’t take racism lightly whether it be subtle or unsubtle. Am I just overly sensitive? Maybe. Or maybe I see offensive material that others pass by or possibly simply ignore. Perhaps I’m the only one who saw the issue for what it was. Racist material in school assignments is not a new concept. It is something young students of color have to go through on a daily basis. Even though I’m a homeschooled student, I too witnessed this. If this is just one incident online, imagine what’s being taught to students in an actual classroom.
I wrote the email as of course a student, but first and foremost, as a black person. This was offensive to my blackness which is in fact, my identity:
“Recently in an ASL assignment, I had to identify from the person who was signing to me, the items in her grocery bags. In one of the bags, the first two items was shockingly enough: Chicken and watermelon. The fact that she is visibly a black woman given a script to follow that says she has chicken and watermelon, is racist and stereotypical to say the least.
From the late 1800’s to this day, fried chicken in particular, has been used in ads, television shows, and films such as “Birth of a Nation”, to demonize black people as savages who enjoy chicken with their bare hands. The fried chicken stereotype was created to dehumanize all black people as animals through a white supremacist lens. It didn’t even stop there in media. Until the mid 1900’s there was literally a restaurant chain called the “Coon Chicken inn”. This further aided the oppression of us, and justified it because of how we were depicted.
As for watermelon, it has a history of portraying black people as lazy slaves who are addicted to watermelon to the point where oppression was fine, as long as we had watermelon. In cartoons (that are still on YouTube https://youtu.be/sls5H4xVHys), books, advertisements, etc, shows black people happily cutting huge slices of watermelon, and eating it all displayed in a disgusting light. Even in this century, the chicken and watermelon stereotype is used against black people to degrade them, such as Tiger Woods, and even President Barack Obama.
Chicken and watermelon are delicious, yes, but the fact that the black woman signing about those two items in her bag, it only perpetuates this harmful stereotype. Black people are not the only ones who eat these foods, but we are the only ones those items have been targeted towards to soil our image.
Eating chicken is not racist, neither is watermelon, but to associate it with black people is; and when you associate those two foods to us, you’re carrying all of the historical baggage with it whether it’s realized or not. The woman signing couldn’t have picked another fruit? Another meat? Why specifically chicken and watermelon? I was disappointed and honestly disgusted that even in ASL assignments, racism is subtly pushed.”
The impact of this email addressing my concern resulted in the removal of the video, as well as the teacher.
(Follow Nzinga Muhammad on Twitter @QueenNzinga13)