As a gastroenterologist, I attended a medical conference during the summer. The conference adhered to the typical medical-convention script—lectures during the day and dinner receptions in the evening. One night, I attended an informal dinner reception that had a spread of food of all different types. I was starving, so I was somewhat more interested in the food than networking. There was the standard cheese plate, the usual cocktail shrimp and a mundane selection of fried tidbits.
For me, the standout was a delicious-looking watermelon salad with feta cheese and basil. I’m fairly sure mixing watermelon with cheese violates a biblical law in the book of Deuteronomy—maybe the chef was a “New Testament-only” type of person.
At any rate, I grabbed a scoopful of the salad for my plate and headed to introduce myself to the only other black doctor in the room (we black gastro doctors tend to be pretty rare). We exchanged names and briefly chatted about our chosen profession. The conversation eventually became slightly awkward because I noticed her repeatedly staring at my plate.
“I know you’re not going to eat that watermelon salad,” she said. I chuckled, thinking that she was a watermelon purist merely expressing her disdain toward combining watermelon with feta cheese and basil. I channeled Barack Obama from that episode of Check Please and confidently explained that the saltiness of the feta balances the watermelon’s sweetness and the basil adds a touch of earthiness. She replied,“We’re in ‘mixed company.’ You really should think twice about eating watermelon.”
I thought once, looked her in her eyes, took another bite and chewed it as slowly as possible, savoring all of the flavor. I wouldn’t “repeal and replace” my watermelon salad, so she angrily walked away; she might as well have been chanting “shame” like they did to Cersei in Game of Thrones.
After she left, I paused for two seconds and internally went through the seven stages of grief (shock, denial, anger, bargaining, guilt, depression and acceptance/hope) all at once. I was mostly shocked that she melon-shamed me, and in denial that we are still held hostage by the vestiges of America’s racial iconography.
On the other hand, we live in a country where a prominent newspaper ran a cartoon that referenced former President Obama using watermelon-flavored toothpaste. Even one of my medical-school classmates seriously asked me, “Why does the African-American diet consist mostly of watermelon and fried chicken?”
So I accepted the woman’s reprimand as “stereotype threat,” which suggests a concern for confirming a negative stereotype of one’s social group and the anxiety associated with evading that stereotype. I learned and thought about it a lot as an undergrad at the University of Michigan, but I wasn’t expecting it to turn up among adults at a conference for doctors.
Sadly, I fear the culture of “making America great again” will make watermelon stereotypes commonplace again. Here are some interesting facts that can, hopefully, help you avoid melon-shaming. Don’t let it happen to you.
In 2001, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released a report on watermelon consumption in the U.S. According to the report, “Black consumers represent nearly 13 percent of the U.S. population, yet only accounted for 11 percent of watermelon consumption.” In fact, non-Hispanic white consumers ate the most watermelon, representing 64 percent of watermelon consumers, and Asians were the highest consumers per capita. Purely from a numbers perspective, the watermelon stereotype has no legitimate basis.
The watermelon stereotype historically served as a justification for discrimination; it was never a reflection of actual behavior.
Stereotypes serve two purposes: knowledge and justification. In a seminal article entitled, “Stereotypes as Justifications of Prejudice,” the authors highlight that “stereotypes may be a consequence (rather than a cause) of discrimination.” Regarding the watermelon stereotype, in this piece in The Atlantic, historian William Black reviews the history of the watermelon stereotype and argues that it “emerged for a specific historical reason and served a specific political purpose.” He suggests that the stereotype arose as a tool for disenfranchising recently emancipated slaves, not from an excessive fondness for watermelon.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Protection, black people have the highest prevalence of high blood pressure in the country; considering that watermelon can modestly lower blood pressure, more of us should eat it. Also, watermelon is a low-calorie fruit that’s a good source of vitamin C, lycopene and citrulline. Lycopene gives watermelon its red color. Multiple studies show that lycopene may decrease the risk of prostate cancer in men. Citrulline is an amino acid that may improve mild erectile dysfunction, though I would stop short of requiring that watermelons have warning labels for “erections lasting longer than four hours.”
In 2016, Queen Bey herself invested in a small startup called WTRMLN WTR that makes cold-pressed watermelon juice. I’m sure the lyric referencing the fruit in her 2013 hit “Drunk in Love” had something to do with this investment. Look, I realize that Beyoncé is not the best excuse for eating or not eating anything, but c’mon … it’s Beyoncé. If she isn’t worried about being melon-shamed, you shouldn’t be, either.
Ultimately, you should never feel bad or let anyone make you feel bad about eating watermelon, not even your mama. The stereotype is absolute b.s. Be healthy and eat your watermelon with no shame. If anyone tries to melon-shame you, just hit ’em with some knowledge.