I didn’t watch the Superb Owl last night because I don’t care about NFL football so instead I was reading a book. But it’s ok, I heard that nobody else was watching the Big Game either. Like every year, it’s all about watching the commercials. Is that right? Is that how people do capitalism?
During the second quarter, Coca-Cola showcased a commercial featuring ordinary Americans of various backgrounds — including a gay family — doing everyday people things, all while a multi-lingual rendition of “America the Beautiful” plays in the background.
Cue the shitstorm of racist, xenophobic and homophobic rants on social media, followed by aggregated lists of said bigoted comments by news outlets. I’m not about to show you all of the negative social media out there because you’ve probably already read it. (Whatever you do, don’t look at the #speakamerican tag on Twitter!) And I’m not about to praise Coca-Cola for acknowledging diversity in America because fuck corporations. But these angles were covered to no end by news outlets last night and early today.
It’s no secret what news media’s strategies are when it comes to attracting eyeballs: superlative and exaggerated headlines, most quickly garnered by broadcasting social media activity as bona fide social trends. Everyone is fishing for clicks, and although there are few guarantees in life, I guarantee you this — when a person of color does something on television, somebody on twitter, somewhere, is tweeting something racist about it. Lots of somebodies, actually. And more and more these days, you can also guarantee that when this happens, certain wings of the liberal media will be ON IT, while neglecting to cover more complicated and nuanced race-related stories in need of their attention.
People have yet to tire of this kind of coverage, however. We had identical coverage of the interracial family in the Cheerios commercial, the Indian-American woman who won the Miss America Pageant and the Mexican-American kid singing the national anthem at the NBA Finals — all headlined by how racist assholes spewed hate on social media. SURPRISE! There are millions of racist xenophobic assholes in America, and a lot of them have twitter and a handful of followers who are probably also bigoted assholes.
It’s easy to be enraged by these kind of tweets and statuses and call out these horrible people, but it perpetuates this idea that racist comments are to be expected from a person of color breaking the norm, aka “not being white,” and obscures the real issues that result from that bigotry. It also obscures our ability to take a minute and really celebrate these achievements. It takes up space, enables armchair activism, and often serves to pat white journalists on the back for something not all that impressive. Yes, we live in a white supremacist society, but are tweets from random humans all over the world the best way to remind me that there are ignorant people walking this planet? This type of news hype is lazy and just mindlessly echoes in the internet groupthink chamber that doesn’t try to bring anything new to the table, let alone bring anything into our actual lived experiences or propose real-world solutions. What about coverage that continually talks about dismantling the white patriarchal world we live in?
Are these tweets the most pressing evidence we have today that America is filled with terrible bigoted human beings? (Because it is.) Or do these tweets just make the easiest headline? For every Coca-Cola commercial hater, there were probably ten more people that thought it was amazing. There’s been no visible outcry from the right-wing journalists and politicians who have genuine power and use it against communities of color every day — but I promise you that those politicians probably did do something today to fuck over communities of color, and it wasn’t in the news. The only Fox News article on the subject, (via the Associated Press — Fox didn’t even bother covering it themselves), says only this about the ad: “Coca-Cola showcased America’s diversity with a spot that showed scenes of natural beauty and families of different diversities to the tune of “America the Beautiful” being sung in different languages.” Even this (unfortunately) influential policy-making conservative think tank loved the commercial.
— Heritage Foundation (@Heritage) February 3, 2014
As you saw, one of the scenes in the commercial included a gay white male couple and their daughter at a skating rink. According to GLAAD, this was the first time a Super Bowl commercial featured a gay family. GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis praised the ad in a statement: “Including a gay family in this ad is not only a step forward for the advertising industry, but a reflection of the growing majority of Americans from all walks of life who proudly support their LGBT friends, family and neighbors as integral parts of ‘America the Beautiful.’” (Personally, I was more excited to learn that “America the Beautiful” songwriter Katharine Lee Bates had a “romantic friendship” with Katharine Coman for 25 years than I was to see another gay white male couple on television! It can get exhausting, honestly, for the rest of us — queer women of color especially — to be continually asked to applaud and celebrate the inclusion of gay white men as a community-wide victory/achievement.)
What the racist tweets story has accomplished, ultimately, is that it has cast Coca-Cola as the Good Guy, sticking up for gays and people of color despite the “backlash” from The Evil Twitter Machine. This comes on the heels of the recent backlash against Coca-Cola’s controversial sponsorship of the 2014 Sochi Olympics and subsequent advertising campaigns in the wake of Russia’s anti-LGBT policies. Last week, Coca-Cola removed a website that allowed people to write names and messages on virtual Coke cans and then share it with friends via social media. They removed it after LGBT activists realized that “gay” was banned from the website.
I recognize that within the context of mainstream media and advertising in the United States, Coca-Cola’s ad does represent progress, and it made a lot of people I know accidentally cry a little. But I’m uncomfortable about giving a company who continually creates problems in this world a high-five for a job well done or cast them as victims in a story about the ad. Y’all know consuming soda is not healthy for you, which is sometimes all that mostly poor people of color consume regularly because clean water isn’t accessible or affordable. Daily consumption of carbonated drinks can lead to health problems like tooth decay, Type 2 Diabetes, heart attacks and kidney failure, to name a few. The same beverage people consume daily can also be used as a household cleaner. The company causes environmental problems around the world, including the “over-exploitation of limited water resources and the contamination of groundwater supplies“ by bottling plants in India. There’s a whole list of shady business practices the Coca-Cola Company has led, so of course I’m not going to be praising a company for acknowledging the existence of people of color when they continually to shit on them around the world.
Yes, it’s important to call out racism, xenophobia and homophobia when we see it, especially on social media. But there’s a difference between calling out bigotry when we see it — and there is plenty to be seen — and purposefully looking for bigotry in predictable places to fill a slot in a 24/7 news cycle. Journalists are able to wrap up a story neatly — they found the bigoted tweet, and they called it out, the commenters chimed in with disgust, and everybody felt really good about themselves today. Everybody neatly fights social media with social media. It’s easy. I’m not saying that it isn’t a problem that those tweeters feel the way they do — in fact, it’s an ENORMOUS problem, and the tweeters are a symptom of the disease that is American culture today, and that disease deserves our attention as journalists and activists every minute of every day. But twitter is not the beginning or the end of that problem, and stories like this make it seem like it is, and it subsequently makes the solution seem all-to-easy when it’s really anything but. If America is ever gonna be beautiful enough to pay genuine tribute to the different groups represented in last night’s Coca-Cola ad, we need a lot less attention paid to gawking at twitter and a lot more attention paid to the culture that created those people to begin with.