Often considered collectable by vintage sellers, objects that display racial imagery can be found on kitchen tables, in pantries, on sports jerseys, in boxes of your grandma’s old knickknacks and in secondhand stores. And now, they can also be found at The Leonardo.
In one case at the museum sits a 1930s edition of “Snake Eyes,” billed as “a lively party game.” The box features caricatures of a Black man and woman, with exaggerated lips and cartoonishly large eyes. In another case is a collection of “Sleeping Mexican” figurines, dozing under their sombreros. On a shelf sits a box of Aunt Jemima brand pancake mix, but it isn’t vintage — this is the same image of a smiling Black “mammy” that, until recently, you’d see in many grocery stores.
The exhibit “Sorting Out Race” is full of objects that people may dismiss as harmless kitsch. But as the U.S. scrutinizes its racist past and present, the role of these commonplace items is being examined too, raising a big question: When such things are donated to thrift stores, should they be “sorted out” of circulation and discarded?
A figurine of a Black child holding a large slice of watermelon wouldn’t take up much space on a shelf, but the meaning behind it looms large. James Jackson III, founder and executive director of the Utah Black Chamber, says racial stereotypes are so “embedded into Americans’ culture that it’s no wonder why we’re experiencing the challenges of race relations that we have today.”
Depictions of people of color that cast them as lazy, subservient, poor, ignorant or even dangerous “create biases that exist today,” Jackson says. “It creates that racism that exists today.”
Jacqueline Whitmore, who is Mexican and the owner of Copperhive Vintage in Sugar House, says that when she encounters such items in stores, estate sales and auctions, they make her feel “uncomfortable.” Racially insensitive objects are “reinforced reminders of these stereotypes that ignore the genuine magic and uniqueness of all people,” she says.
So, what should be done with them? Deseret Industries and Goodwill, two organizations that operate thrift stores throughout Utah and the West Coast, train employees to spot such objects and prevent them from being set out on the sales floor.
Deseret Industries manager Brent Palmer says that “donations of a questionable nature are inconsistent” with the teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which runs the nonprofit. Chelle Fried with Goodwill says that “while the items may have a historical context, they don’t belong in our stores.”
Jackson agrees that these objects are too fraught to just be set on a shelf without context. But because of their history, he says, displaying them in a space like The Leonardo, along with educational text, presents an opportunity to start a “conversation” about race.
And as these items continue to be dug out of attics and storage units, Jackson says we have a responsibility to “make sure that those things are not displayed or shown anywhere.” Throw them away or recycle them, he suggests, or use them as educational tools for children.
“Let them know that these things used to happen because history is important,” he says. “We can’t ignore things that have happened in the past.”
Whitmore says she is “still learning” as she selects pieces to sell at Copperhive Vintage, but aims to not “include items in my store that reinforce stereotypes. I want to learn how things from the past can be harmful to cultures now. … I don’t want to represent a race of people as kitschy, or novelty. I want to represent people as the unique beings they are, in their beauty of yesterday and today.”
“Sorting Out Race,” curated by the Kauffman Museum, will be displayed at The Leonardo museum in downtown Salt Lake City, at 209 E. 500 South, until April 14. Visitors should purchase tickets online beforehand at TheLeonardo.org, and masks are required.