[It should go without saying from the title, but if you’re not up for some upsetting imagery, don’t scroll down.]
Of all the holidays, old Valentine cards have the most racist images I’ve found by far. A lot of people have stumbled onto them this year and sent them to me. Most are things I’ve seen before, but kudos to those of you who found even more evil than I’d dredged up on my own! You obviously travel worse internet hideouts than I do.
I didn’t want to share them in the regular social media feeds, though. I’ve done it some in the past, but folk have told me lately that it pulls them out of the “Ha hah look at that weirdness!” vibe I try to keep. And I agree. But I still think it’s important to bring them up.
A lot of the humor in these old cards is simple anachronism. We don’t share the same context, and so things that were normal in a different time just seem insane to us now. And you can learn about the history and understand the contexts, but the initial reaction of WTF is still fun.
With the racist cards, though, things are way more complicated because we’re talking about WTF from more than just historical distance but also from a real ethical distance. And I should point out that it’s not just racist cards that have that — there are a TON of misogynistic cards, both intentional and subtextual, that come up, too. You’ve got anti-suffragette Valentines, class-based derisional humor Christmas cards, all kinds of stuff that most of us (I hope) find very wrong now. We really have to stretch to put our minds in a place where these kinds of things are entertaining. As a friend just put it:
“I’m not saying I’m blind to the historical racism, but seriously — a lynching on a valentine card meant to be humorous? Nothing says I love you like a funny corpse? A joyful murder? I guess I should be happy it doesn’t compute.”— Someone who’s otherwise an asshole. Yeah, you know who you are. heh heh…
All of this is to say that I’m sharing this partly for the WTF factor. But it’s more than that. I’m sharing these more as a reminder that awful things can be made to seem common, acceptable, and even enjoyable. (Remember that these were mostly for kids, and that makes it even worse.) But more than just pointing out flaws in our past, we have to be aware of things we’re doing now that folk in the future will see in the same way. If there’s one thing we should NOT take away from this, it’s the assumption that we are fundamentally better people than those in the past. On certain issues, sure: the fact that we’ve moved past these images being widely accepted is good. But it doesn’t mean that we’re spotless, too. We just may be blind to our flaws in ways that these folk probably were, too.
All I ask is that you not share these with a huge smirk. A small smirk, maybe. But a bit of self-consciousness, too…
(If you’re interested in more on these, look up Dr. Harvey Young. He’s presented on them in multiple places and, as I understand it, he’s working on publishing some studies of them as well. There are a couple write ups online (link) and an interview (link). There’s also a large African American community that collects racist “memorabilia’ like this, and there are very interesting and thoughtful reflections out there about the ethics of keeping this stuff (link).
Asian stereotypes were pretty common:
While those are pretty bad in terms of just being stereotypes, they get worse. A lot of the Native American images go heavy on the “savage” imagery, along with broken English:
But the worst stuff I think is in the African American imagery. Most of these are mid-century American, although a few things pop up from publishers in the UK. We’re far after the Victorian vibes of a lot of the stuff I share. But my best guess is that there was so much imagery like this from the US in the 30s, 40s, and 50s because of the growing awareness of racial tensions over segregation. It’s kind of like it’s reflecting the anxieties of the white class who were feeling that things wouldn’t stay like this forever. But then I’ve probably read too much post-colonial theory…heh heh.
They mostly consist of broken English, exaggerated facial features, common stereotypes like eating watermelon, black black skin, slurs like “darkie,” associations with poverty, and overall a general sense of “simple” (as in developmentally delayed) innocence. And then if they’re presented as African, they’re of course savage and cannibalistic. But things get even uglier toward the end, so consider yourself warned.
Then I saved the worst for last. This one is mind boggling. First off, it was something of a premium card because the “rope” is actual string. So this wasn’t just printed. It had to be hand-assembled, which meant that it cost more and was meant for consumers with more disposable cash. With some of these, you can imagine that the authors were just in need of images for mass production, and racist stock imagery was an easy go-to. But this one was deliberate. And hateful. And apparently popular enough that I’ve seen reproductions of different remaining cards. A lot of times, these cards will get scanned once and just reshared. But I’ve seen multiple versions which are in various states of use/preservation. That means it was popular enough to still be preserved in a lot of folks’ collections. As our Racist-in-Chief might say: sad.*
*I have wondered in the past if it was a fake. The tree and cliff look like something out of Dr. Seuss, and I’ve definitely seen fakes before. But, like I said, I’ve seen some without the signature in the bottom and a couple that have folds or real damage to the edges. So unless someone’s going to a lot of trouble, I’m pretty sure it’s real.
There. That should be enough to ruin your weekend.
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Well, I wish I could say I was shocked, but really I’m not.
I was a small kid in the 1970s and remember adults still using very racist language – my nan particularly. And the Black and White minstrel Show was still hugely popular here in the UK – white people in black face singing Old Man River etc. There was even a jam (jelly) company called Robinson’s who had a ‘gollywog’ (sorry, I cringe even typing the word) as their emblem. If you collected labels from the jars you could claim a soft toy like the emblem. My nan (yes, the same one) had a row of them on a shelf.
It’s horrific and unthinkable to depict people this way, but it was all still happening such a short time ago. Thanks for the considered post, Craig
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My great grandmother outlived my grandmother, up into the 80’s, and she would still talk about “race music” and “coloreds.” It was always totally strange (and I’m glad it was strange). There will always be hateful people and pockets of culture, but I always keep that in mind to remember how easy it was for otherwise good people to accept those attitudes as normal. And she was a good and wonderful person who was just unfortunate enough to have an entire culture reinforce for her that this was normal. So that’s one reason I share it: to remember that it’s so easy for this stuff to become “normal.” And it shouldn’t be. We should totally laugh at it. Hard. 🙂
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It’s a good point, Craig. I wouldn’t say my nan was a bad person – I adored her. But she was a young woman during the 1930s and that was a time when people put signs up on lodging house windows saying ‘No dogs, no Irish, no blacks’. Very different times and as you say, good to remind ourselves how unacceptable it is to treat any part of a population as ‘other’, whether that’s due to race, class, gender, sexual orientation.
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They are disturbing so I couldn’t look at most of them. I grew up in the 1970s and agree with Lynn Love, I also remember racism vividly. People were crass and ignorant back then. We’ve since evolved big time, though we still have a long way to go.
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Very true in all counts, Maryanne
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Hello, my grandfather was such a paradox. He was enlightened enough to support the Civil Rights movement during the 1950s-1960s, supported and helped the Black employees he supervised in his warehouse. Yet, it was such a habit for him and his generation to still say things like, “The other supervisors and I are going to go march with our N___ workers to help get them their rights.” Sigh.
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It’s frustrating. But it’s also important to remember that by standing up for them, he was risking a lot himself. He did the right thing. It took a lot of work and sacrifice and generations of effort to get people to change. We’re all still working.