People love watermelon. Like many of you, I have eaten watermelon at work and enjoyed every single bit of it. The sweet fruit is often on decorative fruit trays at company functions, but you could be canned if you bring it as a gift for your coworkers.
Robert Pattison, a 41-year-old, learned an invaluable lesson on race relations when he introduced himself to his fellow firefighters at Engine 55 at Joy and Southfield in Detroit. Although he was keeping the “firefighters’ voluntary tradition” of bearing gifts at their meet and greet, the probationary firefighter decorated a watermelon with a pink ribbon gave it as a gift to his coworkers. Being axed for offensive and racially insensitive behavior is not what Pattison or some of his colleagues expected. If a new hire comes to work on his first day with donuts, cookies, or any edible treat, most employees will probably devour the free food. However, when 90% of your coworkers are black, bringing a watermelon to work definitely is not a wise. Even if no one reported him, someone is bound to be offended.
Because some of his Black coworkers viewed the watermelon racist, Pattison not only lost his job (before he even started work), the incident became the talk of the town as well as subject of water coolers, headline news, articles, blogs.
- Detroit firefighter fired for bringing watermelon as a gift, Firefighter axed for bringing watermelon to station (New York Post)
- Detroit firefighter fired for bringing watermelon to station (FOX2)
- Why intent doesn’t matter when a white guy gifts watermelon to his black co-workers (The Employer Handbook)
- Detroit Firefighter Fired for Bringing ‘Racially Insensitive’ Watermelon to Work (Breitbart),
- Man Fired For Bringing a Watermelon to Work (Inc. @RealEvilHRLady)
- Firefighter fired for gifting watermelon to mostly black station (NY Daily News)
- Show of Support for firefighter fired over watermelon (WNEM TV 5)
This might be difficult for some to understand because, seriously, with all things being considered, we really do not know Pattison’s intent. Nonetheless, inadvertently offending new colleagues is not a good idea. In times like these, workers need training on race relations and should know the racist history of watermelon.
But the stereotype that African Americans are excessively fond of watermelon emerged for a specific historical reason and served a specific political purpose. The trope came into full force when slaves won their emancipation during the Civil War. Free black people grew, ate, and sold watermelons, and in doing so made the fruit a symbol of their freedom. Southern whites, threatened by blacks’ newfound freedom, responded by making the fruit a symbol of black people’s perceived uncleanliness, laziness, childishness, and unwanted public presence. This racist trope then exploded in American popular culture, becoming so pervasive that its historical origin became obscure. Few Americans in 1900 would’ve guessed the stereotype was less than half a century old. – William Black, the Atlantic
If you need to get up to speed on the racist history of watermelon, read this article by William Black, for more information.