Movie Friday: Picking cotton on a racist field trip

On Wednesday my girlfriend and I went to a live comedy show at a place called Falconetti’s in Vancouver. The comedian was talking about babysitting his nephew (who is of Chinese descent) and hearing his wife sing to the toddler the kid’s song “I’ve been working on the railroad“, and expressing his comical shock and dismay at the idea of singing a song about railroad construction to a Chinese child in British Columbia*.

It reminded me of a summer job I had at Toronto’s Wild Water Kingdom where the inside parks (clean-up) staff was almost entirely black. We were working during the pre-season on resurfacing the stage, a job that we were nowhere near properly-trained or equipped to perform, when the park owner decided to try out some new “island” music. One of the songs that came on was “Pick a Bale of Cotton**”. I looked around and realized I was part of an all-black work gang, doing work that usually requires skilled workers, for which we were being paid minimum wage.

I made the owner throw out the CD.

I’m not the only one who’s had this experience:

While the story is funny, it does highlight the fact that racism often happens in an entirely accidental way, borne of lazy thinking and a lack of perspective. Understanding racism therefore requires the engagement of an active and informed mind, much like we hope to do in the skeptical and atheist world. We want people to be thinking about stuff rather than just patting themselves on the back for all the times they happened not to do something racist.

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*Although the joke misses the mark a bit, since “working on the railroad” actually means working as a porter. The song has racist connotations, but for black kids more so than Chinese ones (the Wikipedia article has the original lyrics – bonus points for noticing where it was originally published).

**Interestingly, I recognized this song from singing it in choir as a kid, at my nearly-all-white school. I didn’t understand what it meant then. If I heard it today, I’d throw some shit.


  1. says

    Oh my gods, I saw that thing on Youtube months ago and it’s one of the rare (but less rare than I think) instances of bigotry that is sufficiently both naked and inadvertent enough to make my jaw drop. Is it just that I’m white that makes this shocking, or is it actually shocking to everyone? Like, is it just another dull surprise in the series of dull surprises that constitutes being a POC in a racist society, or is it really as blatant as it seems to me? What the actual fuck was that school thinking?

    But, then, I probably wouldn’t have thought about it five years ago, either. ::sigh:: You’d think that teachers and school administrators should at least have a rudimentary history/privilege course so that they can avoid this kind of thing.

  2. smrnda says

    I don’t actually recall the ‘working on the railroad’ song, so I was assuming it was about railroad construction; something that Chinese laborers were pulled in to do in terrible conditions for miniscule pay.

    All said, I actually think most of these instances stem from ignorance rather than hatred, but with so many ignorant people, it’s no wonder racism is still around. Part of the ignorance is assuming that, since you aren’t KKK or Neo-Nazi style overt racist, that your actions must always be totally non-racist. We live in a racist culture so, just by default, we are doing to do racist things unless we try, very hard, to look into our behaviors to make sure that we haven’t been infected.

  3. IslandBrewer says

    Great holy crap! The original lyrics … I mean … shit!

    I had no idea!

    When I was a kid, I used to go out and pick vegetables at my grandparents farm, and my grandmother (old southern white woman) would start singing that song, and us grandkids would join in.

    I feel a little dirty, a little betrayed.

  4. says

    There are folk songs which I originally liked, but later discovered their racist origins. Like lots of kids, I learned to play “Oh Susanna” on the keyboard when I was young, and thought it was a pretty tune… but later I discovered that it was composed as a blackface minstrel song, and that Stephen Foster’s original lyrics contained the N-word.

  5. boadinum says

    Don’t forget that the Trans-Canada Railroad, especially the parts between Alberta and BC, through, under and over the Rocky Mountains, was largely built by a large force of Chinese immigrants.

    They were denied citizenship, worked for very little pay, were tasked to do the most dangerous jobs, and many of them died.

    I wonder how many of them ever sang “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”.

  6. says

    “Don’t forget”? The understanding of this fact is THE BASIS OF THE ENTIRE ANECDOTE. That’s the whole reason I put it in there.

    How do you not get that?

  7. ButchKitties says

    I have the same issue with a lot of folk stories and fairy tales. I got copy of the original Grimm’s and was shocked at the naked antisemitism. It was one of my earliest “I really have no clue” moments that made me start examining my own privilege.

  8. boadinum says

    I apologize. I did get it, but I thought I would fill in some history for your readers who may not be familiar with it. I should have known that your readers would get the point. My bad.

    I very much enjoy your blog, and, again, sorry.

  9. says

    Aha, I misunderstood. I guess I probably should have put in an instructive link on why the railroad allusion was inappropriate.

    No worries, the lion’s share of the fault here was my own.

  10. Neil Schipper says

    Crommunist (Ian, right?),

    Since this post is related to racism and the black experience, I have a question.

    Sikivu Hutchinson recently wrote a piece critical of Romney’s comments about culture and prosperity during his trip to Israel. The piece is here:

    So I disagree with her characterization of an America in which the lag in black educational and economic achievement is only understood as the consequence of white power elites incessantly and energetically conspiring to oppress blacks. Nor do I appreciate her “Israel’s apartheid regime” sideswipe.

    Now I’m not trying to draw you into a debate about these issues. It may well be — and I don’t wish to presume to much — that your position(s) are closer to hers than mine. Fine.

    Well I left a comment and it’s been “awaiting moderation” for over a day (and she’s since commented on another more recent post).

    Let me proclaim: it’s her blog, so it’s her perogative. I get that, and this is not my question.

    First, my comment:

    Ms. Hutchinson,

    Which African country would you suggest Americans look to for inspiration regarding (1) the challenge of wealth creation, and (2) the problem of severe economic inequality?

    Only a fool would claim that racial animosity, the history of slavery (and more generally, the history of numerous violent conflicts) are unimportant explanatory features of present American (and global) wealth distribution. But you construct a fantasy world where they are the only things that matter. In this world, intelligence, initiative, foresight, delayed gratification, and the nurturing of the young, matter either not at all, or, if they do matter, it’s only insofar as governments have “bought” them for some people and not others.

    So you believe untrue things. And you believe untrue things that specifically favour the religion-like notion of redemption through ethnic conflict.

    Also, can you name two or more among the dozens of countries in the middle east where citizens openly express a wide variety of political viewpoints and routinely change their political leadership bloodlessly? I can only name one, so I need help.

    If you have ever expressed a harsh word about Tunisia or Yemen or Libya or Egypt or Syria regarding how they deal with ethnic or tribal conflicts, kindly remind me.

    So Ian, my question is: do you think my comment violates a reasonable threshold for robust disagreement? (This is a question with a one word answer.)

    In case your answer is no, I invite you to comment on whether you feel the level of skittishness and self-protection she demonstrates is appropriate on a site falling under the freethoughtblogs umbrella?

    (I have also asked this of Ophelia Benson.)

  11. says

    do you think my comment violates a reasonable threshold for robust disagreement?

    No, but I think it’s dickish, hostile, presumptuous, and entirely beside the point. Saying that just because the United States isn’t the worst possible of all countries, therefore it should escape criticism is asinine.

    I invite you to comment on whether you feel the level of skittishness and self-protection she demonstrates is appropriate on a site falling under the freethoughtblogs umbrella

    Invitation received.

  12. Neil Schipper says

    First, sincerely: thank you.


    Saying that just because the United States isn’t the worst possible of all countries, therefore it should escape criticism is asinine.

    It would indeed be asinine. Not to dwell, but I said nothing close. I suggested that if one is convinced — hyper-convinced in her case — that the situation of the black minority in the U.S. is entirely explicable by the intentionally malicious actions of whites, then this suggests as a fair question: what do you find in places with many generations of there being no white overclass and/or in places with a black elite?

    So I’ve read some of your other stuff and I’m not sure we’re actually all that far apart. Perhaps more than you, I believe that a smart progressive does well to be alert to those seeking to elevate themselves by revving up interracial and inter-ethnic hostility.

  13. says

    the situation of the black minority in the U.S. is entirely explicable by the intentionally malicious actions of whites

    I’ve read a lot of Sikivu’s stuff. I’ve never read anything that would suggest this is her opinion, but maybe you’re privy to some cache of writings I’m not?

    what do you find in places with many generations of there being no white overclass and/or in places with a black elite?

    I don’t know where such a place exists. African countries are not equivalent comparators to European countries in terms of race politics or economic structure, both of which are relevant to your question. The closest comparators I can think of would be perhaps some of the Middle Eastern countries that were neither colonized nor neo-colonized. But again, most of those have vastly different relevant histories and political structure. The comparisons are far more complicated than your facile question allows.

    I believe that a smart progressive does well to be alert to those seeking to elevate themselves by revving up interracial and inter-ethnic hostility.

    If you think that describing how historical atrocities have lead to a deeply unfair and dangerous contemporary system is “revving up hostilities”, then I think we might be a lot farther apart than you claim. This statement doesn’t read as very dissimilar to that of the folks in Texas who want to cancel Latino studies in schools because they’ll engender anti-white sentiment.

  14. Midnight Rambler says

    The article is over two weeks old. I don’t know what their policy is, but some of the blogs here close or moderate comments after some time has passed (never mind the content…).

  15. Neil Schipper says

    That’s a good observation, but I left my comment on Aug 16, and there’s an Aug 18 one by someone else.

  16. Neil Schipper says

    We certainly read her with different biases. What I see is “Whitey robbed us back then, whitey has been robbing us ever since, whitey is robbing us right now.”

    In contrast, here‘s a liberal talking about the difficulty of black political advancement. He also talks about “the accumulated effects of long-term racial discrimination” to the exclusion of other factors I consider also relevant, but the demonization of the white man is absent. (Actually, I’m something of a fan of the demonization of H. Sapiens — white, black, magenta and tourquoise.)

    In regard to historical comparisons, yes they can be facile, but neither do they tell us nothing at all. Believe it or not, I don’t have much time for arguments like “African countries are [bad words], therefore blacks are [bad words]”. If you reread my text, you’ll note I offered the comparison hypothetically, justified specifically by what (I consider to be) her “white violence and exploitation, therefore black poverty” position.

    Anyway, I read her article and tried expressing my reaction to her. And let’s say I am just like a Texas redneck. She could have ignored me, or dismissed me with an insult, or she could have taken me to the cleaners.

    But she wouldn’t allow the comment to appear.

    That’s why I came here. Last word to you (but for a small but nonzero risk of my weakening).

  17. Francisco Bacopa says

    Getting this back to picking cotton: I think there actually might have been a non-racist way to do this field trip. If you made it into a historical reenactment kind of thing and consulted with black professors about how to make the experience educational without being oppressive. Maybe you could have had one group be slaves and another group reenact later sharecropping. Nah, who am I kidding? There’s pretty much no way to avoid unfortunate racial implications here.

    It does remind me of a little demo we had in 8th grade where we tried to process raw cotton by hand and found it very hard work and then we shoved a few handfuls of cotton into a little hand cranked model cotton gin that the job in seconds. We did this to demonstrate the odd fact that a labor saving device actually created more demand for slave labor by making cotton farming using slaves profitable. Before the cotton gin, slavery was in decline. Cotton brought it back. Most of the black kids in my class were fascinated by this. They were not offended. Maybe that was because my school was about 75% white and the white kids had to process cotton too, and also found it quite fascinating. We really did need to learn about this. We have a cotton boll on our city seal.

    Funnies part of the video was when holmes thought it was so cool he was going to get to take that big bag of cotton home and was so dismayed that he didn’t get to. That’s sharecropping.

    And while I agree that “Pick a Bale of Cotton” was an inappropriate song for the work crew at the water park, I’m not sure I would describe it as a black song. You can find plenty of old recordings of white folks singing it. Most of my roots are Old South and I’m pretty sure “Pick a Bale” comes from the sharecropping era when there wasn’t much of a distinction between black and white culture. “Hand on the Plow”, which got new lyrics as “Eyes on the Prize”, was well known to my anglo as hell paternal grandmother.

    I love the term “anglo”. It was coined in Texas back in the land grant days of Stephen F. Austin. It just means “English speaker” in the Mexican dialect of the time, and is still used today to be an equivalent of “white”. I do have some Hispanic roots, though you have to go back to the battle of Celaya when a German military advisor married una india pobre muy guapa and then immigrated to Texas. I identify as Anglo. I think it makes me better at identifying my racial privilege to use a racial term borrowed from another racial group to describe my own race. While I actually once put “other anglo” down on a census from, I’d never ask a black person to call me anglo. To them, I am white. They prefer that and I am fine with that.

    And don’t get me started about Soul Food. That’s a northern concept. We had a huge garden when I was a kid and I ate green beans and new potatoes all spring and summer, and steamed greens and salad all winter. Roast pork and mustard greens with cornbread and black-eyed peas every new year’s to forestall all hell breaking loose. The peas are from West Africa, the method of cooking the greens was from Africa.
    There really isn’t such a thing as soul food in the South. One of the handful of times there was ever a black person on
    The Beverly Hillbillies was when the bank’s secretarial pool was invited to dinner at the Clampett mansion. And it was “dinner”, because it was near midday, supper is later. One of the secretaries comment that the food was kind of weird. The sole African-American secretary commented, “Honey, it’s just soul food.” Paul Henning understood.

  18. Francisco Bacopa says

    I suck at HTML tags. I suck even worse at using preview. “Una india pobre muy guapa” should be in italics, as should “The Beverly Hillbillies”. Nothing else should be in italics.

  19. says

    Yeah, I read a lot of fairytales growing up, and for some reason, “The Jew Among the Thorns” was not one of them. I only heard of it much later.

  20. says

    It may be that “Anglo,” meaning “English speaker/non-Hispanic white person” was popularised by Mexican Spanish speakers in the US, but that’s not the origin of the term globally. According to Wiki, “Anglo is a Late Latin prefix used to denote English- in conjunction with another toponym or demonym. The word is derived from Anglia, the Latin name for England, and still the modern name of its eastern region.”

    In Australia (and the rest of the Commonwealth, I presume) we use the term “Anglo” to mean “person of ethnic English ancestry.” We don’t use it to refer to white people generically. For example, Irish-Australians, Scottish-Australians and Welsh-Australians are all white, but only Anglo-Australians are Anglos. I’m not sure how Canadians use the term, bu since Canada was part of the Commonwealth, Crommunist might have been using it in the Commonwealth sense rather than the US sense.

  21. Francisco Bacopa says

    I had no idea “Anglo” is used as a cultural term in Australia. It’s used as a racial term here in US, maybe only in Texas, only by people of Mexican descent. Salvatruchas and Cubanos do not say “anglo”.

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