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(image by the author for Hyperallergic)

(image by the author for Hyperallergic)

The US presidential election cycle has become a hotbed of coded memes and imagery. While the public and the media have proven defenseless against Donald Trump’s barrage of lies — too numerous to count, and by the time you debunk one another three have emerged — this new tactic has been accompanied by the exhausting realization that most voters don’t appear to care about truth, but are content with the reality show drama that is his political campaign. Earlier this month, Hillary Clinton’s campaign even had to publish what was probably a first in presidential history, an explainer about white supremacy and the Pepe meme. But the repulsive Skittles tweet shot out yesterday by Donald Trump Jr. is a new low in a race that has, from the beginning, been mired in reprehensible discourse.

The younger Trump’s tweet rebrands a rather familiar example of what some call the “poisonous M&M fallacy” with a new, racially charged meaning. The logic of the reasoning is flawed, based on an emotional appeal rather than real statistics or facts. As Emil Karlsson, writing on Debunking Denialism — a site “defending science against the forces of irrationality” — explains:

Why is the poisonous M&Ms analogy monstrous?

Because it can be used to prop up any kind of harmful stereotype about groups such genders, ethnicities, religious and political communities without having to engage the objections to unfair generalizations. In reality, the poisonous M&Ms analogy is a more manipulative version of the general tactic known as the “I know not all X are Y, but [flawed generalization]”.

… What sets the “Poisonous M&Ms” formation apart is that it…tries to defend discriminatory stereotypes by pumping intuitions in people who are statistically illiterate rather than to promote overt absurdities that most people already know are erroneous.

The insidiousness of the image is compounded by the added layers of meaning in switching the M&Ms of the now-familiar image to Skittles, which have come to symbolize the injustice faced by Trayvon Martin, and riffing off another popular (and vile) meme, “Trayvoning,” which, as the name suggests, involves recreating the dead teen’s last moments complete with hoodie, Skittles, and Arizona Iced Tea.

The idea at the root of the M&Ms or Skittles imagery is as old as Nazism itself. As Naomi LaChance explains on the Intercept, a 1938 children’s story by a leading Nazi propagandist claims that “a single poisonous mushrooms can kill a whole family, so a solitary Jew can destroy a whole village, a whole city, even an entire nation.”

The layers of meaning beyond those more obvious aspects are harder to decipher. Skittles are being assimilated in a mysterious way into the coded language of white supremacy. In April, an episode of CNN’s United Shades of America featured Black comedian W. Kamau Bell speaking to members of the Ku Klux Klan. During the conversation, he gets this strange story featuring the colorful candy:

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But like I was saying earlier, everybody has a — has a place in this nation. I would just like to see a separate white nation.
If you take a bag of Skittles —
BELL: Yes.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: — there’s different colors in that bag.
BELL: All right.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You can mix the colors —
BELL: Yes.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: — and it still tastes OK.
BELL: Yes.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But if you separate the colors and then taste the individual flavors, it’s even better.
BELL: So are you telling me that when you have a bag of Skittles, you separate all the colors before you eat them?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Every time.

What do Skittles mean for the white power movement that is slowly emerging into the mainstream? If Donald Trump’s campaign has perfected anything, it’s the ability to mix and match the most nasty cultural refuse with internet-friendly iconography to generate new and insidious images that communicate to a target audience while leaving most others in the dark.

For its part, Skittles owner Wrigley is downplaying the remark. The company responded to a reporter with the following:

The notion that Syrian refugees harbor poison is something that cuts deep into the history of nativist bigotry in this country. On April 20, 1921, US Representative Lucian Walton Parrish of Texas argued for new limitations on immigration. He declared:

Those who are out of sympathy with our Constitution and the spirit of our Government will be here in large numbers, and the true spirit of Americanism left us by our fathers will gradually become poisoned by this uncertain element.

… There can be nothing so dangerous as for us to allow the undesirable foreign element to poison our civilization and thereby threaten the safety of the institutions that our forefathers have established for us.

His words underlined the fear that the unassimilated immigrant threatened this country, and soon enough Congress enacted the Immigration Act of 1924, which excluded Asians and other people the country’s elites considered undesirable. It’s not a coincidence that just this week Trump said immigrants “have to love this country. They have to love us.” We can only guess what the repercussions could be.

The facts are that, of the 745,000 refugees resettled in the United States since September 11, 2001, only two Iraqis living in Kentucky (1 in 372,500) have been arrested on terrorist charges (for aiding al-Qaeda in Iraq). As a point of comparison, 1 in 20,000 New Yorkers are murdered each year.

As a Syrian, I can’t help but listen to this rhetoric and feel sickened that it has come to this, reducing refugees of all ethnicities, beliefs, and backgrounds to a symbol of fear. As an art critic, I see the imagery of this election and all signs pointing to a volatile result. The images are strangely familiar, but I’ve come to characterize them as corporate meme magic realism: sanitized to be shared on social media, funny enough to feel innocuous, but divorced from facts. This scary language is becoming the lingua franca of an emerging global movement that shields the elites and satiates members of the public who just want to believe they are good enough, smart enough, and that it’s always other people’s fault.

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Hrag Vartanian

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic. You can follow him at @hragv.

35 replies on “White Supremacy’s Strange Skittles Obsession”

  1. There is an important difference between the Nazi’s treatment of the Jews and opposition to immigration. The Nazi’s were trying to kick out and then exterminate German citizens who were born and raised in the country and had every right to exist in that country. They were in fact Native Germans who were Jewish. When the Nazi’s invaded other countries , they tried to do the same thing with native residents of the other countries .

    Refugees and other who want to come to the US have no legal or natural right to do so. Excluding them from entering into the US does not violate their rights because they never had the right to come here in the first place. Further , taking in refugees is an expensive proposition. We have a slow growth economy with a high unemployment rate . Most economist believe the headline rate of 5% unemployment is deceptive because of faulty methods used by the BLS in counting employment . The real unemployment rate is somewhere between 9% to 12% as per Joseph Stiglitz. In short , there is no place for refugees here . We can’t aford them and when the possibility of some of them being dangerous is considered , the whole idea is a non starter .

    1. A valid and important point. Many on the left seem to promote inundating our country with refugees and illegal immigrants without any regard to the opinions of other citizens of the usa. When you protest you are usually shamed by being called a racist. I’m also of Syrian decent and I oppose settling massive amounts of refugees in the USA. Other solutions can be found such as creating safe zones in Syria as well as putting pressure on other Islamic countries in the region to take in their coreligionists. We must have a serious discussion of options without pointing fingers and name calling if one doesn’t agree with flooding our country with refugees.

      1. I agree that we need to have a serious and mutually respectful discussion of options, and that establishing safe zones in majority-Muslim places is an option that deserves careful consideration.

        I don’t agree that the issue of allowing refugees in is a “non-starter” on economic grounds. I believe that a nation as rich as ours can and should reprioritize our spending and make substantive changes to our values and practices vis a vis taxation and corporate governance.

        I also agree that the opinions of people from various regions and walks of life should be carefully considered, and that that is something that many of my fellow left-leaning people have failed to do. I think that many people who are left-leaning live in places where immigration is more commonplace, and doesn’t feel as threatening from an economic or cultural standpoint. This, combined with the overall immigration numbers that are generally accepted by left-leaning people, have caused many of us to dismiss this issue and the way it is affecting our neighbors in “redder,” less densely populated places, without realizing that other parts of the country are experiencing quite dramatic demographic changes that are destabilizing.

        I would strongly support a policy change that gave localities more agency over where people are resettled, and which also provided support for existing residents of a community to deal with their feelings around these issues.

        At the same time, I think that one thing that is often missed by people who are right-leaning is that a charge of racism is, in my opinion, not brought based merely on someone’s view on immigration, but on whether or not they use racially coded language and a hostile tone to express those views. I think that there is a genuine effort on the part of many left-leaning people to be less strident and hypocritical and more empathetic in the way we discuss these issues. I hope that there is also a concerted effort on the part of right-leaning people to address the real issues of personal prejudice and cultural bias that exist in their communities. I am not aware that that is happening; instead, I find that the right is “doubling down” on using bigoted language as a defiant, and simplistic, resistance to “elite PC” culture. The current anti-intellectual climate is addressing real problems, but also creating additional problems. Specifically, it is causing many right-leaning people to dismiss out of hand the views of college-educated people who don’t use the same type of language they do. Both sides are responding to charactiures of the other, and valuable nuance is lost.

        Because of that, I get excited when I find conversations happening with people that I disagree with politically but can speak with civilly. So I get excited and go on far too long! Forgive me.

      2. flooding our country with refugees?
        there are 300 million people in america. obama is admitting 10,000 refugees. this is a nanoflood. even a million refugees would be literally insignificant.

    2. The Nazis clearly labelled the Jews as foreigners – and given America is a country of immigrants claiming that current immigrants are different than previous ones is obviously not true.

      As for cost, every single study I’ve ever seen has shown immigrants, even those here undocumented, provide a net economic benefit. These people are customers, employees, etc.

      1. and you need to catch up on current events. News flash its not 2010 any longer. We are in a slow growth economy . annul gdp growth is not quite 2% and unemployment levels remain high as do large numbers of Americans who have dropped out of the work force. Economists from the left and right agree on this. Immigration may have been a plus in the past when the economy was doing better like in the 19th century or in the 1980’s and 1990’s but that formula is no longer working. Further, this discussion is not on immigration in general but on refugee immigration which much different than people who decide to come here for economic reasons. Refugees are by definition running from something and usually arrive here with nothing. That is precisely the case with the Syrian refugees . If they come here there will be high costs associated with getting them properly settled , housed , educated , fed along with medical attention. Estimated cost per Syrian refugee: $65,000 and that’s conservative. Economically , each Syrian refugee will be have a negative effect on our economy , not a plus. It would be far cheaper for us to send money to take care of them where they are at than to bring them here.

        1. The economy is better than that and you’re lying about Syrian refugees and the economy. Most have family, like me, who will help them. You’ve never meet a Syrian refugee, that’s clear.

        2. My parents arrived here with nada and yet they built TWO businesses from the ground up and left me (when they died) with over half a mil in equity, not to mention the property. So you, dude, know nothing about what drives people forced to immigrate from poorer economies. America can be land of opportunity for people willing to work to the bone. Or is that the real problem? I sense it is.

    3. The reason so many people correctly equate donald drumpf’s espousing nazi ideology stems from his constant blaming of immigrants and mexicans for our country’s economic problems. While he hasn’t used some of hitler’s buzzwords like “degenerates”-(killers, rapists,drug dealers, thugs and terrorists are pretty similar)- to describe them, he has been very persuasive and able to spin fear of those two groups exactly the same way the nazi’s force fed the Germans their words of hate….There’s very little difference going on between them.

    4. refugees do indeed have a legal right (the reason this country has always taken in refugees) and a natural right, in that it is self-evident that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, among which are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. all. not just lucky you and me.

    5. “Restricted immigration is not an offensive but purely a defensive action… We cast no aspersions on any race or creed, but we must remember that every object of our institutions of society and government will fail unless America be kept American.”

      1. That would be, of course, President Coolidge on signing the National Origins Act in 1925, which served effectively to bar immigration by Jews before and during WWII.

  2. “The US presidential election cycle has become a hotbed of coded memes and imagery. ”
    Nothing new, every election is a “hotbed” of coded memes and imagery. That is what advertising and marketing is all about.

  3. In the first place, Trump’s is simply a false analogy – especially in the US, famous for being a population made up of immigrants. Unless you imagine one Skittle saying to the other “One of us must be poisonous.” But why take as a given that the candy is poisoned? It makes no sense unless…

    Secondly, it carries an intentionally bullying & belittling [othering, if you prefer] charge: this group is known to be tainted. Therefore it follows that… Except the premise is false. It assumes that we can distinguish clearly between us (untainted) and them (tainted). But in what way is a population that *already* shoots/otherwise kills each other untainted? It’s like one Skittle saying to the other: “One of us must be poisonous (because I know I am)”.

    Thirdly, it targets the Syrian refugees particularly – but on what basis? The fact is, of course, that the same charge *exactly* could be laid against *any* outsider group. With as much truth value (i.e. none).

    Fourthly, it aims to stoke the fear. It isn’t about truth or analogy or clear-sightedness. Its intention is solely to raise the stakes. It says – without saying – that these less-than-humans are tainted, that we already know they are tainted, that we do not even need to explain in what way they are tainted. We know. And what terrifies me is the ‘we’ that is being articulated here.

    Fifthly, it is simply despicable. Bring me your poor, your tired and your hungry: but the Micks who are already here spit on the Kikes that come after who spit on the Wops and the Spics and so on and so forth until we spit on the Syrian refugees. Did we really want this cycle to continue? Isn’t it time we broke it?

    Sixthly, if Trump says so, then it must be false. I refer you to most of what he has previously said.

  4. You caught exactly the correct nuance when you wrote “it’s always other people’s fault.” These fearfully crazed people can’t accept responsibility for anything, nor accept life as an unpredictable adventure. Their minds are rigidly set in “should land” and very selfishly so. It’s sad to realize the promise of widespread media being a tool of intelligence-bulding has been subverted into a tool for selling, and separating people into pools of selfishness. Fearmongering has always worked to payoff brutality, to enrich bullies – we can only hope it can finally slow down in early November . . .

  5. Godwin’s law (or Godwin’s rule of Nazi analogies) is an Internet adage asserting that “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazism or Hitler approaches 1″—​​that is, if an online discussion (regardless of topic or scope) goes on long enough, sooner or later someone will compare someone or something to Hitler or Nazism.
    Wikipedia
    Anytime Nazi or Hitler is used…the writing becomes a lazy meme.

      1. I agree, I feel there is more danger to be found in the desensitization that “Godwin’s law” provides. I feel no one should get to gloss over an appropriate comparison just because it has been ignorantly or improperly used by others.

    1. and the corollary: any time something is compared to hitler or nazis on the internet, sooner or later someone will bring up Godwin’s law.

  6. Can someone provide me with a list of mass killings from any one group of people that unites together that is even one 10th of this list from the last 100 year (excluding Nazi Germany): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Islamist_terrorist_attacks

    Hrag Vartanian who wrote is article was born in Aleppo, Syria but raised in Toronto, Canada. He is gay and I’m more than positive he never would want to go to Syria professing he is gay or kissing another man in public. He wouldn’t be alive longer than 3 months or he might be killed on the spot depending on who he was talking to.

    Keep speaking about America and Americans poorly, Hrag. Enjoy real freedom. Your freedom to call Americans that disagree with you White Supremacists. I think there is something mentally wrong with your logic

    1. I’m pretty sure there are places where he wouldn’t want to walk down the street in the US holding another man’s hand. Add to that his pigment – it’s possible he wouldn’t last very long there either.

    2. it’s a bogus compendium, conflating completely disparate groups/ideologies; muslim brotherhood, al qaeda/isis, shiites, palestinians/Hamas, random lone loonies who claim inspiration from al qaea or isis or whomever, local nationalists, etc. under the banner of “islamist” when in fact most of these groups hate each other as much as the west. it’s like decrying both the Axis and the Allies in WWII as “militant Europeanism”.
      might as well include both sides of the entire iraq/iran war while you’re at it if you’re going to go that route.
      to connect the 1985 Borobudur bombing with 9/11 with an attack on a pizzeria in Jerusalem is a sign of a bigotry which is both lazy and ignorant and serves only to confuse truly separate problems and obscure realistic solutions to them by suggesting only giant overblown bigoted reactions will be considered.
      although i do not know if this applies to you, this simplistic approach is sadly and predictably the province of those who never had a thought regarding the muslim world before 9/11/2001 and became experts on it during the next week.
      including president Bush, who came into office not being able to name the president of Pakistan (or accurately describe how he came to power) and left office having destabilized Iraq because of similarly conflating Saddam and 9/11.

  7. “The facts are that, of the 745,000 refugees resettled in the United States since September 11, 2001, only two Iraqis living in Kentucky (1 in 372,500) have been arrested on terrorist charges (for aiding al-Qaeda in Iraq). As a point of comparison, 1 in 20,000 New Yorkers are murdered each year.” Right on. Statistics are a powerful thing, and something most people ignore in this reality-show-addicted nation.

    However, if we apply the logic of statistics to Black Lives Matter, you may not be happy about the result: University of Toledo criminologist Dr. Richard R. Johnson examined the latest crime data from the FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Reports and Centers for Disease Control and found that an average of 4,472 black men were killed by other black men annually between Jan. 1, 2009, and Dec. 31, 2012, … while 112 black men died from both justified and unjustified police-involved killings annually during this same period.”

    All black lives matter, not just those taken by whites.

    1. Which is utterly irrelevant to the issues of abuse of police power . . .. if you want to compare the rates of black people killed by white vs black cops, please do so, but the results won’t fit the narrative you’re so eager to promote.

  8. “This scary language is becoming the lingua franca of an emerging global movement that shields the elites and satiates members of the public who just want to believe they are good enough, smart enough, and that it’s always other people’s fault.”

    Oh, yeah, this riffraff that grovels at the feet of their #SaffronDon really qualify as ‘elites.’ No, it wasn’t that long ago they would have been the intended target of eugenics here in this country and they really shouldn’t forget that. They really are not smart.

    1. I think most of the elites I’m talking about aren’t obvious from the outside but they benefit. I wrote this also thinking of that layer of the art world that benefits from this type of slippery critique that wallows in itself. That includes some collectors, gallerists, trustees, bluechip artists, critics, curators, etc.

      1. Sadly, I wouldn’t know about that here. Out here in the sticks it’s all pretty much the same. There is no culture at all that I can see in the typical patriotic bumpkin/Trump supporter. These people have no use, whatsoever, for the arts or education, no use for beauty or the finer things in life, they’re anti-intellectuals, primitive and crude, and proud of it.

  9. I’m one million times more threatened by white supremacists who run around with guns and bomb churches and occupy government buildings than I could ever be by a refugee. And those white skittles look like poison pills.

    This nation was built by immigrants, as the current grandchildren/great-grandchildren of white immigrants seem to have UTTERLY FORGOTTEN somehow. As the first gen child of Greek immigrants, oddly enough, I remember it just fine.

    Pulling up the ladder behind you is low behavior. These people are lower than low.

  10. corporate meme magic realism hits the nail on the end… thanks for the insightful commentary… it’s a sh*tshow…

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