Friday, February 3, 2012

Cute Caucasian Child Syndrome and Other Instances of Racial Skewing in Gardening Catalogs

... a highly unscientific survey, I assure you, but based on years of observation.  I've written about this phenomenon before, but probably three people read it then, so it seemed time to restate.  This may not be a post so much for African-American Heritage Month (if you want that, go see what Michael's up to) as it is for Month You Start Actually Looking At The Catalogs Instead Of Madly Preparing Your Order, but let it be my white girl's gesture toward equality.

So, not every company makes it as obvious as Baker Creek (the Gettles have a very cute daughter who is clearly tops in the Adorably Posing With Enormous Vegetables field), but you may or may not have noticed that along with the Cute Caucasian Children in the seed catalogs, there are a lot of other white people and not so many people of any other race.  Well, let me rephrase:  there are not a lot of people in the catalogs, not when compared to the number of vegetables and flowers.  Some catalogs avoid humanity altogether, and in some the human presence is subtle.  But when it's there, it's white.

To choose one example, not entirely at random but based on the relative prominence of human skin therein, the 2012 Territorial Seed Company catalog has, by my count, 55 photos that include people or parts of people (hands, for the most part; don't be imagining anything else, now) in which skin color is reasonably visible, and I interpret 100% of these as representing Caucasian heritage.  (Two of the same Cute Caucasian Child included, appropriately enough showing off the Cute Stuff Pepper.)  Misinterpretations based on degree of tan may exist, but mostly they look pretty pale.  I'm not picking on Territorial; this is a near-universal phenomenon.

Now, I can see where it comes from.  Seed companies and garden supply outlets do not have enormous budgets.  They're not hiring models; they're using their staff to pose with tillers and hold up bean pods.  And most of these companies are based in pretty white areas of the U.S., so most if not all of the staff is white.  (Territorial has a photo of the staff, with TINY faces so I can't tell for sure, but yeah, pretty much pale.  Based in Oregon.  Maine is another big seed company center.  Wisconsin, Missouri, the rural regions thereof, you can see the trend.)  I'm not saying that white people who love plants and have a secret longing to become hand models shouldn't go to work at these places.  I'd love to work at one of them.  Nor do I know anyone non-white who's decided to boycott seed companies based on who's demoing the hats and gloves and handfuls of red wiggler worms.  It's possibly not that big a deal.  On the other hand, how hard would it be to pull in a friend of color when it's time to take the photos?  No one needs to know you paid them in free seeds and a meal of heirloom veggies, because that just might possibly be interpreted less than positively, but as long as everyone agrees, fine.

A couple of minor exceptions:  Landreth does use this lovely historic illustration to advertise the African-American Heritage Collection, and since they have no modern photos at all except of plants, it's about as good as you're going to get.  And Seeds of Change usually has a few non-white faces in the catalog, though usually in the context of We Do Inner City Projects Yay Us, or occasionally because non-white farmers grow seed for them.  The hand models are mostly white.

I'd love to see Southern Exposure buck the trend; right now they don't even have hands in their photos, so no chance.  Nice veggies, though.


  1. We're getting close to being a "majority minority" country, which is a very weird word construction, at least to me. Even in NH, which is very white, the refugees settled in Manchester have brought their local foods with them and are among the most active gardeners around, I understand. Some locals are trying out their vegetables and fruits, and there might very well be a market here.

  2. I am certain you mean well, and I thank you for your caring article, but would it be possible for all of us Master Gardeners to refrain voluntarily from using the word "hispanic" to describe people's physicality? Latin Americans are as racially diverse as non Latin Americans, and it is impossible to describe them as having the same race, i.e. features, physical characteristics and skin colour. Any Latin American can be white (Caucasian), black, Asian, Native American, or mixed. It is just as ignorant and bigoted to assume that everyone in Latin America is non white as it is ignorant and bigoted to assume that everyone in the United States is white. Since you seem to be fostering respect for the racial diversity that exist in the United States, it would likwise seem that you would want to champion the same respect for Latin Americans.

    1. Thanks for pointing that out, and I didn't think. Corrected.