Yesterday I was talking to a young woman -- I’ll call her Terry -- about her current part-time job. She’s part of a team that visits local high schools, in pairs or individually, to do presentations on sexual health and awareness. She had a complaint about her boss to ask me about, since she knows I write this blog.
“I definitely try to be careful about anything even potentially racial when I’m presenting,” Terry said, “but then our boss said something that seemed to me like just, too much.”
“Yeah?” I said. “About what?”
“Well, when we’re explaining how to use a condom, we’re supposed to describe the shape it should have when you first put it on. So, we always say it should look like a sombrero, instead of a beanie.”
“Okay. I get it. It gets that shape because there’s supposed to be more air left at the end, right?”
“Right. So my boss says, ‘We really need to stop saying sombrero, and we need to come up with some other description.’”
“Because she says sombrero is racist!”
“Maybe it is. But you disagree.”
“Yes. I mean, I get that a sombrero is a Mexican thing, and a beanie isn’t racial or ethnic. But a sombrero IS a Mexican hat, isn’t it? And most people know what it looks like, right?”
“Most people, I guess. But I’m not a kid anymore, like the ones you’re presenting to. Do they know what a sombrero is?”
“Sure, I think so. But I don’t get how comparing a condom that looks the way it should to a sombrero is racist. A sombrero isn’t a person, it’s a thing. And it’s an ACTUAL thing.”
“Hmm. That’s true. So, you’re asking me if I think that’s racist too?”
“Right. Because I don’t think it is racist.”
I know Terry well, so I know that she cares and thinks about these things in a deeper way than most white Americans do. That is, she’s not one to throw around charges of “political correctness” when people claim that something is racist. In fact, I’ve never heard Terry describe anything as “politically correct.” So I knew she wasn’t just saying that her boss was being “pc,” and over sensitive, and brushing off her claim about the word “sombrero.” Terry really wanted to figure out HOW using “sombrero” in a presentation on sexual awareness is racist.
“Okay,” I said, “Let’s see.”
I was stalling. I wasn’t sure myself that “sombrero” in this situation is racist, and if it is, just why that’s so.
Terry was waiting.
“So you said most or all of the kids will easily know what a sombrero looks like.”
“Well, how do they know that? Wouldn’t they get those ideas from movies, and TV shows? Maybe from their textbooks too.”
“Right. It’s just common knowledge, you know? A sombrero is just a hat. That happens to be a Mexican hat.”
“Well, that’s true, but I bet these kids have common stereotypes in their heads about Mexicans.”
“And what would those be?”
“Um, lazy. Illegal immigrant.”
“Yes, I think so. So, does the image of a sombrero bring those associations to mind for your audience? I mean, when I was a kid, we had this kind of cartoon image of a Mexican person taking a siesta under a huge, cartoonish sombrero. The word ‘sombrero’ brings that image to mind, and the stereotype of Mexicans as lazy. Do you think it does that for your audience too?”
“Hmm. It doesn’t for me. I mean, I’m seventeen, so I’m not much older than these kids.”
“Okay, well, maybe it’s not racist to say ‘sombrero’ then.”
“Right. So far, I don’t see anything wrong with saying ‘sombrero’ when I’m talking about condoms. It’s a useful image because just about everyone knows what they look like.”
“Okay, let’s see. I’m not trying to find a way to defend your boss’s claim. And you know I’m not reflexively ‘pc’ either.”
“I’m just trying to see how it could be racist. So far, for me, I wouldn’t use it because even if the same stereotypes don’t come to mind for you that do for me, they might come to mind for someone in your audience. Maybe just for the older people in the room, like the teacher whose class your visiting.”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“Also, a sombrero is considered a Mexican thing, right? So, let’s say that you have someone in the class who’s from Mexico, or even somewhere else, in Latin America? Or what if they’re just, Latin American, period?”
“Yes, that happens. I do have students like that when I’m presenting.”
“So, I think it’s possible that you’re singling those students out with that word. I mean, the idea of a sombrero might bring that student to mind for the other students. They might even turn around and look at that student, or like, smile or smirk while they’re thinking about a sombrero, and also thinking about that student.”
“Hmm. I can see that. I mean, I can imagine that. But I’ve never noticed any students acting like that when I did say sombrero.”
“Well, yeah, but who knows what they’re thinking. Anyway, that might be a reason not to use that word.”
“Yeah, that makes sense,” Terry said. “I don’t want to single anyone out.”
“Right. It seems like that might happen, even though you’re not directly talking about this or that student when you use that word.”
“Actually, come to think of it, it’s true that sombreros get used for humor a lot. I mean, I see them on like, ‘Family Guy,’ and ‘King of the Hill.’ And they’re supposed to make the white person wearing them look ridiculous.”
“True," I said, "and that happens in other situations too. It’s like, there’s supposed to be something funny about sombreros. And yet, like you said, they ARE a real Mexican thing.”
“True,” Terry said. “Like those stupid racist ‘taco-and-tequila’ parties.”
“Yeah,” I said, “dressing up like that is supposed to be fun, and funny. A white person in a sombrero, again. It’s making fun of a real thing from Mexico. But then, you’re not making fun of sombreros in your presentations.”
“Right! So I still don't get what’s wrong with comparing a condom to a sombrero in that situation.”
“Well, it’s true,” I said, “that a sombrero is just a hat that happens to be from Mexico. But suddenly throwing the idea of a sombrero into unrelated situations brings certain associations or ideas to mind for people. Things that ridicule or trivialize Mexico and Mexican people. And Latinos more generally, I think. And also, you know, maybe those are things that distract from your presentation, too.”
We fell silent for a moment. I don’t know how fully convinced either one of us was.
“Well,” I said. “If you come up with any more solid ideas about it, I hope you’ll let me know.”
“Sure thing, you too. Thanks for the input.”
“You’re welcome. I think there’s more to say about the topic. Tell you what -- I’ll do a blog post and ask my readers about it.”
“Great idea. I’ll be sure to read it.”
“And by the way, did your boss suggest some other word? Something else besides sombrero, to describe how the condom is supposed to look?”
“No! That’s the other thing -- she doesn’t think we should use it, but then she didn’t come up with some other suggestion.”
“Dang. Thanks a lot, eh?”
“Yeah. That’s what I almost said.”
So, dear readers, what do you think -- should those who explain to a high-school audience the proper shape for an about-to-be-deployed condom avoid saying that it should look like a sombrero? And if so, can you suggest a viable substitute?
And finally, on a lighter, somewhat related note, since I do want to promote safe sex, here's one of the best condom ads I’ve ever seen.
Unless, that is, it’s racist . . .