Friday, June 07, 2013

Cheerios Blows the Box Top Off Color Blind Racism (Part One)











 As much as I consider myself tuned in to racial issues, my realization that the "first" Cheerios commercial featuring a black family could be construed as racist dawned on me quite slowly. Over a period of months in fact.


Cheerios calls the "first" commercial "Big Brother". I know that instinctively I felt something was out of place, but I couldn't quite put my finger on it. Some of these realizations are just dawning on me now. I never realized how many stereotypes Cheerios is shattering in the first commercial.
  • It's a commercial with a man feeding his children. There is not a woman present or even mentioned. For all we know, the three males in the family are the entire household.
  • It's a commercial with all males and all males of color. That in itself makes this commercial rare in a world where there are usually a group of white people with one black person or a group of black people with several white people. Rarely just black people alone. 
    • The only commercial I can think of that has done this in recent memory was Kraft with their Kraft Singles commercials. I'm not going to count that commercial with the dad piloting a toy helicopter into his wife's china cabinet and flinging spaghetti sauce everywhere for reasons you'll see in a moment.
  • To me, a portrayal of black males in an every day family setting is priceless.
  • It's a black man caring for and providing a morning snack for his children. Black men are nearly always portrayed in the media or stereotypical thought as not caring about their children.
  • It shows a man competently caring for children. I cannot emphasize enough that ALL men get the short end of the stick on this on TV. Men are nearly always portrayed as inept and bumbling when it comes to household or child rearing matters.
So the commercial is an every day scene. And none of that really seemed odd to me. But then the older child comes and takes some Cheerios off the younger brother's high chair.  I watched this commercial for about six months before it dawned on me that a lot of white people wouldn't see the cuteness. What they would see is black people teaching their children that it's ok to steal; and that the "natural inclination" of black people to steal is born in them and can be proven by an every day family setting. Even the youngest Black people steal dontcha know.

Well, by the time it dawned on me, I figured other people were already talking about it and so I typed the following into Google: Is the Cheerios commercial racist. (If you type that same into Google now, you'll only get info on the "Just Checking" commercial. You'd have to specifically reference the "Big Brother" commercial to get results on that one now.)

At the time, I didn't have to type which commercial. People were already talking about it. A few black blogs were raising the alarm, but tenuously.  The commercial seemed well intentioned but a lot of people were questioning: "Is Cheerios unintentionally perpetuating the stereotype that Black people steal?" "Is Cheerios practicing color blindness which amounts to burying their heads in the sand about stereotypes?"  Black people are more attuned to the intentions behind a message than most white people would believe. And before we actually say, "damn that's racist" you would be surprised how many comments or incidents we haven't called out or just let slide. We don't sound the racism alarm as quickly and as easily as white people claim we do. The concensus among black bloggers and commenters seemed to be, as we mostly do in these matters, "wait and see."

As it turned out the answer to the first question was "No" and the answer to the second question was both "Yes and No."

As a result of the newer "Just Checking" commercial and also because of the just plain adorableness of the "Big Brother" commercial, I now know that Cheerios had no intention of implying black people steal or train their children to steal. That is a bigger relief than you can possibly imagine.

As to the second question: "Is Cheerios practicing color blindness?" I'd have to say yes, but I don't think they're burying their heads in the sand. I don't think they thought through the part about stealing either. I think they thought it was enough to show a black family in ways that most white people don't think about. I think that was a conscious choice. The part about stealing has some subliminal undertones of the kind of unconscious or "accidental racist" nature that most white people don't even know they exhibit and actually think they hide pretty well on the whole. (They really don't hide it well. It's almost kind of funny sometimes actually, but that's a whole another post.)

What I think is that if Cheerios had known they were perpetuating a stereotype, they may have scripted an entirely different commercial, let alone use the word "bandit". They seem to want to make these commercials as benign and loving as possible. That their most recent ones using black people are bringing white resentment to the surface seems to have shocked them. Or maybe the reaction to the first commercial led them to make the second. That I can believe. I see a "get it all out in the open" attitude to the second commercial that is missing from the first. After all, the black man and the white woman aren't even in the same room and the  reveal of the black father is saved until the very last.

Or maybe they're just jumping on the multicultural bandwagon and letting the chips fall where they may. After all, it's not like they haven't used black people and black families in commercials before.


So they're guilty of not understanding that old stereotypes die hard. That's not hard for me to grasp. Most well-intentioned white people have this same blindness. It's a forgivable mistake for the most part. It's just time that white people stopped trying to forget this stuff and pretending it doesn't exist or never did. Good white people have to recognize it for what it is and call it out when they see it. That's the only way to to begin to root out racism.

Cheerios has done several commercials featuring black people. I've seen them all, noted them but they just washed over me until the "Big Brother" commercial.

Odd Couple 2009

Dad & Son Go Shopping 2011

Big Brother 2012

Just Checking 2013

Mama 2012 (not about black people, but I love this one because I remember the first time my daughter picked up a Cheerio and fed one to herself and then to me.)

The One and Only Cheerios (seems they've been planning this Love thing along )


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