Warning: racist images follow:
The watermelon stereotype is the White American belief that black people have a particular weakness for watermelon (Citrullus lanatus), that it is one of the foods they like best.
The stereotype goes back at least 200 years to slave times. We have pictures of it that go back at least to the 1890s and continue all the way down to the present day (see above). You see it in the poetry of Carl Sandburg from 1918:
Why do I always think of niggers and buck-and-wing dancing whenever I see watermelon?
It also features in racist jokes. Still.
Some seem to accept it as fact. You see that in some of the pictures above, like the Shell ad and the last one, a serious stock photo.
Some say that stereotypes are based on the truth, however stretched and imperfect. So there must be some truth to it, right?
Here is the truth it is based on. Here is the amount of watermelon the average American ate in 1996:
- 5.9 kg: white
- 6.0 kg: black
- 8.1 kg: Hispanic
- 19.5 kg: other
Only 0.1 kilograms separates blacks from whites – that comes to less than one slice.
Yet if you look at the pictures above you would think whites barely touch the stuff, that blacks eat it way more than anyone else and everyone knows it.
Blacks do in fact eat more watermelon than whites: but only by 1 or 2% – not a difference anyone would notice. Not a difference that could begin to account for the pictures above as honest, innocent observation, as something anywhere close to objective reality.
It is not even a case of watermelon being a food that is most common in the American South or a cheap food most common among the poor: in America it is most commonly eaten in the west, in the suburbs and by the middle-class. Hispanics eat more of it than either blacks or whites and Asian Americans seem to eat it most of all. If that seems odd, consider that China grows more watermelon than anyone and has been growing it longer than Europe.
It is not even the case that watermelons came to America from West Africa along with slaves and okra: Europeans have known about watermelons since the 1200s, when the Moors of Spain brought them, along with oranges and algebra (neither of which are seen as a black thing).
The watermelon stereotype tells you nothing that is true about either black people or watermelons. All it tells you about is the way many white people think:
- They can believe in a stereotype that is not one bit true.
- They do not question what they are told about black people, not even the stuff that is easily googled.
- They think most black people are alike.
- They can take a seemingly innocent, harmless difference, such as liking watermelon – what in the world is wrong with liking watermelon? – and use it to put down black people and laugh at them, to make them seem like mindless creatures.
- The Cambridge History of Food: Cucumbers, Melon and Watermelon – the history, complete with scholarly sources
- The Jim Crow Museum: Question of the Month: Blacks and Watermelons
- USDA: Factors Affecting Watermelon Consumption in the United States (PDF)
- authentichistory.com: Chicken & Watermelon Themes – yet more pictures