Chin: Not Just a Bowl of Skittles

There’s a tradition of damaging rhetoric when it comes to refugees.

by Clara Chin | 10/7/16 12:20am

Donald Trump’s son recently faced criticism for a tweet that compared Syrian refugees to a bowl of Skittles. Accompanied by a graphic of a bowl filled with Skittles, Donald Trump Jr. wrote, “If I had a bowl of Skittles and I told you just three would kill you. Would you take a handful?” Most of the American public found that this image was offensive, trivializing the hardships of refugees and demonstrating a lack of sympathy. After deleting the tweet, Trump Jr. called his post a metaphor for “risk and probability” — but this doesn’t make the image any less problematic.

First of all, his probability metaphor is inaccurate: one would need an Olympic-sized swimming pool full of Skittles to find three bad ones, according to CNN’s Chris Cuomo. Trump Jr. also said that people, presumably English majors like myself who unpack metaphors for a living, “look for a subtext that doesn’t exist.” But unfortunately for Trump Jr., subtext does not have to be intended in order for it to be present. Not only are Skittles an already politically charged symbol, but food metaphors have been used historically to make sense of American heterogeneity.

When I was in elementary school, my class had to sing a song about the great American melting pot. According to the song, a diverse set of people live harmoniously in America, and the United States embraces immigrants with open arms. Neither seems to be the case now. During the presidential debate last week, Lester Holt asked Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump how they would “heal the racial divide.” Trump has continued to use discriminatory rhetoric to discourage immigration, and the “birther” conspiracy theory about President Barack Obama has reemerged. In my little elementary school bubble, the idea of the melting pot still seemed plausible and pleasant. After all, many members of my extended family are immigrants who come from various parts of the world, including Vietnam, Jamaica and Colombia. I attended a high school with a large Asian demographic and attended writing workshops in Los Angeles that attracted an even more racially diverse participant group.

But like Trump Jr.’s tweet, the melting pot metaphor grossly reduces political issues and masks political tension and tragedy. The melting pot analogy, which has been re-appropriated to symbolize American unity, contains an ominous subtext. The term comes from Israel Zangwill’s play of the same name; it implied assimilation and, as The New York Times then described, a “mysterious force which blends all foreign elements in one homogeneous mass.” The term was employed to encourage a specific kind of unity. In other words, it arose out of racial fears and an attempt to force immigrants to assimilate to supposed American ideals and culture.

Trump Jr.’s analogy works much in the same way, reducing complex political issues to a mere symbol. This takes out any historical, political and emotional contexts. The Skittles analogy is even more dangerous than the melting pot analogy because it explicitly demonstrates, and therefore normalizes, fear of difference. Whereas the melting pot metaphor contains anti-immigrant, pro-homogeneity subtext, the Skittles analogy makes paranoia acceptable. The analogy suggests several fears. First, the use of colorful candy hints at a fear of people of color. The bowl filled with Skittles connotes a fear of masses, which is another age-old fear that dates back to the panic caused by labor unions and other groups that changed the status quo. Third, there is a fear of infection from outside, unknown forces. Why should we fear a rogue, “poisonous” refugee any more than we should fear any other rogue, “poisonous” person in the U.S.? Thus, the analogy reflects a fear of outside forces, suggesting that our pure country can be “infected” when encountering differences.

To those who have few interactions with immigrants, refugees or just people of color, I understand why immigration might seem like a mysterious, unknown force. This may be one reason why Trump’s voter base rests in Utah, Nebraska and other inland states that are less racially diverse. People living in less diverse states, or states that do not have refugee support networks, build their knowledge of immigration mostly through information and ideas spread by the media. When it is difficult to sift through long articles or read detailed facts, Skittles and melting pots are an easy way out of understanding complexity. Food metaphors simplify an issue that, frankly, isn’t simple. Reducing immigration and the refugee situation to a metaphor means that the public must fill in the blanks for themselves, losing sight of reality and political context.

Trump Jr.’s statement sounds ridiculous, but it’s not the only deceptively fun, delicious metaphor about immigrants and refugees coming to the U.S. For those who find the melting pot metaphor inadequate, like my second grade teacher, a salad bowl better demonstrates the celebration of diversity in America. But none of these food metaphors truly captures what it means to be an immigrant, refugee or person of color in America. The U.S. consists of politically, ideologically and demographically different states and regions. Logically, it may be difficult for people living in Los Angeles to understand the political situation of someone living in Arkansas, and vice versa. While the racial demographics of the U.S. have changed overall, some cities’ demographics have not changed for decades. Much of the regional tension and fear of change is displaced and personified through the refugee crisis. The anti-immigrant, anti-refugee rhetoric of the Trump campaign is not an anomaly; rather, it reveals the regional fragmentation of the U.S. running contrary to its long espoused myth of cultural acceptance.