Is Mr. Potato Head Racist? Part 2

Having spent the weekend pondering the Mr. Potato Head question, and examining unsolicited e-mails from Slate readers about same, Chatterbox is prepared to offer a few tentative thoughts. In case you didn’t read Chatterbox’s earlier item, the issue is whether a public statue of Mr. Potato Head funded by the city of Warwick, R.I., is racially offensive. The statue is one of many variously-themed Mr. Potato Head statues put up by the state of Rhode Island (home to Hasbro, which manufactures Mr. Potato Head) to promote tourism. The statues include a Cash Potato, a Golfer Potato, and an Edgar Allen Poe-tato. Warwick’s seemingly innocuous theme is tourism itself. (Click here to view the controversial tuber.) Last week the state decided to remove the Tourist Potato, according to Gillian Flynn of the Associated Press, because it was deemed offensive to blacks. “‘If you look at this potato head, the only thing missing is a watermelon,” said Onna Moniz-John, an affirmative action officer in East Providence. But Kathy Szarko, the sculptress, denied the sculpture has any racial overtones. “He’s a potato,” she said. “That’s why he’s brown.”

Is the Tourist Potato black? The artist denies any such intention. On one hand, he has big lips and pearly white teeth, two features frequently found in racist caricature. He is browner than most of the other Mr. Potato Head sculptures, and browner than most potatoes of Chatterbox’s acquaintance. On the other hand, Chatterbox, a parent, has seen those lips and teeth before, on his own children’s Mr. Potato Heads, which he never before thought of as Stepin Fetchit-like figurines. The Tourist Potato is certainly no browner than Chef Potato II, about whom there’s no controversy at all.

After much tortured thought, Chatterbox came to the conclusion that the Tourist Potato is Stepin Fetchit-like. What finally did it for Chatterbox was contemplating that mouth set against that dark background. It didn’t help that the Rhode Island tourist office Web page calls it the “Tourist Tater,” which has a southern ring.

But establishing the Tourist Potato’s racial identity doesn’t end the necessary analysis. There’s still that other part of the Tourist Potato’s identity–the tourist part–to contend with. The Tourist Potato does not, it turns out, provoke merely the familiar argument between people who decry political correctness and people who decry subliminal racism. More confusingly, it takes two clashing stereotypes–one racial and one cultural–and blends them together. The racial stereotype of the witless darkie with the broad pearly-white grin is blended with the cultural stereotype of the witless brash tourist with the loud Hawaiian shirt. Both stereotypes are insulting. But when these stereotypes are yoked together, do they become more toxic? Or do they cancel each other out?

Chatterbox is tempted to conclude that they cancel each other out. Silly tourists may be ridiculous, but, unlike Stepin Fetchit, they’re prosperous (and usually white). The rendering of the silly-tourist archetype in a Benetton-like rainbow of skin colors might be said, perversely, to honor Martin Luther King’s dream that children would one day be judged by the content of their character. In a color-blind society, shouldn’t anyone get to be a bourgeois buffoon?

On the other hand, Chatterbox can see that piling one insulting stereotype onto another may not be not the warmest way for Rhode Island to welcome blacks into the American mosaic. “You’re not Stepin Fetchit!” the Tourist Potato says to blacks. “You’re a jerk with an expensive camera!” No, that’s not right either. “You’re Stepin Fetchit with an expensive camera!” (Uh…gee…thanks.)

Hmm. Clearly, the riddle of the Tourist Potato won’t permit itself to be untangled quickly. Chatterbox proposes a national conference. Luminaries from the world of art, civil rights, tourism, and toy manufacturing could be brought together. Newport would be a nice setting. (Is the Breakers available?) Chatterbox could moderate. Hey, Hasbro! Want to fund this? 

Photograph of Mr. Potato Head on Slate’s Table of Contents from Rhode Island Tourism.