Assuming you overlook the sugar content — and some urban myths that always crop up around Halloween — candy seems like a harmless treat, one of childhood’s apex comforts. It is not only the sweetness that satisfies. Kids have extremely developed opinions of the best and worst treats, how they should be consumed and the setting that suits each kind. This is a subject on which some of our earliest critical thinking is done, and we relish having individual taste.
So while I’ve done a decent job of nixing candy from my grown-up diet, I can still tell you that Skittles are ideal for a movie theater, nicely offset by the saltiness of popcorn, and that the purple ones are divine, a sorely underrated flavor. The temptation to buy a bag at the drugstore now and then is lamentably strong. Over the last decade, though, the waxy, fruit-flavored buttons have also gained an unfortunate association with extremist politics, one that may not influence my consumer habits but nonetheless gives me pause in the checkout line.
Skittles first gained symbolic importance (beyond its rainbow-themed marketing) in 2012, three decades after Wrigley began producing the candies, originally a U.K. import, in the U.S. That February, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in Sanford, Florida, by George Zimmerman, a member of the local community watch. Because Martin was a Black, unarmed child, and Zimmerman initially avoided criminal charges thanks to his claims of self-defense under Florida’s “stand your ground” law, the case became a media firestorm. Activists stressed Martin’s youth and innocence with a heartbreaking fact: While he had no weapon on him when he was gunned down in cold blood, he was carrying two purchases from a nearby 7-Eleven — a can of Arizona watermelon juice cocktail and a pack of Skittles.
Leading up to Zimmerman’s eventual trial for second-degree murder and manslaughter, and following his shocking acquittal, Skittles were a prop for marches and demonstrations where protesters demanded justice. Simultaneously, the candy was used to mock and belittle Martin’s death: A vile meme known as “Trayvoning” called for people to don hoodies and pose lifelessly on the ground with Skittles and an Arizona beverage. Zimmerman and his sympathizers embraced this kind of cruelty, with the unrepentant shooter going so far as to autograph the colorful bags at public appearances. That he’s done so while wearing a Confederate flag T-shirt says a lot about how right-wingers have tried to reposition the product in American culture. These same people, mind you, turn around and attack anyone who continues to grieve Martin with Skittles, or invoke them in memory of the countless lives cut short by racist violence.
Wrigley kept their statement simple: Martin’s death was a tragedy, and they were staying out of it. Yet in 2017, the company’s own marketing ploy would backfire in such a way as to deepen Skittles’ ties to reactionary conservatism. That June, they brought out a limited edition run of all-white Skittles, sold in a colorless bag, to celebrate Pride Month, expanding on a publicity campaign that had debuted in London the year prior — the concept was that the candy had “given up” its iconic rainbow to the LGBTQ community, since during Pride, “only one rainbow matters.” (Supposedly, a portion of sales also went to LGBTQ charities.)
Some praised the gesture, but it also proved easy fodder for memes accusing Skittles of white supremacist leanings, or at least a tone-deaf approach to the principles of equality and inclusivity. Skittles kept up the Pride tradition anyway, switching to gray candies in the U.S. by 2020, though the white version remained available in the U.K. — where one supermarket gave them the regrettable label “Skittles White Pride” due to a “labelling error.” The image resurfaced in 2021.
It certainly didn’t help that in the closing weeks of the 2016 election, Donald Trump Jr. had shared a Skittles-based talking point about immigration in support of his father’s presidential run. In a tweet, he endorsed an image that likened Syrian refugees to a bowl full of the candies, warning that “just three will kill you.” The meme, which updated anti-Semitic propaganda disseminated by the Nazi regime, received swift condemnation and was soon removed by Twitter — not for hate speech, but “in response to a report from the copyright holder,” David Kittos, who had taken the Skittles photo and, in a strange coincidence, been a refugee himself.
Despite this twist and the cruel xenophobia from the Republican nominee’s son, the citing of Skittles drew a lot of attention, and the brand was again forced to respond. “Skittles are candy. Refugees are people. We don’t feel it’s an appropriate analogy,” a Wrigley vice president wrote. No matter: Racist trolls began using “Skittles” as a nasty code word when disparaging Muslims.
This context no doubt helped to undermine the all-white Pride Skittles gimmick, something that gained wide exposure in a summer when President Trump’s successive Muslim travel bans were a major ongoing story. To the left, it felt like a cringey corporate overcorrection in a polarized climate, and to the far right, it looked like a botched attempt at “virtue-signaling” that accidentally, hilariously upheld segregationist values. Some prankster thought to take things further by creating a fake screenshot of the Skittles Twitter account replying “no” to the question “Trans rights, yes or no?”
Much as Skittles’ sad relevance to Trayvon Martin’s death was co-opted to celebrate harm to people of color, perhaps the candy’s rainbow link to LGBTQ groups invited transformation into anti-trans and anti-queer sentiment. Whereas trans women have jokingly renamed pills taken for feminine hormone replacement therapy “Titty Skittles,” the Skittles team itself been reduced to replying to shitposters with handles like @SocietyCum to combat the narrative that they’re “based,” with red-pilled views on race and gender.
So, why did this happen to Skittles and not, say, M&Ms? Bad luck deserves its share of the blame. Still, it’s hard to shake the impression that the basic diversity in a bag of Skittles, where the colors are in proportion but each retain their specific flavor, set the candy up as a “liberal”-coded target. Fighting the culture war, nothing is apolitical, and the right can drag whatever you enjoy — from Pepe the Frog to the “OK” hand symbol to your favorite movie theater snack — into a toxic, bad-faith discourse. All they need is the opportunity, and the momentum of virality does the rest. I just hope they never come for the kettle chips I like.