Bil Browning

It's not racist! It's just 'controversial!'

Filed By Bil Browning | December 12, 2010 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: Gary Dewester, Noblesville, racist soap

Back in February, I did a post about the U-Washee laundromat in Richmond, Indiana. The business features signs showing a 1940's-style stereotypical Chinese man doing laundry with lettering written in what Margaret Cho calls "feng shui hong kong fooey font." soap1.jpgsoap2.jpgThe photos are shocking enough but what amazed me was the laissez faire attitude the town held for the blatant racism; they'd normalized it.

"Racism is ingrained in the Midwest," I wrote then citing other examples like the Indiana congressional candidate who attended a dinner honoring Hitler's birthday or advocated for segregation. "The fact that he had no problem publicly stating his racism - without thinking that others would object - shows just how commonplace overt racism can be here," I wrote.

Sadly, today we have another example involving a general store in Noblesville, Indiana that's been selling decidedly racist soap while the owner defends his right to sell it. Eventually the mall's owner, state senator Luke Kenley, had it yanked as "inappropriate." Even the news report doesn't call the soap racist; they call it "controversial."

Watch the owner adamantly defend himself on video after the jump along with some money quotes from the story.

Brilliant illustrations of my point that racism is ingrained in the Midwest and often overlooked or justified in some manner or another:

"I don't understand what this is all about. It's making a mountain out of a molehill - no, ant hole. It's ridiculous," said Gary Dewester, who continued to vigorously defend his right to sell a product inside this Noblesville mall that many find offensive.

"You guys keep sticking cameras in my face. I have a right to sell it. It's my right to sell it and I understand some may not approve of that but I don't approve of a lot of other things," he said.
"I sold out of it all yesterday. People were disappointed they couldn't buy it. I had people from South Bend, Evansville and Peru here and I was more than happy to sell my last nine bars to a black woman from Indianapolis," said Dewester.

Two men came to the mall just to buy it.

"I left my name and number and as soon as he gets more," said one man. "They make good gifts, put them in the stocking if we get them in time."

"It's not racist. He's got honky soap in there, if it was just that it'd be different," said another man.

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As a resident of Michigan (and therefore a fringe portion of the "Midwest") I'd just like to point out that Indiana isn't the whole Midwest. This kind of shit would definitely not fly in Michigan that I'm aware of.
Of course that's why I call Indiana "the land that time forgot." They're about sixty years behind the rest of the country when it comes to progressive matters like racial equality. Let's not forget the last mass public lynching of African-Americans happened in Indiana.

That said, despite the horrifying reality of the staggering racism behind this guy's thinking, I can't help but be reminded of one of my history professors. A lot of his classes deal with the history of racism in the US, and he has a ton of racist images and memorabilia to use as examples in class--and he's terrified that when he dies someone's going to find his collection and think he was a terrible racist. I can't help but chuckle a little.

Hopefully that's all these things will eventually be: embarrassing relics of past racism rather than "great stocking stuffers."

Beverly Leonard | December 12, 2010 11:23 PM

Having just moved back to Indiana after being gone for 14 years, I am reminded of why I needed the separation. There is definitely an unhealthy approach to race and differences here, and I have always felt uncomfortable with the common approach. It seems to me that a common approach is that people who make racist, sexist, heterosexist, or otherwise bigoted comments do so with a wink and a nudge...and maybe even the words "You know I'm not racist. I was just being silly." If confronted on those comments, the person gets highly offended and treats the confronter as an outsider who has committed the gravest blunder. *Generally speaking*, Hoosiers (Indiana folk) want to be thought of as caring, kind-hearted, helpful people, and that is what they aspire to general. If their sense of goodness is appealed to, it is amazing what can be accomplished. If you swat them on the nose like a puppy, they are likely to figuratively pee on your carpet....or just tell you to go to hell.

I don't think it's helpful to come off as the writer from Michigan did. That kind of approach just makes people defensive and angry. What's the point of that? I would like to remind said writer of Indiana's key role in the underground railroad. I prefer to feed the "better angels of our nature." Which reminds me, Abraham Lincoln lived here for some part of his life as well, by the way...

Racism is a problem, without a doubt. Those soaps being sold less than 15 miles from where I live makes me want to throw up. I saw the idiot on the news, and he is far more interested in making a quick dollar than he is in spreading racism. I have a feeling he'd sell his children's souls if he could make a buck. I think the local news called it "controversial" instead of the more accurate "racist" because that is how Hoosiers speak to one another. In any case, trust me, "controversial" is not something you want to be called in Indiana. I would love to see more open dialogue about this. I think it's essential to see articles such as this one written by Mr. Browning. Let's identify the dynamic! But moving it to a "Yeah, all of those guys (who live on the other side of an imaginary line) are douchebags" is just not helpful.

I don't mean to overgeneralize, but the reporter handled that in such a non-confrontational Hoosier kind of way.

Most reporters would normally say that "many people" consider the soap racially offensive as opposed to stating it was racist, but a reporter from anywhere else would have shoved that "Darkie" soap in those people's faces and asked flat out, "How is this not racist?"

Many years ago, I was married to a Hoosier girl, and on our honeymoon year in Europe, her parents met us in London. At an Indian restaurant, an English girl came in with an African prince in all his robes. My mother-in law (a refined, violinist yet) jumped up from the table, and said so all could hear, "I have never seen the robins nesting with the blackbirds and I won't look at it now." And she walked out.
Talk about crawl under the table embarrassment.
I'm long divorced.

Meredith: get over your bad old self. Ignorance knows no state boundary. This shit wouldn't fly in Michigan? Hmmmm. Strange. More dangerous shit would evidently fly: a deputy state attorney general was allowed to stalk the UMich student body president, for no better reason than the student is gay. This state employee disguised as an AAG posted multiple hateful items about the student online. It became, quite simply, a complete obsession. He committed most of this activity on the state clock.

It took the state 11 months to get rid of the clown. And while it's not "stupid soap", it is definitely criminal conduct.

So don't get all high-and-mighty about what occurs inside/outside a state. No state owns the patent on stupid.

The worst undergrad professor I had, many years ago, was a Michigan State writing prodigy. Who debated me at length one day, in class, about singular/plural possessives. The dolt thought the plural of "Smith" was "Smith's."

For all I know he still does. He gave one exam all semester. He was coasting through the language and life.

Oh yeah, Bil: I'm sure you meant to credit Ruth Holladay, whose blog had this item a week ago.

She's a pistol.

Ruth Holladay herself gives credit to another blogger for breaking the story, Kelly Jones Sharp, who reported on the soap in a November 24th post.

However, Holladay also notes that the mainstream media in Indianapolis have been all over this story and Bil did cite the local NBC affiliate as his source.

A disturbing detail which hasn't gotten attention is that, according to the local Fox station, the store's owner has been employed by Hamilton County for the past 30 years as a public defender and his wife is also a local attorney.,0,1899524.story

I didn't say no ignorance would fly in Michigan, just that the racist soap wouldn't fly in Michigan. There are probably plenty of people who would go to Indiana from Michigan to buy the soap, though.

I'm thinking someone's probably from Indiana.

The Public Defender thing has been reported. Our tax dollars at work, via selective justice and indignation.

Evidently you aren't familiar with the unique method of dispensing justice, that is SO Hamilton County.

For further details, refer to State of Indiana vs. those three disgusting little vermin who sexually assaulted a basketball teammate on a bus.

Everything changes north of 96th St. The air gets thinner, the noses point up, and the diversity is, well, not.