Red Cross Apologizes for “Super Racist” Swimming Safety Poster

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June 28, 2016, CNN

While the Red Cross has yet to answer questions about its questionable spending in Haiti, it has promptly responded to a new controversy. Several social media users were less than happy when they saw a poster by the American Red Cross that one user dubbed “super racist.” The “Be Cool, Follow the Rules” posters depicting swimming safety rules were sent to an unknown number of swimming facilities and organizations, but have since been pulled with an apology by the Red Cross.

The posters in question depict a cartoon scene at the pool, where children are engaged in several “cool” and “not cool” actions. What caught some Twitter users’ attention was that the “not cool” activities were assigned to children of color while white children were used to illustrate all the “cool” activities.

On the right-hand corner of the poster, a black child is seen pushing another child into the pool. On the top left corner, two black and Hispanic children are running by the pool—also “not cool.” The poster was first discussed on social media and, according to NBC News, was spotted in at least two locations in Colorado. The Red Cross did not say how many posters had been distributed nationwide.

The humanitarian organization promptly issued an apology. “The American Red Cross appreciates and is sensitive to the concerns raised regarding one of the water safety posters we produced,” the Red Cross said in a press release. “We deeply apologize for any misunderstanding, as it was absolutely not our intent to offend anyone. As one of the nation’s oldest and largest humanitarian organizations, we are committed to diversity and inclusion in all that we do, every day.” The statement confirmed that the poster was no longer in circulation and had been removed from the organization’s website and Swim App.

Is the poster racist? Some users on social media have claimed that calling it so is an overreaction. Others have commended the Red Cross for what they saw as an attempt at depicting multiculturalism.

Some may say that in today’s politically correct world there is a tendency to feel offended, even when not warranted. However, it’s difficult to separate the poster and its implications from the “doll tests” from the 1940s. Kenneth and Mamie Clark, two psychologists who testified in the Brown v. Board of Education trial in 1954, devised an experiment to better understand children’s perceptions of race. 253 black children between the ages of three and seven were presented with dolls with different skin colors, and asked to identify the dolls as “good,” “bad,” “nice,” and “mean.” The majority of the children identified the lighter skinned dolls with the positive attributes, while the darker skinned dolls were overwhelmingly associated with the negative characteristics.

While the Clarks’ conclusions based on the tests alone have not gone unchallenged, the experiments have been recognized as identifying how society’s portrayals of skin color can in fact color our own perceptions. While only one influence among others, the media is an important factor in reinforcing how children perceive race. Other studies have built on the Clarks’ initial premise, including a pilot study commissioned by CNN in 2010, led by renowned child psychologist Margaret Beale Spencer. The study conducted the same doll test with 133 black and white children, and found the same biases as the Clarks did.

And, as the Washington Post pointed out, there is also a legacy of discrimination against black children at public pools. Indeed, “The current state of affairs [for swimming in black neighborhoods] is unfortunate, and images like the one created and circulated by the Red Cross make things worse,” said Ebony Rosemond, from Black Kids Swim. “In connection with the lack of images showing African Americans excelling in swimming, the poster doesn’t make you feel welcome—it suggests to a black child that you’re not welcome here.”

Is it possible that the construction of this poster is a byproduct of this perception? Perhaps. But, more important, the historical context reminds us that the poster may not be an isolated incident. For organizations “committed to diversity and inclusion” in all that they do, as the Red Cross describes itself, it seems it would be hard to miss the implications of the poster’s design. That said, this should serve as a reminder to other organizations that our perceptions of race run deep and may escape our own purview. The Twitter user who originally brought the poster to the Internet’s attention recommended that the Red Cross work with organizations focused on diversity to better understand the issue.

“I’m just a citizen, I’m not an organization, but I would want the Red Cross to collaborate and build relationships with Black Kids Swim and other organizations that do advocacy around this so that this doesn’t happen again,” Margaret Sawyer, who is the former executive director of the Mixteco/Indigena Community Organizing Project. “Clearly, they’re thinking of themselves as only having one constituency and that’s not true.” According to Sawyer, she saw the poster twice in Colorado while traveling.

“I think it’s really important to think about the messages that we’re sending kids, I ask for all of us to take that job on,” said Sawyer. “I hope the Red Cross will use this as a lesson for taking their role seriously.”—Shafaq Hasan