As If I Needed Another Reason to Loathe Wal-Mart

One blog, however big, can't hold a complete list of all the horrors of how Wal-Mart mistreats employees, encourages sweatshop labor, and lulls greedy customers into accepting its choices of what deserves to be sold or not sold and how. So just Google "Wal-Mart" and "sweatshop labor" or "ADA violations" or "lawsuits" or "health insurance" or "American made" or whatever other qualifier you like and you'll find plenty to occupy and depress you.

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.)


David said...

You make a point which I've considered to some degree. You admit having shopped at Wal-Mart on occasion. I, too, visit the place on occasion, maybe once or twice a year. After doing so, I invariably renew my vow not to return for sundry reasons. But what bothers me is, what's the alternative? Is Target so much better? You caught me with a McDonald's bag recently, but I question, "Where's any better?" Taco Bell? Arby's? Regardless of the food quality, which is poor wherever, are any of the places progressive in the least? Other than moving to Short Mountain and producing all my own goods, what choice do I have, especially in Murfreesboro? In Nashville there are greater options, but I can't afford a weekly Wild Oats bill, along with the high price tags that attend other such places--fair trade stores, organic markets, etc.

Too often I find myself throwing up my hands, saying "You got me," and shopping places despite my moral repulsion to them.

Elyce Rae Helford said...

Very true, David. Target has horrid sweatshop labor, Taco Bell only recently settled its tomato-grower dispute...

Some companies are better than others, and I don't want to just give up entirely. Wal-Mart has particularly offensive hiring and health care policies, Arm and Hammer is unionized and treats employees well, Disney gives (gay) partner benefits...etc.

Sorting through it all is exhausting, of course. So mostly I try to read up, reduce the contradictions when I can, and not yell at myself.

Meanwhile, if I tease you about McDonald's, please know I don't mean a serious critique of you by it. Alternately, call me on my shit when you witness it or just tell me to shut up and enjoy your Big Mac. :)

Grace said...

I have not been inside a walmart. I've read the arguments against it, know of the billions the heirs are worth, and the lack of benefits, decent wages etc for employees....I also work with a foster teen who was given employment regarldess of her background(shady on paper). She will have something to put on her resume when she turns 18 and is "off the system" along with a small suitcase donated by her walmart manager instead of the typical garbage bag...she is using her discount on already low priced goods to fill the apt she will have....there is good and bad in all of it...I know of a "Sustainable Living" family that contains one of the most unhappy, abusive relationships i've ever witnessed...well, at least they don't shop at Walmart.

Cranberry Velvet said...

Hello. I found a link to your site on the Brutal Women blog. (And was somewhat amused, as I've been writing a story with a protagonist with your name.)

In any case--if you ever want a great book about the evils of Walmart--there's a book called Selling Women Short by Liza Featherstone. This woman interviewed hundreds of women about their experiences working on Walmart about the time of the class-action suit against them. (I think it's on sale at Amazon, too.)

Also, as a side note, I think your commentary on Fight Club is some of the best I've seen--I've never seen Laura Mulvey applied to it (I loved her work when I was studying film).

Good work...

Cranberry Velvet said...

Ah! And you are the same Elyce who commented on my blog. Thank you for your confession--Les Mis is so lovely. Okay. Small world. :)

Elyce Rae Helford said...


I guess I could confess even more: I am a musical junkie. I act/sing in them and find queer pleasure in them and all kinds of good stuff, even though they're so often bastions of the status quo.

Thanks for the WalMart book recommendation; I'll check it out.

Meanwhile, I hope I'm a fabulous protagonist! :)


Eric Swann said...

I think you are absolutely right about racism being part of Wal-Mart's infrastructure. The reliance of foreign child labor to save money can never be morally justified. I cannot even begin to penetrate the surface of moral hypocrisy in the relationship of Wal-Mart and its consumers.

It is sad to see that many of the consumers I have seen in Wal-Mart fit the painful stereotype of the narrow minded "Commie Hatin'" mentality. This child labor that produces many of the products we buy is overseen by a Communist regime that is responsible for a great deal of our imports (China). Therefore, our economy is essentially dependent upon a COMMUNIST government for trade;

Wal-Mart seems to have done a great job of blinding its consumers with convenience by having everything in one place. Overwhelming is an understatement. After a while, consumers' perception of necessity and commodity seem to be blurred simply because the DVDs happen to be next to the vitamins. (Yeah I know it's a bad example but you see where I am going with this)

It seems to me that in a society where individuals are continually growing more isolated from one another, these companies (such as Wal-Mart) can sense consumer insecurity exploit these fears by insisting that if we consume, eventually we will have enough material items to fill the hole in society's collective soul. Wake up.

Ok, I'm through with my ranting. I enjoy reading your blog and now feel somewhat inspired to start one of my own.

Eric (ENGL 3085; M/W@ 12:40)