Chia Obama: Racist Snub Or Just…Bad Taste?

By Julianne Hing Nov 12, 2009

Here at the Applied Research Center we often talk about the importance of discerning between intention and impact when it’s time to assess the racial inequity in our midst. We have policies that on their face don’t even mention race (healthcare, education, immigration law, anyone?) but in their implementation, actually lead to disproportionately harmful impacts on people of color. We’re trying to expand the popular definition to include these subtler, more insidious kinds of racism. So what happens when a new product featuring our 44th president with a green and growing afro hits the market? Seems like a fairly easy one to unpack, no? "That’s racist!" we say! That’s what Walgreens shoppers in Chicago and Tampa, where the product was test-marketed in March, said. Chia Obama was promptly pulled from the shelves. But Dan Neil, writing for the LA Times, interviewed the manufacturer of the Chia Obama, a man named Joseph Pedott. And the way Neil writes it, Pedott sounds like a totally sincere, if clueless, guy with good-hearted intentions.

Joseph Pedott, a lifelong Republican — means it to be a sincere tribute to Obama, who he says has inherited "the biggest can of worms ever put on a president." "I remember the Great Depression," Pedott says. "It wasn’t very nice." In November, after the election, Pedott was deeply worried about Obama, the first Democrat Pedott had ever voted for. With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the banking crisis, unemployment and more, says Pedott, "it’s almost inhuman to put all that on a president."

I’m not saying it’s not offensive. But I think that has more to do with bad taste–Obama’s so much better looking that that, you know–than actual racism. Neil writes:

Pedott says he simply wanted to create an inspirational spot that would transcend partisanship. "I even got a newscaster to do the voice-over!" (Pedott says this as if a newscaster is some guarantor of impartiality, which is a quaint notion.) There’s something terribly winning about Pedott, a man too decent and sincere to see the ridiculousness of the ad, the product. You can’t grow sprouts on the head of a Nobel Prize winner and not be accused of backhanded ridicule.

And so I wonder: what’s the difference between those plainly offensive Obama Waffles and this Chia Obama? How do we decide who to go after? Does figuring out people’s motives matter? Where do we draw the line when it comes to jokey Obama merchandise? Clearly all kitsch is not created equal. Thing is, I’m not one to give people a pass for their racial ignorance. And I never buy that feeble "I just didn’t know it was racist!" defense, especially when it’s deployed so cynically by people whose obvious intent is to incite racist hatred. I’m thinking of that Los Alamitos mayor who circulated the White House watermelon patch email, or that inane "Obama Bucks" food stamp mockup featuring the "new" design of food stamps under the Obama administration, complete with fried chicken, ribs and watermelon slices. Those people know damn well the sordid racist imagery they’re referencing. But what to do about Pedott? It is no secret that white people can be dense as pound cake when it comes to seeing race and racism. But I’ve got more pity than anger for him. He seemed genuinely unaware of its racist implications. I looked up the Abraham Lincoln Chia doll, and my, do they look mighty similar. Lincoln’s got an afro, too! Pedott used the company and tools he had at his disposal to try to uplift this country in support of Obama, or something like that. How could he have known his time would have been better spent elsewhere, like supporting healthcare reform? As people committed to fighting racism, we risk diluting our own message if we jump down the throats of people who just need a small talk to see the error of their ways. And we risk alienating potential allies if we always judge and never engage with people. I know my knee-jerk reaction is to condemn and embarrass and ridicule the perpetrator, but after reading the LA Times article I’m rethinking that. Not saying we don’t call things out when we see them, but sometimes we get in our own way when we get all one-size-fits-all strident and self-righteous. It is a Chia pet after all.