Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Kool-Aid Reference Conjures Varied Meanings

A few weeks ago I posted a crude photoshop job superimposing the face of Senator Barack Obama over the classic red pitcher icon representing Kool-Aid. My comments were very limited. I thought the message was clear: a news article quoting Obama saying Bush and Cheney do not warrant impeachment shows the crazed or delusional thinking that is implied when saying someone drank the Kool-Aid. I received some comments about this in private e-mail that warrant exploring here.

First, Dave Migliore, perhaps my oldest friend, wrote to caution me about this image. He said that Black people may find this reference offensive or even racist. I was incredulous and had never heard of such a connotation before. He sent me a link to the urban dictionary. I was sensitive to having set off his radar and definitely wanted to know if I had misstepped. However, the listings at that link did not make his case.

I then Googled Kool-Aid and offensive, and Kool-Aid and racist, and still found nothing that supported his concern, though I did turn up at least two good reads that reinforced my intended usage. From last February, see AlterNet's "No One's Drinking Bush's Kool-Aid on Iran". Then there is Michael Fauntroy, a prominent Black media figure who just last month wrote that he was "Lambasted for Not Drinking the Obama Kool-Aid":

It's hard out here for Black pundits/analysts/commentators who haven't come around to drinking the Barack-Obama-is-the-best-thing-since-sliced-bread-how-
racism-is-dead Kool-Aid. I have learned an unfortunate lesson in observing the Democratic presidential nomination fight: In too many segments of the country – Black and White – to express any skepticism about Barack Obama is considered political heresy. I'm blown away by this discovery, because it suggests a dangerous group think: Obama is the only agent of change and to not praise him at every opportunity is to support the status quo (And, oh, by the way, Hilary is the devil!).
This passage was the closest together I could even find the words Kool-Aid and racism, and the author is in no way claiming the Kool-Aid reference is racist or offensive. I would say he is using it in the exact same way that I did.

OK, breathing a little easier. Maybe kick back and enjoy a cold glass of, no wait a minute.

Along comes Tom Sebourn, program director/newsdude from local progressive talk radio station KGOE. By the way, check Tom's new blog. Tom was pissed off when he wrote to me, though not necessarily pissed at me. He needed to know that my posting was only coincidentally timed with another Obama Kool-Aid reference that had appeared in the Eureka Times-Standard. There was no connection and I had not even seen the image. He sent this link.

If you click that you'll see a cartoon with a sea of faces looking up at a pitcher of Kool-Aid in what is obviously Obama's hand. The cartoon has Obama asking "Drink the Kool-Aid?" and the crowd responding with Obama's tag line "Yes We Can." This image is in color, but the T-S had printed it in black and white. In the paper, Tom said it looked like the sea of faces were all non-white people. He mentioned to me that he and his father both found it "repugnant." The T-S has since printed a letter from Sebourn the senior.

As Tom and I delved a little deeper, he came to hypothesize that there is a generation cap dividing our association of the Kool-Aid reference. While I was just six at the time, Tom is a bit older and actually remembers seeing the Jonestown massacre on the news.

Tom said his association when hearing the Kool-Aid reference is always about a group event where people were forced at gunpoint to commit suicide. Because it was such an atrocity, Tom said, anyone old enough to remember may find more flippant references in bad taste, or worse. However, Tom did allow that the crazy/delusional implication has become sufficiently widespread and common that it should not cast a pall of racism on those who use it.

So I feel absolved of concerns I may have inadvertently made a racist post, however I think it would be interesting to read more opinions on Tom's theory of an age-based difference in perception of what the Kool-Aid reference means. Comments are welcome.


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Posted by Dave Berman - 10:17 AM | Permalink
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Hello David.

I followed your Kool-Aid Epic. Very interesting. I would tend to agree with you that it is by no means racist.
I am reminded of a story of a writer using the term niggardly in referring to the amount of money awarded either as a grant or an award or something and the response was that he had used the N word. Obviously the reader(s) who responded had no idea of the correct use of the word. There was even a call for the writers dismissal. NONSENSE. I have to wonder if Miggy didn't really have a complete understanding of the Massacre story and was reading the Kool-Aid portion as a "poor" mans drink and therefore racist.


Posted by Blogger Rella @ Feb 26, 2008, 11:59:00 AM
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