A recap for those of you who haven’t been following the cereal saga. On May 28 General Mills aired a YouTube Cheerios ad featuring a Black father, White mother and their young biracial daughter.
The 30-second clip was immediately bombarded with racist remarks referencing Nazis, “troglodytes” and “racial genocide.” It got so many negative reactions the comment section was taken down a day later. It is now impossible to verify any of the racist vitriol that was submitted there. But that wasn’t the end of it anyway. Commenters on the cereal’s Facebook page said they found the commercial “disgusting” and it made them “want to vomit.” One viewer expressed shock that a Black father would stay with this family writing the mother was, “More like single parent in the making. Black dad will dip out soon.” Simultaneously a Reddit stream on the ad turned into a debate about the accuracy or likelihood of the mixed-race family comprising a Black man and White woman, rather than a Black woman and White man. The negative responses drew explosive and infuriated attention across the Internet and then media. The result was an overwhelming and massive outpouring of support. America rushed to defend the bi-racial family en masse. Now, if you Google “Cheerios ad,” there will be no end to the pages and pages of results you find. Indeed as I write, the commercial has received close to 3.5 million views. The comments section is still disabled.
A couple weeks later, the saga seems to be coming to a close. Americans are still a little shaken but ultimately appeased by the final tally (i.e. the dramatic outnumbering of positive to negative responses). To date however the discussion never really included an examination of some critical points that could have propelled us forward. And so we may continue to tread water. First, we have been greatly influenced here by a history we like to forget and neglect. We have long feared interracial unions particularly between Black men and White women because they presumably pose the greatest “threat” to White male control. Remember, 18th and 19th century opposition to race mixing aimed to protect White male interests in an era of colonial expansion. While Black women’s lives were tragically treated as inconsequential, male freedom to choose a White partner made access to White women a barometer of power. For instance, when White men, who held the highest position of privilege, crossed the racial border in having consentual and nonconsentual relationships with Black women, they were seldom penalized. But Black men who crossed, or who were even suspected of crossing the racial divide by having relations with White women, were severely beaten or killed. These social politics rooted themselves in stereotypes that still profoundly affect us:
“Black men are thought to lust after white women; white men are thought to be envious of black male sexuality; black women are supposed to be more sexually satisfying than white women; and white women are dehumanized as trophies in competition between men…The system of racial apartheid and oppression that defined the early years of this country’s racial history remains in force today. Racial and sexual stereotypes are still very powerful, and double standards still abound. White men were ever vigilant about black men’s sexual access to white women – and they still are.”1
Second, I think it’s worth asking which character really had us up in arms. The mother, the father, or the CHILD?? I suggest it was the body/appearance/phenotype of a young multiracial child who centrally sparked this race controversy. Her character represented living proof of sex between a Black man and White woman, fanning an age-old fear of Black male virility and the dismantling of White supremacy. The Cheerios child also embodied a commitment to longevity on the part of her parents. This was not a tale of dangerous romance swept up on wild winds, but the story of a steadfast family living their every day life. The message being, we’re not going anywhere; a direct challenge and deconstruction of what has long been the dominant American family prototype (i.e. White heterosexual parents and their White children, a dog and house with white picket fence).
What’s perhaps even more important to note here however is the way a multiracial body again became a platform for race deconstruction while its voice and experience went largely unnoticed and unacknowledged. And how we continue to avoid having race conversations with mixed children and perhaps most children in general. Much of the Cheerios debate has been dichotomous and adultcentric, focusing on interracial partnership/marriage and the Black/White divide. But we need to ask ourselves, how does the divide translate for the mixed race child? Does she herself feel divided when she sees she is poised precariously on a tight rope in “the middle”? These are the children of the future and they are being asked to represent race redefinition without the privilege of weighing in. Case in point, when MSNBC interviewed the child actress, Grace Colbert, and her real-life parents, her Black father was asked most of the race questions. His daughter meanwhile bore silent witness while sitting attentively at his side. And when Grace’s White mother, sitting on her other side, was asked if the backlash had “pushed sensitive conversations at home” with the kids, mom answered, “Not really. Um our kids are very open. And you know they – I inquired about, to my daughter, about it and she actually just thought the attention was because she had a great smile. So. She really had no idea.” This answer was given within obvious close hearing range of Grace’s fully capable ears. Grace just wordlessly continued to flash her great smile. But we are left to wonder – what was she really thinking?…
~ Sharon Chang blogs at MultiAsianFamilies
Note 1. See Root, Maria P. P. Love’s Revolution: Interracial Marriage. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001. Print.