Susan Choi


talks with

Steven Heller


Venues for racialist imagery:
Cast iron lawn jockeys
Children’s books
Toothpaste billboards

During the nineteenth century, racist imagery in the popular press was as American as apple pie. A large helping of “benign” black, Jewish, Irish, Mexican, and Native American caricatures and stereotypes filled newspapers and magazines, adorned product packages and advertisements, and illustrated books. The old melting pot overflowed with comic characters that today are considered demeaning at best, downright disgusting at worst. But back when ethnic and racial differences were threatening, and the word consciousness was barely in the dictionary, appallingly crude ethnic stereotypes were the favored commercial trademarks and cartoon entertainments. In fact, many of these depictions—which some considered a right of immigrant passage—were thought to be “friendly,” as in a friendly mascot, or as they were known in the advertising industry, “trade characters.” Yet in addition to integrating these second- and third-class citizens into society as objects of humor, the constant barrage of distorted characterizations ghettoized entire peoples according to physical and linguistic traits. Eventually, by the mid-twentieth century, much (though not all) of this mass-media stereotyping ceased, but the cultural misconceptions continued.

Steven Heller, an art director for the New York Times for more than thirty years (as well as a prolific author, editor, publisher, curator, and lecturer) has long collected artifacts from this “golden age” of pictorial racism. The following pages contain selections from his collection, accompanied by a conversation with novelist Susan Choi about the images, their question of their relevance today, and Heller’s impulse for collecting them. Choi, a winner of the Asian American Literary Award and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, conducted the interview over email last fall.


SUSAN CHOI: It’s ironic because for me, part of the appeal of the images in your collection lies in their seeming outdatedness. I feel a sort of inverted nostalgia, both reproachful of and condescending toward our racist forebears. In other words, I like to imagine that we as a society have moved on, but this is a deluded idea; of course we haven’t moved on in any thorough sense, and perhaps we haven’t moved on at all. The “Jap Hunting License” in your collection exists today in almost the same form exactly, except for having been updated to permit hunting “terrorists”—read “turbaned Arabs.” The sheet music for “A Pale Face Pow Wow” reminds me of the controversy surrounding the name of the Washington Redskins football team.

Let’s assume this: racist thinking and image-making is alive and well. What, then, are our responsibilities here, if any? Do we speak up, make these images problematic to others who don’t necessarily see them that way? Do we decline to consume products marketed with offensive racial stereotypes? Perhaps I’m being a bit of a Pollyanna, but given that we both find a lot of continuity between the images in your collection and those that surround us, the question interests me. For example, none of us are decorating our homes with funny pictures of big-nosed Jews, yet we’re watching the commercials with the “boisterous” black woman, and buying the products she hawks. Is there something hypocritical in our active condemnation of the old images, while we passively consume the new ones?

STEVEN HELLER: I only wish we’d come a long way since the days when these vintage images were prevalent and acceptable. They’re only outdated in certain respects, and they continue to tickle some funny bones and lesser appendages. After all, racism is built into our country’s heritage—it’s written into parts of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. All men are not created equal. If you have land, are white, and have balls, you have the vote. Otherwise, you take your knocks as a member of the exploited stereotype classes.

But what about the Redskins? Native American images—generalized and stereotyped—have been exploited in our commercial culture for decades, and still are. The Redskins are singled out because “red skin” sounds pejorative. To the contrary, Land O’Lakes, Argo cornstarch, and various other products that use Native American representations are sanctioned in the same way Aunt Jemima is accepted. Do we call these racist? Racialist? Or simply American?

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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