A RECENT Cheerios television ad has all of the elements that viewers usually glaze over because of their sheer ubiquity: a light-filled, eat-in kitchen with an attractive mother checking off tasks at the table, a button-down shirt and slacks-wearing father indulging in a quick after-work nap and a chubby-cheeked, curly-haired
6-year-old girl with a lisp.
But instead of disappearing into the ether, as TV spots tend to, this particular nuclear family advertisement has sparked such fury that Cheerios’ YouTube channel was forced to disable its comments section.
Why? Because the mother is white, the father is black, and the girl appears to be their biological, mixed-race child.
Since President Obama’s rise to national fame in 2007, many companies have featured a diverse array of people in their advertisements, including people of color and same-sex and interracial families. However, the American public has rarely been treated to nationwide spots of interracial families with both parents and child.
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In Seattle, interracial marriage rates are a third higher than the record-high numbers in the U.S. as a whole. But even we cannot be so complacent to believe that our relatively high numbers translate to a wholesale embrace of interracial families in or outside the emerald bubble.
I believe this commercial struck a nerve because an iconic American product features a racially different family in what’s considered a traditional American space.
The setting isn’t an urban street. It’s a middle-class home. The mother and father are playing prescribed gender roles. In this straight couple, the mother rules the kitchen while the father rules the living room. The child doesn’t stand out as different either. She is television-commercial cute, and she very much looks the part. This ad infuriates Internet trolls because “they” are now imagined to be “us” in the mirror space of popular culture.
This mainstreaming of difference echoes our country’s racist past, including anxiety about black-white interracial families. The anxiety is not anomalous or anachronistic. For example, a day before this ad was released a white dad of three mixed-race African-American girls was visited by the police at his Virginia home on suspicion of kidnapping.
The security at the Walmart
where he had shopped with his daughters alerted the authorities because, in the words of the girls’ black mother, they “didn’t think that [the family] fit.”
Online commenters have questioned whether the Cheerios ad would have sparked such an outcry if the races of the parents were switched, with a black mother and a white father in the ad.
Perhaps. Our country bears a history of deep-seated race phobia visible in pernicious stereotypes about brute-like black men driven wild with lust over white women.
Anti-miscegenation laws, on the books in some states in this country from 1661 to 1967, were justified by fear of such couplings and their result. In the 1930s, Washington state led the country in striking down attempts to ban interracial marriage.
Statisticians highlight the growing numbers of interracial couples and mixed-race births, but demographic changes do not magically transform entrenched racial attitudes.
As interracial families come to represent the average, cereal-consuming demographic, “us” and “them” converge, but not without some racist responses.
Interracial families’ takeover of the last frontier of average television commercials moves visible racial difference closer to the center of U.S. life, and forces all of us to re-imagine the American family.
Ralina L. Joseph is associate professor at the University of Washington Department of Communication and author of “Transcending Blackness: From the New Millennium Mulatta to the Exceptional Multiracial.”