A recent General Mills Cheerios commercial has reminded us Americans (and those in other parts of the world) that race still causes severe social and political upset in 2013. A 30-second YouTube commercial featuring a young biracial child interacting with her white mother and black father has created a cyber firestorm of racially-charged attacks: “disgusting,” “racial genocide,” “anti-white,” and “want to vomit.”
Such emotionally-charged responses signal that despite (or perhaps even because of) 1967’s eradication of laws against interracial marriage, and a two-term biracial President, black/white interracial couples and their children are far from accepted. What is it about this particular Cheerios ad that causes such racial anxiety?
Folks on both sides of the color line still have problems and concerns with black/white interracial unions, or coupling “outside of one’s race.” This illusion of “racial purity” rests in the psyches of blacks and whites in many nooks and corners of America, and the alleged strength of consensual racial segregation is alive and well all over the Internet and in many American neighborhoods. Indeed, the children of interracial unions are visible reminders of how individuals’ personal desires easily become political statements for others. Whether through adoption or blending, American families do come in multiple shapes, sizes, and colors; FOX News’ Bill O’Reilly ominously lamented this reality on the night of Obama’s re-election: “Traditional America as we knew it is gone — Ward, June, Wally, and the Beav, outta here.”
The particular pairing of white women and black men creates far greater waves of disruption than the pairing of white men and black women. While white masters had ready and easy procreation access to black female slaves during America’s antebellum history and populated plantations for economic gain with the infamous and irrational “one-drop rule” — the race of the child followed the race of the black mother in this case — the post-slavery reality of consensual intimacies between black men and white women became and remains the most disruptive in the ongoing power battles between white and black men where women become the playing field. Since biracial children challenge the illusion of “racial purity,” lynching and castrating black men and anti-miscegenation laws sought to punish black men and prevent their access to white women.
Even though definitions of “blackness” and “whiteness” as marked by what can be visibly witnessed are problematic at best, these definitions create visceral responses in those who see race-mixing or miscegenation as socially wrong, politically bad, and even sinful. Such racialized fears are fueled as well by the seemingly alarmist statistics of late about birthrates of brown babies vs. white babies. In her commentary, “Minority birth rate now surpasses whites in U.S., census shows,” Hope Yen reported: “For the first time, racial and ethnic minorities make up more than half the children born in the U.S., capping decades of heady immigration growth that is now slowing. New 2011 census estimates highlight a historic shift under way in the nation’s racial makeup. They mark a transformation in a country once dominated by whites and bitterly divided over slavery and civil rights, even as it wrestles now over the question of restricting immigration…” While many embrace such intermingling as social enhancement and progress, others view the consensual browning of America as “unnatural” and threatening.
Ironically, the Cheerios commercial ends with the word “LOVE.” Further, the depiction of an interracial family is not an attempt to force race-mixing or even multiculturalism down anyone’s proverbial throat. Rather, the commercial seeks to show that America is indeed and ideally a country inclusive of diverse intimate pairings. Such differences are not meant to threaten any illusory racial or ethnic purity but to show that family, relationships, parenting, heart disease and cereal potentially unite us, not divide us.
Neal A. Lester is an associate vice president for humanities and arts at Arizona State University. He and Jasmine Z. Lester are father and daughter.