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‘Spook Drop Parachuters’: Racism or Halloween spirit?

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, professor of psychology | October 1, 2010

Spook Drop Parachuters pulled from TargetThis week, 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.

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.

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.

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.

Cross-posted from Psychology Today.

Comments to “‘Spook Drop Parachuters’: Racism or Halloween spirit?

  1. I am a minority myself. This is ridiculous. If a name of a toy was deliberately used to be offensive then it can be news. Are you kidding me? Do you hear Asians in an uproar every time someone eats a bag of “Asian Party Mix?” Asian is a race, not a spice. But most people are grown up enough to realize that is how people can identify the “flavors.” Halloween is SPOOKY. Most children these days don’t even know that the word spook was a bad thing to call someone. TIL NOW!

  2. I think that it is political correctness gone mad. In Australia, we had an advertisement for KFC with people from the West Indies. Americans claimed it was racist, yet the West Indies Cricket team are sponsored by KFC!!!!

  3. This is the stupidest race baiting I’ve heard in months. Why the hell would product designers even be aware of a hillbilly phrase that has been out of the lexicon for decades and generations? It’s this constant bogus outrage that makes me not even care about prejudice anymore.

  4. Its really hard to be politically inline with everything”correct”that is. I resonate with the Idea of getting over it. Their are so many pressing things to deal with. Ethnic turmoil is one of tools used by the propaganda machine to keep us all at odds,so we can’t show one common face of directional desire IE: middle class pay raise!

  5. If we have directly experienced racism, perhaps we become sensitized to what can have as one choice, an interpretation of racism.

    Instead of arguing with someone’s emotional response, insist everyone feel as you do, why not allow that though you may not relate, it may be you the next time who has an emotional response that another has difficulty relating to….would a peace process look like people agreeing to disagree, allowing each other the respect and empathy of accepting there will always be differences between us?

    Whenever I hear one group criticized for “oversensitivity” I wonder when I will be next to be singled out as “oversensitive” about something I deeply feel.Thanks for listening, that’s all I need, I don’t need your agreement. I prefer a biodiverse garden of differences that color our human landscape and add to its richness and depth. What would my learning process look like in the world if everyone around me experienced everything exactly as I did?

    Thanks for listening, that’s all I need, I don’t need your agreement.

  6. Whenever I hear one group criticized for “oversensitivity” I wonder when I will be next to be singled out as “oversensitive” about something I deeply feel.
    I prefer a biodiverse garden of differences that color our human landscape and add to its richness and depth. What would my learning process look like in the world if everyone around me experienced everything exactly as I did?

    • Good to see that some people really write good content nowadays. Offtopic: I don’t know why but i’m having javascript errors viewing your website on Internet Explorer.. can you check it please? Best Regards

  7. I hope these responses are not “Berkeley” people because some of them sure” spooked” me out. Sadly, maybe Berkeley too has been infiltrated with ignorant racists like the rest of the country. It’s certainly not rocket science to see that this toy is very offensive not only to African Americans but should be offensive to anyone who cares about the dignity and respect of others. There seems to be this new American mindset that racism is just a figment of peoples imagination and we should all “just get over it and quit whining.” Thankfully, the people at Target were intelligent enough to apologize.

  8. I think it’s is a bit too much, let it rest for god sake. Only people who would let them get insulted by this, want to to be insulted. Normal people can only shake their head.

  9. thank you for everyone getting the point across it’s just a toy……a simple halloween gag toy…..geez…..it should be put back on the shelves to prove a point that not everytime someone makes a “dumb” accusation we shouldn’t have to hurry up an obsolete an entire item such as the “spook drop parachuters” and many more for similar reasons…….

  10. If we have directly experienced racism, perhaps we become sensitized to what can have as one choice, an interpretation of racism.

    Instead of arguing with someone’s emotional response, insist everyone feel as you do, why not allow that though you may not relate, it may be you the next time who has an emotional response that another has difficulty relating to….would a peace process look like people agreeing to disagree, allowing each other the respect and empathy of accepting there will always be differences between us?

    Whenever I hear one group criticized for “oversensitivity” I wonder when I will be next to be singled out as “oversensitive” about something I deeply feel.
    I prefer a biodiverse garden of differences that color our human landscape and add to its richness and depth. What would my learning process look like in the world if everyone around me experienced everything exactly as I did?

    Thanks for listening, that’s all I need, I don’t need your agreement.

  11. Please . . . I am so tired of hearing “Racism” everytime I turn on my TV. Look up the word spook in the dictionary and stop all this “racism” junk. Get a life!!!

  12. Give me a break! Maybe they should pull all of their “Crackers” from the shelves … Saltine Wafers, Ritz Wafers … etc.

  13. I think there are people in this world who, if they are looking for it, will find racism and diversity everywhere. How long as a nation are we going to continue to allow someone to claim “racism” and “discrimination” as an excuse? I mean we’re not banning school Thanksgiving plays because it’s insensitive to the native Americans or other traditions that may offend. I think this toy legitimately meant nothing more than spook, as in Halloween spirit and the purpose for the black figurine was not an attempt at racism, but more of an attempt at being secretive, spooky or scary in the darkness of night. We live in a world today where we are one in a nation of many, get used to it!

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