Why racism unleashed online after interracial Cheerios ad might help race relations
Sometimes, it feels as if social media is filled with a cadre of prejudiced oddballs intent on exposing their ignorance at every turn – creating an avalanche of racist nonsense for the rest of us to sort through.
But let me suggest another way to consider these incidents, which have led to lots of stories from columnists and pundits bemoaning the state of race relations and social media today.
Recent lowlights include: a Cheerios ad featuring an interracial couple swamped with racist comments on YouTube; a viral video created by a bratty Dunkin Donuts customer calling a clerk a sand n---er; and a stream of racist comments after a 10-year-old mariachi singer dared to sing the national anthem at an NBA playoff game.
Some of this stuff is truly head-scratching. Interracial couples have appeared in TV ads for quite a long time – Mastercard had a cool “priceless” ad on this score back in 2006, and I love the one where a woman fears her husband loves her only because she makes macaroni and cheese so well; she black, he’s white but that means nothing in the ad.
And how racist people can spend much time watching the mostly-black NBA, I really don’t understand.
But such awful public missteps can also bring positive results, thanks to the power of social media to pull people together and spur them to action.
First, these incidents bring discussions about race into the light. As a person of color who writes often about race, media and prejudice, one of my biggest struggles is convincing people this stuff still exists. We have quite rightly banished racism to the outer edges of our society, but that doesn’t keep people who generally think of themselves as enlightened and moral from falling prey to stereotypes.
Second, these incidents almost always produce a greater reaction of condemnation. People dumb enough to express these thoughts on social media quickly find a host of other folks in the Twitterverse and elsewhere online willing to tell them how stupid they are.
Cheerios, which sadly had to issue a statement supporting the interracial couple in its ad while asking youTube to disable comments on the video, saw its online branding go up by 77 percent, with lots of comp-limentary exposure on news programs as the controversy grew.
New York-based techie Matt Binder even created a tumblr page, “Public Shaming” to collate all the racist, sexist, insulting tweets people send around such issues, preserving them even after those who first published them try to avoid backlash by deleting them.
In my book, Race-Baiter, I talk to social media expert Clay Shirky, who recounted the story of how some racist Hunger Games fans got upset when characters from the book were played by black actors in the film. But the backlash, which included pointed stories about the comments on forbes.com and Jezebel.com, allowed many more fans to stand up for the casting choices and condemn the racism.
“Twitter helped dismantle a deeper, institutionalized racial expectation,” said Shirky, who talks like that because he’s a brilliant professor at New York University.
So, while I hate that a 10-year-old kid had to endure being called an illegal alien on Twitter, I value the chance to shake up some people’s complacency about racial attitudes in America.
And I value more the example set by those on social media who refuse to let such comments pass unchallenged.
Whether the people who make these comments know it or not, they’re helping the rest of us grow closer in our opposition to hate and prejudice.