July 10, 2008

What to do when P.C. and minorities conflict?

Wal-Mart was trying to market to their growing Mexican shopper base in Houston, TX. One of the items they carried was a character name "Memin," who possesses exaggerated [African-American] facial features. But this, as you might expect, didn't sit well with the chain's African-American patrons:

But the dark-skinned Memin's exaggerated features in "Memin for President" came as a shock to Houston, Texas, Wal-Mart shopper Shawnedria McGinty.

"I was like, OK, is that a monkey or a boy?" McGinty said. "To me it was an insult."

She'd never heard of "Memin Pinguin." She bought a Spanish-English dictionary and tried translating but still didn't like what she saw.

"So I asked my boyfriend, does that look like a monkey to you?" she said. "And we went back and forth and he was like, no, that's a black woman," referring to the character's Aunt Jemima-like mother."

Here is an image of Memin. I can certainly see where Black Americans would be offended. Hell, I was. But not so fast, says Javier Salas, a Spanish-language talk show host on Chicago radio station WRTO:

"They will bring a smile to their face because we're so fond of that character. We respect him, we love him. And that's why it's so absurd for us to hear complaints from people who don't know, don't understand Memin."

Memin is a poor Cuban-Mexican kid with bug eyes, thick lips and protruding ears. The mischievous and caring boy helps his mother by selling newspapers and shining shoes.

"We grew up reading, learning and educating ourselves with a lot of the topics they always touched on, which was honesty, justice, tolerance. He was a very unique character," Salas said.

I agree with Salas that many terms and images in the Hispanic community do not connote the same things to the Caucasian and African American communities. I know this based on my fairly extensive experience with Latino culture and language. For example, my father-in-law's nickname is "Negro" -- pronounced "NAY-gro" in Spanish -- due to his dark complexion (his father was black, mom white). Such an appellation would obviously be deemed offensive here in the States; however, it is quite natural and common in Spanish-speaking countries.

Nevertheless, I gotta agree with Wal-Mart's decision to pull Memin products (this, despite my agreement with complete idiots Quannel X and Al Sharpton). Other companies have "modernized" some of their "outdated" characters over the years (see Aunt Jemima for one), and I don't think it'd be all that difficult for the creators of Memin to utilize a less offensive image for its U.S. market. Face it -- the image IS [very] offensive to the average American, and especially so for African Americans.

Posted by Hube at July 10, 2008 10:12 AM | TrackBack

Comments  (We reserve the right to edit and/or delete any comments. If your comment is blocked or won't post, e-mail us and we'll post it for you.)

Remember that Weird Harold character from the Fat Albert cartoon? Now that kid had some big lips. And then there was the one who looked like a pimp; I think his name was Rudy? Who knew Bill Cosby was such a racist!

Posted by: G Rex at July 10, 2008 12:11 PM

May I offer a quick rule of thumb on any issue involving race here in Houston?

Whatever side Quannell X is on, rational people belong on the other.

Posted by: Rhymes With Right at July 10, 2008 12:26 PM

Memin is a Hispanic comic book and was position for hispanic spanish speaking customers here the reason why the lady had to buy a dictionary we hispanic don't see things black and white like Americans do my brother is black and i'm hispanic white we both been through this many times we hispanic's are a crisol de razas which mean a mix of all race's.

Posted by: AJ at July 10, 2008 02:24 PM

AJ: As I mentioned in the post, I'm aware of Latinos' perceptions. But marketers have to be cognizant of ALL their clients' sensitivities, especially major ones. Portrayal of Black Americans has a sordid history in our country; I don't think it much to ask to either revise the 'toon for the American market or withdraw it altogether.

Posted by: Hube at July 10, 2008 02:45 PM

When I was a little girl, about 5 years old, my mother took me to visit an elderly friend of hers. I was bored as they sat and chatted, so my mom's friend gave me some old storybooks to read. One of them was "Little Black Sambo." Memin looks a lot like Sambo, so I can see pretty easily why African-Americans would be cheesed off at the character.

I was a trifle taken aback at the picture, myself.

Posted by: Bronwen at July 11, 2008 09:52 AM