Friday, January 29, 2010

7480: A Teachable Moment Sponsored By Pine-Sol.

The comment below was left for Jim Edwards at BNET, in response to his Pine-Sol counterpoint. It’s a must-read for anyone interested in making progress in the advertising industry—or in society, for that matter.


thanks for the link to MultCultClassics

Mr. Edwards, although I think that a person of European heritage in the USA has about as much of an idea of what racism in the USA is to African Americans as what ‘cold’ means to Inuits in the Arctic, I must say I respect you for placing the link to the MultCultClassics blog and by admitting that you don’t know what it is like to be an African American in the USA. Now, if you admit that you don’t know what it is like to be an African American in the USA, how can you tell what is perceived as racist to an African American, or not? That point is in the blog post of MultCultClassics, for which you generously provided a link. You may or may not have read it yet. His criticism of your presumption in saying what is, or isn’t, racist is fairly mild by my standards. But it’s a point that I think deserves more discussion. Talking about our perceptions of what we experience in our daily lives and how we perceive those experiences is a big step toward understanding each other. Of course, it’s a fantasy because at the end of the day, people generally return to be with those of the group to which they belong. That ‘group’ often means race in the USA. On occasions there is racial mixing during time away from work, but it occurs much less than in Brazil where the majority of the population is already racially mixed on an individual basis. While racism against those who are darker skinned (or who happen to belong to the dwindling numbers of indigenous people there) exists, it is of a different character than the strain that emerged in the Anglophone world. I could tell you why, but I get hammered for overly long comments, so look it up yourself, if you want to understand why you can’t make a general proclamation about what is, or isn’t, racist in a country where African Americans may experience racism, yet European Americans cannot experience racism as a socio-cultural phenomenon based on the history that created the society and culture of the USA as you know it today.

But I don’t mind being hammered, and you probably don’t have the time to look it up yourself, so I’ll try to be as concise and direct as possible, yet still provide enough supporting ideas, details, and examples so that you can get more than just a sound bite of information if you read this.

Someone may discriminate against you because of the color of your skin, but to call it racism is an inaccurate use of that word. Racism is an ideology that promotes a hierarchy of human worth based on skin color with the lighter skinned being at the top and the darker skinned at the bottom. And it has been systematically institutionalized in the culture of the USA over the past 400 years where those with lighter skin have been at the top and those with darker skin have been at the bottom. In that regard, little has changed since the first slave ship anchored off the coast of Virginia nearly 400 years ago. The effects of this racial hierarchy put African Americans at a disadvantage in American culture, then as now. Racism isn’t just saying, “I don’t like him because he’s a Venusian.” It’s an institutional force in a society that transcends the actions of any one individual. It is part of your culture, so until the culture of the USA is somehow miraculously transformed to Dr. King’s vision of a colorblind society, or there is adequate miscegenation, or everyone get’s collective amnesia about US history (which is the most likely scenario, since most white people are already there), there will continue to be racist messages in what may appear to you as harmless pitches for products. At the same time, I can guarantee you that Ms. Miller understands your point of view, even though she’s not a European American man. Why? She had no choice if she wanted to be successful in business in US society. She must understand what a European American man understands or she wouldn’t understand the advertising world, since it is a product of the European American male. European American females are well represented in marketing, but the ad world, well, it’s still a man’s world, isn’t it? And those men are white aren’t they? And Ms. Miller obviously understands the advertising world, and you are dead wrong about her being out of a job if there weren’t racism in ads (which is absurd to even consider, since the culture in the USA is racist, how could it not produce racist ads?). But if there were a reduction in the racism in ads, it would be because the ad industry had more African American people and other racial minority group members in their creative departments and in their executive suites. But I don’t see that happening anytime soon, do you? The increased presence of African American actors as the main character in ads has been a nice touch since President Obama was inaugurated, but how many of those African American as central character ads were created by African American creatives? Uh-huh, that’s what I thought. Do you get it yet?

You freely admit that you don’t know what it’s like to be black, yet at the same time you apparently feel qualified to make a judgment about a phenomenon, racism, that you don’t understand. How could you? You’re not an African American and you didn’t spend 7 years in graduate school studying it. At least you gave the link to the MultCultClassics site (or I guess you did), and that’s a pretty nice gesture. Now, the strongest point Ms. Miller made is that there is simply not the sensitivity regarding the HISTORICAL INJUSTICES that have CREATED THE CULTURE that YOU LIVE IN NOW. So, of course you never owned a slave and maybe you even got bumped from a promotion because of affirmative action (but I doubt it because you are too young, you are post-Bakke age, I assume), but you don’t understand that being white is a natural advantage in a racist culture (and the only culture I can think of where it was a disadvantage to be lighter skinned was when the San of the Kalahari Desert and surrounding areas were invaded by the Bantu many many centuries ago). You don’t understand this, and how could you? Maybe you had one university course in Race and Racism or even American Ethnicity, or maybe not. And you probably haven’t read a lot of American history written from the perspective of how African Americans experienced that history.

So, while Andrew Jackson was having a wild party in the White House after his election and the ‘cultured’ elites of the young nation were aghast, most Americans were taught that is was a big victory for the ‘common man.’ It didn’t say ‘common white man,’ did it? No. And Mr. Edwards, that’s the point. So, American history is still being taught as though the European-American experience of history is the American experience of history, and it’s simply not true for a significant part of the American population. No progress will ever be made until, addenda are added that say, “while the ‘common men’ were celebrating their candidate’s victory for the Presidency, African American slaves were being slaves in the Southern states, and the Border states as well. Their rights were not included in the Bill of Rights, because they had none. They did not vote. And they could not prevent their owners from selling them or their wives or children to other slave owners. The abolition movement had begun but it was promoted by a few out of touch New England intellectuals. Women were still property, too, but they couldn’t be sold, not legally anyway. And that’s how American democracy began its first expansion toward universal suffrage…” or something along those lines. No, you didn’t read those lines in your textbooks, or if you did, you conveniently classified it as history, as though it were some old dead thing that holds no relevance for you today.

150 years ago is really not all that long ago. I teach students whose history extends over 4000 years, 2000 years as a unified country. They smirk when I say even mention the word history in the same sentence as the USA. And then we have a good laugh. Because they know and I know that 150 years ago is really just yesterday in cultural terms. So underneath the glittery multicultural surface of slick PR presentations, US culture is really not all that much different from when the Master could take a cat o’ nine tails to his ‘property’ for insubordination or disobedience. Check out the prison population if you don’t think so. It’s the modern equivalent of Master’s cat o’ nine tails. The US sits at the top with nearly 1% of its population behind bars. China has about 0.1% behind bars, and India, the most multicultural country in the world, has 0.03% behind bars. Who is behind bars in the USA? Why? Are Americans that much more criminal than the Chinese or Indians? I don’t think so.

So, while I personally think you have handled this issue with dignity and fairness, it would be interesting to see if you would make an extra step and really try to understand what it is like to be an African American in the USA. Because if you are going to write about issues that are directly related to their history, experiences, and disadvantages in a CULTURE OF RACISM, then you should become knowledgeable about what you are writing about. So far, I see little that tells me you have much knowledge or sensitivity toward the issue of race in the USA, which is like the other European Americans I’ve known, myself being excepted because people always thought I was an African American anyway, and I never tried to dissuade them of that opinion. It can have its advantages, on a personal level, at least.


KissMyBlackAds said...


Did Jim read that? did he respond? Can he respond?
Sure he can, sure he will. The saga continues.

KissMyBlackAds said...

I hope Jim reads (read studies) this post. Can he gloss it over? Will he address it in honesty and fairness? Can Jim actually put himself in the shoes of an oppressed American? Will he see the need to do so when pontificating on the merits and setbacks therein? Does his privileged point of view grant him the foresight or the purview to assimilate his emotional sensibilities to that of a Black man or more challenging still a Black woman?

Tune in to see: As Jim's world turns (Black)!

HighJive said...

Well, Jim Edwards does deserve respect. He’s been one of the few people in the industry who is willing to be open and honest with his feelings. MultiCultClassics will take someone with opinions – even if the opinions oppose ours or occasionally expose a lack of authentic understanding – over the typical leaders who say, ‘We’ve got to do a better job,” while they really harbor different feelings and/or never get around to even doing a shitty job.

HustleKnocker said...

awesome post. this one, like so many MCC posts deserves to be read by folks in the whole industry.

hope you can find time to link these up for some context into a fresh piece to spread around!

Pepper Miller said...

I read the comment Prof Eaves left for Jim Edwards and and on this post. Edwards did respond at Bnet and apparently did not read the entire piece siting that it was "too long". And unfortunately, Edwards is standing his ground and is choosing to remain in the world of cluelessness.

Prof Eaves called it correctly when he said Edwards wouldn't get it. Edwards doesn't get; doesn't want to get it and doesn't have to. His ego, arrogance and ignorance overshadow his ability and any desire to learn, see and empathize with someone who is different from him. Too bad.

Prof. Eaves' commentaries here and on Bnet are riveting. I felt validation for Black consumer marketing and sad that the "history lesson" is still needed. ( Sad yes, not surprised. America continues to 'skip steps' regarding American history and it's legacy and finds comfort sticking her head in the sand when it comes to racial discussions.)

To Edwards and his supporters, I never thought the Pine Sol ad was racist. Stereotyping in advertising does not always mean racist. Clueless, yes. People can have biased opinions and not be racists. I don't believe that the agency created this with mean spirited intentions. But I do think they have a limited vision of Black America.

I am appreciative of MulticultClassics and Prof Eaves for stepping up, standing up and trying to put a "little fat" on Edwards' head. But Edwards like so many just ain't hearing it.
(Sigh: ...and the beat goes on....)

Anonymous said...

Damn, this post is longer than our first episode of AdVerve. On... racism. ;-p