Advertisers have taken a lead role in promoting racial equality. Sit through a string of ads and chances are you’ll see a lot of African-Americans doing the same things as whites and living comfortably among them; doctors, financial advisers, and entrepreneurs, driving their kids to the same schools in the same luxury SUVs, toasting at the same Christmas parties, marshmallowing around the same campfires, and cleaning spills in the same sleek kitchens.
While some of this might be market driven, a matter of pandering to diverse tastes in a diversifying America, advertisers have also been intentional about joining the national “conversation” on race. Here we are shown the inclusive future we should strive for, one in which color abounds but makes little difference, in which mixed-race families are treated like any other, in which black hair, black dress and black dialect are welcome in a white man’s world that hints, rightfully, at America no longer being just a white man’s world.
This is America living up to its ideals, the America we should all want to live in.
But in depicting a sanitized racial utopia unfamiliar to most Americans, these ads are threatening to sabotage the prospect of meaningful dialogue, and thus undercut the aim of greater inclusion.
Having a real — honest — conversation about race is essential. With rare exception, though, these ads prefer to pretend all is well between the races, that there is no apparent need for a conversation.
This would cease to matter if elsewhere we were talking through our differences, but in our age of political correctness, in which we’re more concerned with hurt feelings than truth-telling, we have largely avoided talking across racial boundaries, be it in the classroom, the media, workplace or around our dinner tables. Everyone and everything is seen to be too sensitive; we’ve trained ourselves to be quiet or just say nice things. In marketing racial bliss and cohesion, these ads serve to reinforce our culture of avoidance.
I cringe a little each time I see blacks and whites not interacting in real life as effortlessly as they do in these politically correct ads (which is most of the time), or when African-Americans don’t appear as prosperous or well-adjusted; nary a time when they are cast as, say, cashier, receptionist, car thief or bad cop, roles that in the real world are inhabited by all races. Our collective discomfort with the subject of race prevents us from painting a fuller portrait of blackness.
Now, this focus instead on black success does manage to challenge misleading stereotypes, which is vital to the health and integration of black America, but it also de-emphasizes the underlying impediments to black success, from institutional racism to poverty and fatherless households. To what degree this might be encouraging our collective neglect? Could, for example, the high number of blacks appearing in financial ads that Kerry Pechter has observed be helping to obscure the “Grand Canyon-sized gap” between black and white savings rates?
One thing these “woke” advertisers can be counted on for is to draw our attention back, again and again, to the main fault line of race in America, black and white, while pretending it isn’t a fault line at all — as if 200 years of built-up resentment and mistrust can be treated by a heavy dose of clever marketing.
This is in fact a recipe for raising race consciousness without the benefit of interracial healing, and in our age of acute tribalism, in which we’re quick to see race in even the smallest of setbacks or disagreements — perpetuating self-righteousness and misunderstanding — we could use less racial consciousness not more. A more plural America in fact depends on it.
The sheer overrepresentation of blacks in ads poses another potential obstacle to greater equality and inclusion. While statistics are hard to come by, we can say with confidence that blacks appear far in excess of their 13 percent of the population — so much so that if a foreigner had nothing to go on but our ads, she might reasonably conclude that America is a majority-African-American country.
Now, diversity in representation is good for expanding definitions of American identity. Some might even argue that the overrepresentation is good for business, as aspects of black culture are said to be “having a moment.”
But to many non-blacks I speak with, it can feel like blackness, not only in ads but the media more broadly, is being forced upon them by “coastal elites” with a disingenuous political agenda, and that, as Liza Mundy pointed out in the Atlantic, is likely to backfire: “People resent being made to sit in a chair and listen to somebody telling them how to act. Forcing them to do so can provoke the fundamental human urge to reply: No thanks, I’ll do the opposite.” This anti-persuasion radar is what psychologists call reactance.
Even some African-Americans are uncomfortable with the uptick in black representation. When actress Hannah Hodson sees blacks in ads, it feels “contrived” and makes her feel like an “other.”
The solution is not to do away with diversity in advertising. The media have a responsibility to continue showing that the American story is not singularly white or, to put a finer point on it, that blackness is as authentically American as whiteness is, and the ad industry is not failing us on that front.
But race shouldn’t be obsessed over; it shouldn’t be inserted into nearly every ad, which just triggers Americans to concentrate on race more than is healthy, and it shouldn’t be motivated by politics or white guilt and smack of politically correctness, which will be detected for what it is and just further divide us.
Representation should continue to emphasize the diversity and fluidity of American identity. But the depictions should at least be recognizable, not fanciful so as to perpetuate our discomfort with the actuality of race in America. They could also stand to be more proportionate to actual population sizes, which would give all Americans less to complain about and presumably open up roles for Latinos, Asians and other minorities who remain underrepresented in mainstream advertising.
Advertisers need to stop fetishizing race. As an industry driven by profit and dealing in snippets is not well-suited to substantively advance racial justice. It’s just good at looking like it is.
• Ioannis Gatsiounis is a writer in Texas.
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