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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

One of the designs from Abercombie's 2002 fiasco

"Illegal Alien" Halloween Mask

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)

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