Note: This was originally written on June 9, 2013 and posted to my blog Bias Cut. I have merged Modest Girls Charmed City Life and Bias Cut, here are the spoils!
By now I think we have all heard about the flap caused by the new Cheerios advertisement on YouTube. (If you have not seen the ad, follow the link to check it out.)
In the advertisement we see a little girl, about 5 years old, curly hair and cafe con leche complexion. She brings a box of Cheerios to the table where her mom, a white woman, is seated. The little girl wants to know if Cheerios are good for your heart, and the mother tells her yes. She runs off and then we see her dad, a black man, waking up from a nap to find himself covered in Cheerios.
The intended take away? Cheerios are good for the whole family - every family - health food that you won't even know is healthy.
The actual take away? The reactions posted in the comments section on YouTube were so vile that General Mills disabled comments the same day the ad was released.
I have several thoughts about both the advertisement and the media coverage that followed. General Mills has said that they were "a little surprised to see this ad become a story on its own." Controversy was not the intention at all, nor was a political statement. I will take them at their word. I don't think Cheerios ad folks are so naive that they would not anticipate at least some controversy, though I can believe that they would not anticipate the amount of attention they actually got. Why?
Because I would be willing to bet that no one on the creative team, no one who green lights advertisements, and no one who does PR at General Mills is part of an interracial couple, or a multi-racial person. The same I think could be said for the majority of folks who covered the story in the media. There seems to be an assumption by many in America that since we have elected a Black man to the White house, not just once but twice, we have reached a sort of post-racial time period in our history. As a white woman married to a Black man, and a mother to two multi-racial children, I can tell you in no uncertain terms, America is still plenty full of bigots.
The reaction from the media was overall one of shock that "it's 2013 and people are still getting worked up about interracial couples in ads." Is it sad that people in this day and age (or any day and age really) still believe different skin tones have some sort of correlation to ethics or worth. It is equally sad that folks also believe that children from parents of different skin tones are inherently worse off or less than in some way. (The flip side of this, which is equally dangerous, is the notion that multi-racial children are inherently more attractive than other children.) But to be surprised that these folks not only exist, but would take to the internet, the most torrid of public outlets, to spout off their beliefs - now that is naive.
We are all inherently self-centered. If I am a liberal, open minded person, I naturally assume that most people feel the same way I do. I ignore evidence to the contrary, especially if that evidence does not directly effect my day to day life. Thus, finding out that there are enough racists out there with an internet connection to shut down comments for a breakfast cereal advertisement might shock me.
We do not live in a post racial age.
There are enough bigots and racists with an internet connection to shut down the comment section for a breakfast cereal advertisement.
The bigoted reaction to the ad is not really that surprising, especially if you have been paying any attention to the way race has been made into a political dog whistle. Remember the recent CPAC conference with one unfortunate seminar titled "Trump the Race Card: Are You Sick and Tired of Being Called a Racist When You Know You're Not One?" Yeah. That happened. In 2013, no less.
The media reaction to the bigoted reaction is more surprising and is evidence of a rather troubling trend. The surprise came from a place of privilege, a place where vitriolic racism does not exist. And when you don't see the vitriol, it becomes even easier to miss the everyday. The evidence of institutional racism can see it in health disparities, education disparities, even assumptions about the size of a particular male body part. The media who reported on this story with such outrage does not, on the whole, have to deal with any of these issues if they choose not to. When you aren't looking at the trees, you might be surprised by the forest.
We need more ads like the one Cheerios made. We need to see happy mixed race couples buying cars, planting flowers, taking about life insurance, and sitting around a dinner table. We need to see little children with curly hair and cafe con leche skin, walking hand in hand with their parents - one light and one dark. More of this won't shut up the bigots - they will always be there. But more will remind us all that families, just like breakfast cereals, all come in different flavors.