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Today is Human Rights Day, a reminder to look upon other humans as “human” and deserving of human rights.

More than 20 years ago, while I was working in a state department in another state, my supervisor called a departmental meeting to discuss some issues. I was the only one responding to my supervisor’s questions. Finally, my supervisor said, “Well, Peggy, we could have discussed this over a cup of coffee and a piece of watermelon.” My face got hot, and my stomach churned. My co-workers turned red and looked down. You could have cut the silence with a knife. I was the only African-American present.

All of us knew that the watermelon reference was a direct hit at me as an African-American. My supervisor turned red and left the room.

Historically, in the United States African-Americans have been caricatured as black children with “too-red lips stretched to grotesque extremes as they opened to chomp down on watermelon. … The watermelon became a symbol of the broader denigration of black people … the image perpetuated by a white culture … depicting (African-Americans as) the inferior race … interested only in such mindless pleasures as a slice of sweet watermelon.” The caricature is hurtful.

For this reason, many African-Americans shy away from acknowledging a liking for watermelon. Food as a weapon can be used in a variety of ways to hurt others. For example, referring to a German by the term “kraut” – a disparaging, shortened version of “sauerkraut” that came into use during the World Wars – is offensive.

In a December not long ago, three other employees and I gathered in a room to work on a special project. I was the only African-American in the room. One of the employees suggested that I play “a game” while waiting to begin the project. The game turned out to be hangman (with a drawing made of a female with a noose around her neck) with the mystery word “watermelon.”

Because the employee who suggested the game is from another country, I preferred to think that it was just coincidental that he chose the game hangman and the word watermelon. However, to keep him and the others from potentially offending African-Americans, I sent them an e-mail informing them of the sensitivity of African-Americans to nooses and watermelon and explaining why. The person who initiated the game thanked me for the information.

Two months later, in February, I alone was summoned to Human Resources, where I was reprimanded by a Caucasian and an African-American for sending the e-mail and accused of being “passive-aggressive” and “a rabble-rouser.” I insisted that my e-mail was not angry and was sent to avoid future discomfort. Ironically, the next day, the Associated Press printed a story entitled: “Bush: Noose displays ‘deeply offensive.’ President says ‘They are wrong. And they have no place in America today.’”

Hmmmm. In 2008 the United States elected Barack Obama, an African-American, to be its next president, an election many people believe was a sign of America’s racial tolerance and progress. There’s no doubt that it represented progress, but let’s not be naïve enough to assume that the skinheads who plotted to kill president-elect Obama along with many other African Americans are the only people consumed by bigotry.

Food and nooses are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to bigoted actions and words that deny certain humans their rights as humans. There still exist those humans who, like the pigs in “Animal Farm,” feel more equal than others.

Peggy Tarr

Peggy Tarr has been a columnist for the Evanston RoundTable since its founding in 1998. Born in Bruce Springsteen's hometown of Freehold, New Jersey, she graduated from Rutgers University with a degree...