Take a look in your pantry and you might see a smiling Black man in a bowtie adorning a bag of rice. Walk a few steps to your fridge and there’s a serene Native American woman holding a box of butter. Sort through that stack of old children’s books you’ve been meaning to give away, and you realize those classic Disney storybooks have some troubling details you didn’t remember. And tucked in the back of your closet, there’s a forgotten Sunday School picture with a Jesus that looks suspiciously … European.
After a year where many Americans reckoned with widespread issues of discrimination and systemic racism, a new exhibition shows how even the most mundane everyday objects can carry ugly racial stereotypes. Curated by the Kauffman Museum at Bethel College and hosted by The Leonardo, “Sorting Out Race” explores how the food packages we buy, media we consume and sports teams we cheer for perpetuate racist ideas both blatant and insidious. The exhibit displays items bought at Kansas thrift stores from 2010-2015. Noticing how many of these products contained problematic imagery, the curators bought them to educate the community and foster dialogue about race in America.
The exhibition, which includes explanatory notes about issues like stereotype threat and racial segregation, is sure to inspire debates about the exact boundaries between well-intentioned and harmful, homage and caricature. While some items are relics of the Jim Crow era, many are from the present day. (Uncle Ben’s, Aunt Jemima and Land O’Lakes, all featured in the exhibit, didn’t change their brand packaging until 2020.) The exhibition’s power comes from representing complex, difficult racial dynamics in the most ordinary way possible.
The exhibition is a collaboration between The Leonardo and the Utah Black Chamber, who selected the exhibition to spark discussions about race in Utah. “We have always wanted to facilitate dialogue about the things that matter,” explains Alex Hesse, The Leonardo’s Executive Director. Hesse says that pandemic-forced interruptions inspired The Leonardo to consider what role they should play in the community. This soul-searching led to the partnership between The Leonardo and the Chamber, who will collaborate with the museum on future exhibitions and programs. They are also working with other Utah small businesses, including A Mano Pasta and Ken Sanders Rare Books. (Sanders created a pop-up Black history bookshop in the museum and is hosting a monthly book club for members.)
James Jackson III, founder and Executive Director of the Utah Black Chamber, says he never would have imagined an exhibition like this when he started the organization in 2009. Still, the collaboration with The Leonardo expands the UBC’s mission to build awareness and support Utah’s growing Black community.
Jackson, who grew up in Utah, remembers classmates making jokes about Aunt Jemima that made him uncomfortable. He says figures like Aunt Jemima “create careless stereotypes that distort reality and create negative labels.” He hopes the exhibit starts uncomfortable but necessary conversations about race, especially for young people. (The Leonardo hosts school groups and works with educators to provide access for students.)
For Utahns, this exhibition feels especially timely. A summer of protests against both local and national police brutality compelled many white Utahns to more seriously reckon with their privilege. Meanwhile, local colleges and high schools are considering name and mascot changes to eliminate racist connotations and imagery. These of-the-minute debates only makes “Sorting Out Race” more relevant to visitors. “We wanted to respond to the times we live in and to our community’s needs,” Hesse says.
“Sorting Out Race” will be at The Leonardo through April 14. The Utah Black Chamber will be hosting free panels about race in conjunction with the exhibition on March 16, March 30 and April 13. For more information on all of The Leonardo’s programs, visit their website.
Read more about Utah arts here.