CONTENT WARNING: THE PAPER I’M ABOUT TO DISCUSS IS NOT A JOKE
(OR AT LEAST NOT AN INTENTIONAL JOKE)
In the attempts of the Regressive Left to make everything part of identity politics, and to instill in all The Privileged an unspeakable sense of guilt, no object or behavior is off limits. And so, as Halloween approaches, we have a new paper in the journal GeoHumanities called: “The perilous whiteness of pumpkins” (reference and free download below). And it’s not about pumpkins bred for a lack of coloration, either: it’s how this seasonal gourd bears a horrible burden of racism and oppression. This is right up there with feminine glaciology and racist Pilates as one of the craziest po-mo papers I’ve seen.
The authors are Lisa J. Powell, a postdoc in the Institute for Resources, Environment, and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and Elizabeth S. D. Englehardt, the John Shelton Reed Distinguished Professor of Southern Studies in the Department of American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The paper, as usual with these screeds, is so abysmally written that it’s hard to make out its thesis, but I’ll try.
It begins by locating the pumpkin as a message of racist oppression, and to do that it uses the “Pumpkin riots” in Keene, New Hampshire in the fall of 2014, in which a largely white group of college students became unruly at a pumpkin festival, setting cars on fire, breaking windows, and running amok. Eighty of them were arrested and 170 disciplined by their college. This was about the time that the Ferguson riots took place in Missouri, and many saw the police as acting more leniently toward the white New Hampshire protestors than toward the black Missouri protestors (see the story here). Some of the Missouri demonstrators wrote slogans on pumpkins and took them to the St. Louis County Justice Center, and that’s all that Powell and Engelhardt need to write a paper showing that pumpkins are freighted with racial significance. The rest they just make up. (By the way, everybody’s forgotten about the pumpkins here except for these po-mo authors.)
The authors then take up three pumpkin-related issues (with ancillary points as well) to locate pumpkins in the sphere of oppressive whiteness. Here’s the word salad introducing their paper:
To explore race, culture, and food, we turn to three recent moments in the narrative of pumpkins’ whiteness: the pumpkin spice flavor industry and rhetoric connecting particular middle- or upper-class female whiteness to pumpkin spice lattes; the Internet phenomenon, “Decorative Gourd Season,” and lifestyle magazines’ fall embrace of class-aspirational pumpkins; and the working-class reality television Punkin Chunkin contests. Along the way, we briefly examine agricultural pumpkin production and pumpkins in U.S. history. Finally, we return to the Pumpkin Riot to consider how a deeper understanding of urban–rural divides in current U.S. cultures reveals what is so perilous about the equation of pumpkins and whiteness. Our aim is to make more legible the consequences of ruptures among food, race, class, gender, and place.
Their main points are in bold. I’ve put quotes from the paper in quotation marks.
- The racism of pumpkin production. This part is a real stretch, but there’s some po-mo gems here as they desperately find ways to make pumpkins symbols of White Privilege:
“The relationship between the pumpkin’s position in contemporary U.S. culture and its role as an edible crop is complicated. Nevertheless, pumpkins are real, material food plants in addition to being cultural symbols.”
Amazing insight! And there’s this:
“Although people in the U.S. pumpkin-picking and pumpkin-processing labor force should not be lumped into one homogeneous group, labor guidelines and commentary on labor issues indicate many are migrant workers and many are of Mexican descent. In 2007, for example, 417 pumpkin growers in Colorado despaired after a state “crackdown” on undocumented immigrants disrupted their fall pumpkin harvest labor force (Rodriguez 2007). Labor controversies in other states, including Texas and North Carolina, suggest seasonal laborers primarily of Mexican descent pick their pumpkin fields (Lutton and Einhorn 2006; Henneberger 2008; Shaffer 2013).”
This issue isn’t brought up again, and they don’t present any real data. But certainly, like many mass-harvested crops, pumpkin-pickers must be heavily Latino. But this doesn’t make the squashes symbols of racism per se; it merely gives the authors an excuse to write their paper.
- The racism of pumpkin spice lattes. I have never had a pumpkin spice latte (the authors abbreviate this as PSL), as I despise flavored coffees and that one sounds particularly noxious. But Powell and Englehardt strive mightily to make PSLs symbols of the privileged and affluent, ergo of whiteness. To do that they link them with Ugg boots because Buzzfeed once published an article showing PSLs, a candle, and Ugg boots as “signifiers of basicness,” which the authors take as an index of female consumerism seen as a sign of white superiority. (Oy!):
“Starbucks introduced the pumpkin spice latte (PSL) in 2003. The company claimed sales of more than 200 million by the start of PSL’s tenth season, noting that fans had established it as “the company’s most popular seasonal beverage of all time” (Starbucks 2013). Although the PSL was celebrated as a company and cultural success in 2013, one year later it was firmly hitched to discussions of white female identity and consumerism as both a dismissive, racially coded slur and a rallying counterpoint.
PSLs as a racially coded slur! Now I’m glad I never bought one.
“. . . But why did PSLs become the symbol of basic white girlness? Why did they stick even more than UGGs, yoga pants, or scented candles? The context and composition of the PSL might be revealing. Prior to fall 2015, PSLs did not actually contain pumpkin. Luxury items, they cost far more than plain cups of coffee, yet do not provide tangible extra nutrition other than that in milk. Actual pumpkins, in contrast, contribute vitamin A, beta-carotenoids, fiber, and potassium (Savoie and Hedstrom 2008).”
“. . . Extending Simon’s frame to pumpkins and race, the excesses of calories, profligate sweetness, whipped cream, and heady aroma position them solidly as luxury items. PSLs are quintessential “postneed” uses of pumpkin. We no longer need to consume pumpkins for caloric subsistence. Instead, we demonstrate consumer savvy and gleeful excess by choosing the particular comforts of status-demonstrating Starbucks PSLs. In fact, had they significant actual pumpkin, had they strong associations with healthy vegetables or vitamins, PSLs would fail these consumers.”
“. . . The status symbol is not any over-the-top caloric, sweet drink, nor does it come from just any place. Starbucks PSLs are products of coffee shop culture, with its gendered and racial codes.”
Having established that drinking a PSL in public is equivalent to wearing Klan robes, the authors move on to magazines that feature “decorative gourd season.”
- Touting decorative gourds and pumpkin carving is also a sign of white privilege and racial bias.
“Gone are days when a kitchen knife making triangle eyes, nose, and an uneven grin sufficed for pumpkin carving. Stencils, paint, specialty gourds, and dedicated battery-powered or leather-encased artisanal carving tools combine with multilevel displays, electric lights, or expensive candles to mark the season. Even when people are absent, labor (of self or paid others), leisure, and aspiration are implied. We move from a pumpkin-spiced world where race was (over)stated to one of allusions, implications, elisions, and obfuscations of race, class, and imagined rurality.”
“. . . Even more than PSLs, pumpkins of decorative gourd season and lifestyle magazines signal privilege—class privilege certainly, but also white privilege—encompassing power, lack of worry, and leisure. Like lattes’ power, this privilege needs work.”
Yeah, work on the part of the authors, desperate to have Their Own Original Thesis, a requirement for joining the Regressive Club. Finally, there’s this:
- Pumpkins were the subject of a television show, Punkin Chunkin, that identified the destruction of pumpkins with fun “whiteness”. I’ve never seen this show, but apparently it involves a bunch of guys who use elaborate methods to destroy pumpkins. Here’s a video clip:
What’s the significance of this? Well, pumpkins. Here we see Powell and Engelhardt becoming theologians: simply making up stuff to buttress their preconceived thesis. (This confirmation bias is characteristic of the po-mo papers I’ve highlighted about glaciology, yoga, and similar attempts at mass guilt-tripping.)
“When rural reality shows feature working-class residents in the South, itself an othered place symbolizing in shorthand fraught race relations, viewers can be twice-distant voyeurs. Portraying the behavior of characters in such shows as not only atypical, but also located in dark and scary versions of rural landscapes, reality television can trade on shame and fascination (Stewart 1996; D. Bell 1997; McPherson 2003; Romine 2014). But the nonthreatening, idealized, and normalized settings of Punkin Chunkin and its pumpkins position both viewers and competitors as safe, fun, and, as with PSLs and decorative gourds, predominantly white.”
That paragraph has every trope of postmodernism, including “othering”. And how they manage to make these show into a celebration of whiteness is beyond me. Seriously, the authors have drunk the Kool-Aid here, for one could easily, just based on the clip above, make the opposite case.
So what’s the conclusion here? What have the authors accomplished? Or, as H. L. Mencken said about Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class (one of the funniest and greatest book reviews of all time), “What are the sweating professors trying to say?”
You got me. The whole point, it seems, is to associate pumpkins with whiteness. And even if you buy that tortured thesis, what are you supposed to do? Stop drinking PSLs? Stop decorating pumpkins at Halloween? The authors don’t tell us, for they are content to associate a squash with race privilege and move on to their next paper. The ending:
“Whiteness associated with pumpkins marks who resides where on the spectrum of U.S. social power. The entrenchment of such associations in daily lives and the spaces and places in which they are lived create the environments of Keene versus Ferguson—specific perils of today’s pumpkins. Accumulation of critical, relational, and contextual analyses, including things seemingly as innocuous as pumpkins, points the way to a food studies of humanities and geography, that helps make visible the racial, gendered, classed, and placed politics of contemporary life in the United States.
When Ferguson activists wrote RACISM and WHITE PRIVILEGE on pumpkins, they destabilized the whiteness of pumpkins and the comfort and normalization accompanying it. Bringing pumpkins into the demonstration, and then smashing them on the ground to show outrage at injustice (as opposed to the “holiday mischief” generally ascribed to pumpkin smashing), activists brought pumpkins into a space where racial inequality and instability could not be ignored or glossed over. Their actions made the white privilege encoded in pumpkins explicit and challenged its future.”
Powell, L. J. and E. S. D. Engelhardt. 2016. The perilous whiteness of pumpkins. GeoHumanities 1:414-432. DOI: 10.1080/2373566X.2015.1099421