Watermelon, when in season, is available at every grocery store. At many grocery stores, you can buy it whole, quartered, or even cut into rind free, individually wrapped pieces. But, if you show up with one at a certain Detroit firehouse, you’ll be fired. That’s what happened when firefighter trainee Robert Pattison brought a whole watermelon as a present for his new co-workers.
Traditionally, probationary firefighters bring in a gift for the existing group. Donuts are the top choice but are not required. The firefighters at Engine 55 at Joy and Southfield in Detroit are 90 percent African American and some took the watermelon gift as a racist statement. They complained, and Pattison was fired. Fire Commissioner Eric Jones Jones said:
“There is zero tolerance for discriminatory behavior inside the Detroit Fire Department. On Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017, at Engine 55, a trial firefighter (probationary employee) engaged in unsatisfactory work behavior which was deemed offensive and racially insensitive to members of the Detroit Fire Department.”
Are Watermelons Inherently Racist?
People of all races like watermelon, of course, and buying one for the family picnic is okay. But why does this fruit have racist denotations? William Black at The Atlantic looked at the racist history.
But the stereotype that African Americans are excessively fond of watermelon emerged for a specific historical reason and served a specific political purpose. The trope came into full force when slaves won their emancipation during the Civil War. Free black people grew, ate, and sold watermelons, and in doing so made the fruit a symbol of their freedom. Southern whites, threatened by blacks’ newfound freedom, responded by making the fruit a symbol of black people’s perceived uncleanliness, laziness, childishness, and unwanted public presence. This racist trope then exploded in American popular culture, becoming so pervasive that its historical origin became obscure. Few Americans in 1900 would’ve guessed the stereotype was less than half a century old.
Did the Fire Station Make the Right Decision?
Since the fire station is around 90 percent Black and at least some of the staff complained, the management was obligated to conduct an investigation. But, is the gift of one watermelon, when food gifts are expected, really a sign that the new hire was racist?
Because Pattison was a new hire and in a probationary status, he wasn’t under any sort of contract and his employment is at-will. (Which means he can be fired for any reason or no reason as long as that reason isn’t prohibited by law.) Which means that bringing a watermelon instead of donuts is a legal reason for firing.
What isn’t clear is what would have happened if Pattison had been Black. (I am assuming races here. None of the published reports I found indicated Pattison’s race, but I doubt his fellow firefighters would have been upset if Pattison had also been African American.) If the same behavior would have been tolerated by a Black employee, then the fire company must prove that they are not firing him because of his race. They would need to demonstrate that the termination was because he committed a racist act.
I don’t see that they have met this burden. A better move would have been to warn Pattison and let him keep his job. If there are no other indications of racist behavior, then Pattison completes his training period and becomes a full-fledged firefighter. If he is a racist, there will be more episodes later on.
Never Jump to Conclusions
While accusations of racism or sexism should always be taken seriously and investigated, immediate firings should be extremely rare. There are always multiple sides to every story and you must listen to all sides before making a decision. You can always suspend someone until the investigation is complete rather than terminating someone immediately.
Yes, you want to be cautious as far as race is concerned, but you don’t want to be so cautious that you make the wrong decision.