Despite the fact that nothing about Wal-Mart shocks me anymore (not even that I have, in recent months, occasionally shopped there for vegetarian soymeat products or that J.C. Penney's has an even worse record for the use of sweatshop labor), I must confess I was still surprised when I learned that the Wal-Mart website sold Planet of the Apes TV series DVDs and featured recommendations for "Martin Luther King: I Have A Dream/Assassination of MLK" and "Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson.").
Thanks to blogger Blackfeminism.org who credits Crooks and Liars who credits Firedoglake for sharing this story and Wal-Mart's response. For your entertainment, here is an excerpt from the Wal-Mart "oh shit, we fucked up again" letter of apology:
"We are heartsick that this happened and are currently doing everything possible to correct the problem. The offensive combinations that have been identified will be removed from the site by 5:30 CT today. However, with thousands of movie items available, there is an almost endless number of possible combinations. Because of that, we will be shutting down our entire movie cross-selling system until the problem is resolved.
Walmart.com’s item mapping process does not work correctly and at this point is mapping seemingly random combinations of titles. [...]
We were horrified to discover that some hurtful and offensive combinations are being mapped together.
To further illustrate the bizarre nature of this technical issue, the site is also mapping movies such as Home Alone and Power Puff Girls to African American literature."
How touching that the Wal-Mart "we" (in this case almost certainly some woman making minimum wage and without health insurance) is using such powerful adjectives! It warms the soul. From "heartsick" to "horrified," how can we be so cold as to think the warm, family-like corporation that is Wal-Mart would somehow have input descriptors into their system for mapping that would link a show about sentient apes with African Americans?
Even if its true that searching for the DVD of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory also produced recommendations for the MLK and Jack Johnson films, as affirmed by Wal-Mart PR folk, I have to agree with Firedoglake that Wal-Mart's "'mapping' program sure does have a low-rent cracker sense of humor."
Of course, we can have a lovely talk about why the gorillas in PotA were played by African Americans while the more powerful and rational orangutans and chimpanzees were played by white actors. We can talk about the films' and tv series' use of extrapolation or metaphor as science fictional devices, where white human characters stand for African Americans while the apes represent white slavemasters, colonizers, or other oppressive whathaveyous. But it does not surprise me that racism is part of the Wal-Mart infrastructure. Hell, it is threaded into every institution in our nation; it's just that Wal-Mart (like several other gargantuan corporations who make a few white men rich at the expense of everyone else) does it bigger and better than most.
(Let me conclude with a delightful related anecdote: Though I never got a nice emotional letter of apology--or any other response for that matter--I did once write to The Music Stand and ask them to remove the musical ape from the toys they sold in their catalog based on its racist connotations, and...only a few short years later... it was gone. Imagine that.)