Take a look at this ad for Cheerios cereal.
My reaction was that it was a cute ad. Of course I immediately noted that child and mother had different skin colors. I thought that was a clever touch in that it is unusual enough in commercials that viewers are likely to watch it to see how it ends since it was clearly a deliberate choice on the part of the company and ad creators.
But while inter-racial couples now appear fairly often in TV shows and films, this ad sparked a furor online. When the ad appeared on YouTube, it produced so many angry and racist comments that comments were shut down. To their credit, the company stands by its ad and does not intend to withdraw it. You can see a discussion on Reddit.
So what can we learn from this? Big companies are not stupid. They know that inter-racial partnerships are still controversial in some parts of the country so the fact that executives at Cheerios and its parent company General Mills were willing to do this is suggests that they felt that the benefits gained by showing such an ad would more than counter the undoubted negative reaction from some quarters. That is a positive sign for the overcoming of racial prejudices. Meagan Hatcher-Mays, who is biracial, says that the appearance of such an ad is a big deal.
But the seriously negative reaction by some illustrates that we still have a way to go when it comes to acceptance of inter-racial relationships. What the election of Barack Obama says about changing racial attitudes is hard to tell. While this is a purely subjective feeling on my part without any empirical support, I have the sense that the election of a bi-racial president has polarized the race question in the US, between those who saw it as a marvelous symbol of a nation trying to move past its ugly racist history and those who saw it as a threat to their white heritage. The latter feel under siege and this seeming endorsement of inter-racial relationships by stodgy corporate America is likely seen as a greater threat than portrayals by the ‘liberal’ film and TV industry who are not viewed as ‘real’ Americans anyway.
This kind of racial thinking is of course not peculiar to the US. I remember in Sri Lanka some could get very upset over marriages between Sinhala and Tamil people because it would ‘dilute’ their respective heritages. This was even though the differences between the two communities were purely linguistic and cultural and you could not tell them apart physically.
I also recall about twenty years ago, I bought a used car from a family. The couple was white with three young adopted black children. When it came time to transfer the title, I went with the mother and her children to the DMV. While we were waiting to be served, I noticed that people who entered the office would give a double take on seeing us: a brown man, a white woman, and three black children, the ultimate melting pot. They were clearly thinking “What the hell?” But no one said or did anything. Both the woman and I did not say anything to each other but we exchanged glances signifying that we appreciated the humor in the situation.