Thursday, April 13, 2006

Condoleezza, Gallagher, a watermelon, and racism

[A question on a math test at a community college in Washington began this way: "Condoleezza holds a watermelon just over the edge of the roof of the 300-foot Federal Building, and tosses it up with a velocity of 20 feet per second." It went on to ask how long it would take for the watermelon to hit the ground. The question was initially posed using the name Gallagher, after the ridiculous comedian famous for smashing watermelons in his act; a teacher -- whom the college will not identify -- later changed the name to Condoleezza. Students complained that the question was racist, and the college president apologized and outlined steps the college plans to take to increase cultural and racial sensitivity on campus. The unnamed teacher will take a sensitivity-training class.

I can't be the only one who thinks that this is likely not racist and probably, instead, a simple misunderstanding, right? True, there's something clearly ugly about the question's tying together of the name of a famous African-American woman with an object, the watermelon, that has often been used in derogatory caricatures of blacks. But the context here -- particularly the Gallagher bit -- leads me to suspect the whole thing was probably a misunderstanding.

I wonder: Isn't it possible that this was the product not of a racist stereotype but the opposite -- the ignorance of a stereotype? I mean, what if the teacher in question didn't know that watermelons have been used in racist depictions of blacks, and had picked the name Condoleezza because she (or he) wanted to honor, rather than denigrate, the secretary of state (or in order to just use a cool-sounding name:
The name "Condoleezza" is derived from the Italian music-related expression, "Con dolcezza", meaning "with sweetness.") ? Couldn't the situation indicate that the college is actually very good at sensitivity, so good that a teacher there wasn't aware of a major caricature? What will be the result of all the sensitivity training -- to teach teachers all manner of cultural stereotypes (Asian drivers, black basketball players, etc.) that they may avoid them?]

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