Imagine volunteering at a second-hand store, sorting through donation bins. One day you find a marionette of a Mexican man in a sombrero or a board game called “Challenge the Chief,” with Indian caricatures on the box.
What do you do?
Or let’s say you’re like me, a frequent shopper at second-hand stores, and you come across a racially offensive depiction of a black man as a criminal, or—we’ve all seen this one—an African-American woman as someone’s cheerful domestic servant.
Even today, thrift stores routinely receive donations of knick-knacks, posters, and other items that were once popular but now are seen as embarrassing or repugnant. Worse, many are donated after being purchased from second-hand shops in the past.
Does the reselling of these objects perpetuate negative stereotypes that lie behind so much of the systematic racism today? If so, who decides which items should be taken out of circulation?
A few years ago, a local thrift store manager came to the Kauffman Museum in North Newton, KS, with these very questions. The result was a traveling educational exhibit using racially offensive objects, found in actual resale shops and at estate sales, showing the persistence of stereotypes and their relation to racism in American society.
I am honored that this exhibit, “Sorting Out Race,” is now set up at Rainbow and open to the public.
The exhibit entrance is designed to resemble the front door and display window of a typical second hand store. All who enter are cautioned: “This exhibition explores controversial themes and displays racially offensive images with the goal of stimulating a healthy community conversation about our ongoing struggles with race.”
Inside guests will find themselves in a colorful thrift store with a variety of objects—antique advertising cards, vintage children’s books, collectibles—each one projecting an offensive stereotype of someone who does not look like the shopper. Miniatures of a “savage warrior” and a “sleeping Mexican.” Knick-knacks featuring beloved advertising characters Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben. Team souvenirs featuring racially insensitive sports mascots and costuming. Walking through this carefully curated store of jaw-dropping kitsch, I had to remind myself that all of these disturbing images were commercially acceptable once (and perhaps in some areas, still are).
Now more than ever, we need to have honest conversations about the impact of the past on our values and priorities today. Our hope and prayer for “Sorting Out Race” is that visitors will use this nostalgic, if unsettling, stroll down retail’s Memory Lane to review their own historical inventories of racialized mementos and cultural memories.
“Sorting Out Race: Examining Racial Identity and Stereotypes in Thrift Store Donations” will be on display at the church from now until October 11. Free, with financial donations accepted. Groups welcome.