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Detroit Proper: Exploring the History and Implications of Watermelon as a Racist Stereotype

The author wonders when a typically sweet fruit goes sour.

When is a fruit not a fruit?

When a white man gives it as a gift. When the receiver is a group of African-Americans. When the fruit is a watermelon. In that case, fruit is a 200-year-old insult.

In September, newly hired firefighter Robert Pattison, 41, was still on probation when he decided to carry out a long-held tradition – to take a gift and introduce himself to the firefighters he’d be serving alongside at Engine 55 in Detroit. Often, probationers arrive with a gift of doughnuts. Once, I sent a fire station popcorn to thank them for their service. Pattison showed up with a ginormous watermelon, complete with a pink ribbon.

It’s one thing when Uncle Joe comes to the family reunion with three watermelons, ripe, chilled and sweet. It’s another thing when a white stranger offers blacks watermelon on the assumption that, well, you know, blacks like watermelon.

Pattison allegedly claimed that his gift was sincere and that he hadn’t meant any offense. This in spite of the fact that the racist trope about blacks and watermelons is so pervasive, it was hurled at President Barack Obama with a vengeance. When African-American author Jacqueline Woodson received her National Book Award in 2014, the white author who introduced her at the prestigious ceremony quipped: "Jackie’s allergic to watermelon. Just let that sink in your mind."

Pattison was summarily dismissed in October, even before he worked a day. Fire Commissioner Eric Jones cited "zero tolerance for discriminatory behavior inside the Detroit Fire Department." And now folks can’t stop talking about it. Did the penalty fit the crime? Was Pattison innocent at best or simply racially insensitive at worst? Or was he a racist, purposefully perpetuating a stereotype that dates back to slavery?

The whole incident has reminded me of a Chaldean friend who was appalled the first time she heard this stereotype about blacks. "I always thought that it was Arabs who loved watermelon," she says. Evidently, watermelon is a summer staple in the Middle East, where it’s served sliced or in salata batikh – watermelon salad with basil (or mint) and cheese.

Watermelon stands are a common sight in the Arab world. In 2012, local artists in Jerusalem sought to return to the days before the first intifada in 1987 when Jews and Muslims interacted fluidly. At the line between East and West Jerusalem, they set up a watermelon stand where people could eat, listen to music and socialize deep into the night – just like old times. A student attending the event told The Times of Israel that "Watermelon is a fruit that both Israelis and Arabs enjoy. When you eat watermelon, you never eat it alone."

While watermelon certainly has a large presence in Arab culture, the fruit isn’t salted with racist connotations. If anything, it represents something plentiful to the point of silliness – like pennies. Two years ago, two Egyptian artists were hired to paint graffiti on the set of the TV show, Homeland. The artists said that they didn’t like how the show depicts Arabs as either terrorists or refugees. So they added their own commentary to the graffiti, including "Homeland is watermelon."

"In Egypt, when we say something is ‘batikh’ (which is Arabic for watermelon), we mean that something is nonsense," artist Caram Kapp told Public Radio International after the Homeland episode aired with the graffiti intact.

I’ll tell you what’s nonsense: stereotypes. The truth is that watermelon is a global delight. Archaeologists say the fruit shows up in King Tut’s tomb and was popular in Egypt 4,000 years ago. The world’s largest watermelon producer is China, followed by Iran and Turkey. A Japanese scientist paved the way for the seedless watermelon.

It’s been more than 30 years since the USDA did research on who actually eats watermelon in the United States, but in the late 1980s, American watermelon eaters were mostly white non-Hispanic (63 percent), with non-Hispanic blacks and Hispanics coming a distant second (11.1 percent and 12.6 percent, respectively). In those days, Americans ate 85 percent of their watermelons at home. Where were those homes? Mostly in the suburbs (56 percent, with another 25 percent in urban areas), and mostly in the West (30 percent, with 28.7 percent in the South).

If a white stranger ever came to my house bearing a gift of watermelon, I’d hand him a carving knife. He may be assuming that I love watermelon because of my race, but the truth is, I’d be assuming the exact same thing about him.

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