Ethnic and Racial Slurs

Shortly after I bought my first set of salt-and-pepper shakers, I came upon this one:

It’s a perfect representation of the kind of adorable miniaturized  cuteness that defangs–or at least makes less immediately noticeable–its toxicity.  What could be less harmful than this cheerful pair of people at rest, depicted in a world of shiny primary colours?  But look again: the thing in the middle appears to be some sort of cactus, and the two figures wear what appear to be sombreros.  They seem to be Mexicans, then–sleeping Mexicans, the essence of a “mañana” stereotype, as in the old song:

My mother’s always working, she’s working very hard
But every time she looks for me I’m sleeping in the yard.
My mother thinks I’m lazy and maybe she is right.
I’ll go to work mañana but I gotta sleep tonight.
Mañana, mañana

Mañana is soon enough for me.

(Peggy Lee and Dave Barbour, 1948)

Or in other words:  this set is an ethnic slur, a nasty evocation of a cultural stereotype.  I bought it because I found it fascinating that such a thing as this set existed.  It meant that its manufacturers assumed there was a market for such things, that people actually wanted to occupy their home environments with insulting depictions of a cultural group that, I have to assume, they themselves didn’t belong to.  Somehow, then, they were deriving comfort and cosiness from an environment that represented their superiority to and distance from the members of the other group thus represented.  Part of what made their home homey was its expression of an inherent prejudice against those different from themselves–different enough to be cute and decorative as a result of it.

I soon discovered that Mexicans were not the only minority group populating the sunny but toxic world of salt-and-pedderdom.  As I’ll describe in future posts, my own collection has grown to include stereotypical depictions of various Asians, Africans and African Americans, and above all, North American Natives.   It’s become a second major thread of my collecting, along with the sets that depict two different objects as part of the same set.  And it’s these ethnic-and-racial-slur sets that most express my ambivalence to my possessions, and my sense that no matter how ironic and un-empathetic is my appreciation of them, there’s still something weird about choosing to keep them in my own house.  Perhaps the many African Americans who have become such avid collectors of  salt-and-pepper sets and other household ornaments and such representing racist stereotypes that they have driven up the prices for such objects exponentially share my ambivalence.  (As I write, a set of “Vintage Black Americana Aunt Jemima Mammy Cook JAPAN Salt and Pepper Shakers” is currently available on eBay for the astonishing price of $145.00.)  It’s certainly a strong memory of an ugly history that shouldn’t be forgotten–or in the case of the lazy Mexicans and the savage Natives, a strong reminder of a still widespread and even commonplace prejudice.

About the  Mexicans, meanwhile:  One is for salt and one is for pepper, clearly, but I’m not sure what the cactus they lean on is supposed to be used for.  It comes with a small spoon, seen in the photo above leaning on the tray the three objects sit on; so maybe it’s a mustard pot?

Published by pernodel

Children’s literature critic and author of books for children

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