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Of Aliens and Spooks: Racism or Halloween Spirit?

Target pulls "Spook Drop Parachuters" toy amid accusations of insensitivity

Spook Drop Parachuters pulled from Target

This morning, the local NBC-TV affiliate reported that Target was pulling a Halloween toy off its shelves. This was not a safety recall; rather, it was what one might call a PR recall. The toy, pictured here, contains little black figurines with orange parachutes packaged under the name "Spook Drop Parachuters."

What were they thinking?

The term "spook" is an ethnic slur for African Americans, albeit one that was less widely used compared to decades past. Yet, for many shoppers of Target stores, the term remains hurtful and incendiary. Naturally, the outcry was swift, and an apology from Target quickly followed. The apology followed a fairly predictable script: We did not mean to offend, we apologize if anybody was offended by this toy.

I thought I'd write about this incident because it illustrates the ambiguity and difficulty of attributing racist intent in the face of such events.

On the one hand, one can imagine the development team for such toys, charged with the task of coming up with toys for Halloween, batting ideas around. Halloween is the time to celebrate the creepy: witches, vampires, ghosts. Do spooks fit that category? In its benign sense, of course--fans of Scooby-doo sure think so. Furthermore, the colors associated with Halloween in this country are black and orange. Perhaps the development team was full of younger people who had not heard the term used derogatorily. Thus, with a little imagination, it is certainly possible to think of a scenario in which the makers of the toy really meant no ill, and have a legitimate claim to an oversight defense.

One of the designs from Abercombie's 2002 fiasco

On the other hand, when the little bags of parachuters descended upon the shelves, the most important constituency in the production chain-- the consumers--became justifiably upset. Why make the figurines black and the parachutes orange, rather than the parachutes black and the figurines orange? Why choose "spooks" as the particular term? From this perspective, there are plenty of other examples of offensive product--including last year's Halloween Illegal Alien costumes, and Abercombie's 2002 offensive T-shirt campaign--where the coincidences are just too insidious, and the insensitivity so great, that it's difficult not to see this toy as just the newest example in the parade.

"Illegal Alien" Halloween Mask

The parachuters grabbed my attention because I find both possible interpretations described above equally compelling.

One can marshal evidence from cognitive science in favor of the former argument, in fact. Example: If I were to mention to you Corvettes, Chevys, Fords, Hondas, and then moved on to a conversation about "trunks," we are of course much more likely to think of car trunks than we are of elephant trunks. This shows that the context around a word privileges certain interpretations, at the same time that it suppresses competing meanings. This means that I would be even slower to spontaneously think of the meaning of trunk as the animal appendage at a car dealership than I normally would be upon hearing the word. This feature of memory and information processing -- where context "primes" or brings to mind certain meanings and actively pushes down others -- is part of what makes us adept at handling the vagaries of language.

The implication? Well, at the toy development table, when charged with the task of coming up with Halloween-themed toys, the Scooby-doo meaning of spook is much more likely to come to mind and be used to guide decisions than the terms' pejorative interpretation.

Nevertheless, when customers from all walks of life enter the store, bringing all kinds of life experiences to bear on their shopping trip, things can (and do) go in unexpected directions. One of the things we know from my own research, for example, is that painful experiences of discrimination can make some interpretations of words more chronically salient than others. Thus, for example, just as an elephant trainer might be likely to think of elephant trunks even at car dealerships, members of stigmatized groups are likely to think of discrimination upon seeing black parachuters labeled as spooks.

Which interpretation of the events at hand has more traction? Hard to say.

This incident, more broadly, speaks to the importance of having companies understand the importance of ensuring diversity at every level of the development chain-- from the drawing board to the corporate board. This is the only way to ensure that companies are exposed the variety of experiences and interpretations that are likely to come up among consumers before the products hit the stores. It is a very concrete way in which a lack of diversity in the work force negatively affects companies' profits. At a time when part of the national conversation sometimes questions the very value of diversity as little more than political correctness, it is important to underscore that a lack of diversity (here, both in terms of age and race), can directly affect the bottom line.

One can imagine how being in "Halloween" mindset can make salient one meaning of spook over another regardless of the composition of the workforce. As such, diversity is not a magic bullet against such situations. I am not making claims about the diversity of Target's workforce (I suspect it's good, and this is why they responded early and appropriately). My point is, more broadly, about the value of diversity and the importance of continually reaching higher in this dimension.

Are We Born Racist? (Beacon Press)

My colleague Jennifer Chatman at Berkeley has a fantastic essay called "Overcoming prejudice in the workplace" in our new anthology, "Are We Born Racist?" I recommend this essay, and the book more generally. You can find it here. Also check out Robert Schwartz' very relevant blog.

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