Infinite Loopiness and Racial Segregation

This link will take you to the blog Robin Bernstein’s keeps in relation to her book Racial Innocence, which I discussed in my last post, and from which I’m borrowing her concept of “scriptive things” as a potential way of understanding more about salt and pepper shaker sets.  Once you get there, you’ll discover that Robin’s post will offer you, mainly, a link back here, from which you may return to her blog, where that link will point you back here, etc., etc., in an infinite loop of scriptive linkage.

Robin also posted a link to her blog (and this one of mine) on Facebook, where one of the commenters on it said, “I also find it interesting that the salt and pepper shakers aren’t black and white (like the topsy turvy dolls, or, like pepper and salt)!” Good point.  That’s an aspect of my novelty-salt-and-pepper-shaker collection that took my awhile to become aware of:  they seem to insist on opposites, or at least differentiating categories, like salt and pepper, male and female, cat and dog, wiener and bun, even black things and white ones; but racial whiteness and blackness in a pair?  Hardly ever.  Of my over two hundred shaker sets, I can find only one that consists of a mixed-race couple:It might be significant that they appear to be some kind of nuns–apparently an order that wears frisbees on its heads.  Nuns are meant to be spiritual high-minded people who are capable of transcending mere racial categories?

Or wait, maybe they’re not nuns after all.  Maybe they’re Islamic women with covered heads heading off to the bazaar and carrying goods for sale on their heads.  So much for the holiness argument–unless they’re spiritual high-minded Islamic women whose faith allows them also to transcend racial categories?

But one way or the other, what’s most intriguing is the rarity of such a pair.  Why is it that the shakers all so take their salt-and-pepper connection so seriously that the vast majority of them depict two different but somehow related things, but that only this one set clearly marks that difference as a racial one?   If this pair are nuns, for instance, I can find other sets of nun shakers on the internet–but the differences they focus on are not racial ones.  One set consists of one nun in a black habit marked “bad habit” and one nun in a white habit marked “good habit,” thus focussing on the good-and-evil opposition.  Another shows a childishly cute nun and a childishly cute monk–the most usual male/female difference of a vast majority of shaker sets.  Another pair consists of a nun and a Catholic schoolgirl.  The European and African complexions of my nuns together in one set remains unique.

This is not to say that the salt-and-pepper miniverse avoid expressions of blackness and whiteness.  I own a set which takes advantage of that opposition to, supposedly, make a point about peace and brotherhood.  

The thing is, though, that they can be positioned in such a way that they appear to be hugging each other:

In this pair, according to the advertising copy that accompanies it when it’s for sale at numerous places on the internet, “The bold use of black and white suggests that we are all brothers and sisters on this planet and we need to treat each other with kindness, compassion and respect.”  But despite the apparently obvious connection between a black shaker and a white one as representations of brotherhood and the racial categories of blackness and whiteness, and despite the obvious need in our world for racial brotherhood, this set actually seems more interested in another form of unified difference; the shakers, in hugging position and viewed from above, :

That makes them a representation of maleness and femaleness and not specifically racial at all, not then actually using the blackness of salt and the whiteness of pepper as a racial metaphor.

There are, of course, lots of depictions of race in the salt-and-pepper world, and always in my experience, stereotypical ones–look at my previous posts of a few months back on sets that depict indigenous North Americans, and then another set of posts on ones that depict African Americans and in one instance, an African. Most often these sets tend to present two people of the same race or ethnicity, almost always one male and one female.  So gender difference and connection is exceedingly important in the salt-and-pepper world; and when race is present, it is race that is clearly  gendered into two different shakers, one M, one F.   But while there is always one shaker for S and and one for P, one for black seasoning and one for white seasoning, racial blackness and racial whiteness are almost always segregated from each other, kept isolated in separate sets.  In an imagined world that insists on the bringing together of obviously visible differences, on pairs, racial blackness and racial whiteness appear to be a huge exception. Fascinating.

Published by pernodel

Children’s literature critic and author of books for children

7 thoughts on “Infinite Loopiness and Racial Segregation

  1. This is fascinating, Perry. It seems to me that one of the key differences between salt and pepper shakers and other things that polarize black and white (topsy-turvy dolls, for example) is that s&p sets are explicitly about eating. Why should eating, as an action and a concept, make such a big difference? Kyla Wazana Tompkins is about to publish a book that might shed a lot of light on this question. Here’s the link to the book: , and here’s her blog on food and race: . I’ll drop her an email and see if she has any thoughts on salt and pepper sets. I’d love to know what she thinks about this.

  2. My experience with blackness as it relates to food, as I write about in my book, is that in general blackness is more commonly related to sweetness as a sensation than spiciness. In my book I argue that this has more than a little to do with the history of sugar plantation slavery, with the use of the blood-sugar metaphor in abolitionist literature (that is, the idea that consuming sugar meant consuming the blood, sweat or tears of the slave) and then later with the mammy-figure as a figure connected to nostalgia for comforting and sweetened foods. Too, racist kitsch is rarely about a black and white figure in some sort of mutual relation, but rather about blackness being consumed, as in the figure of the black child as alligator bait, which I talk about at length in the book, or as in mammy/servant figures, such as the Aunt Jemima syrup bottle which starts out dark and full and is gradually emptied out redeeming her body into whiteness as it is distanced from the sin of slavery (sugar) and from value on the marketplace (its use as a commodity).

    In any case, I talk a bit about this on my blog, which is linked below, and then the book is out on July 31!

    Cheers – fascinating blog and conversation!

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