How did a bland breakfast cereal ignite a racial controversy?
By featuring a Black father, White mother and Biracial daughter in a 30-second commercial, Cheerios went from being a geriatric cholesterol-buster and go-to snack for moms desperate to calm fussy toddlers to a symbol of forbidden love, lust and social progress.
Some ad honchos decided to spice up the blah Cheerios brand with a guaranteed button-pusher, something to make the cereal look progressive, edgy, ahead of the curve. They went for shock value, but seemed shocked themselves at the strings of racially-unfriendly comments inspired by the sight of a tri-colored family in prime time. And coverage of those comments became the story that went viral, shooting Cheerios into the national consciousness.
Next thing you know, Cheerios are a symbol for acceptance and support of interracial love generally and Black-man-White-woman-Biracial-child families specifically. Mixed people are flooding social media with photos of themselves holding Cheerios boxes. I’m now using “Cheerios” as shorthand/slang to refer to such couples and families—a welcome replacement for the antiquated “Jungle Fever.”
The pundits and pontificators jumped on the bandwagon, weighing every possible pro, con and nuance–not of the commercial itself–but of the string of racist comments. Cheerios got another gazillion dollars worth of free media by announcing that they were standing by their ad despite the now-disabled racist comments. The actress who played the mother spoke up publicly, and the Biracial child actress appeared on news shows with her real Cheerios parents, saying she thought all the fuss was because of her great smile. (As far as I know, the Black man who portrayed the husband/father has not joined the fray).
Blacks and Whites alike veer between professing a what’s-the-big-deal acceptance of these families and not-so-quietly wondering whether all this mixing means they’re headed for extinction, doomed to a future dominated by racial mutants.
But with all of the point-counterpoint, slur-slinging and hand-wringing, everyone’s dancing around the real reason that this is such a big deal. :
Hint: this isn’t about cereal. Or commercials. Or even the cute memes:
Why, in 2013, when interracial marriages, while not even close to the number of same-race unions, are at an all-time high, acceptance is steadily growing, and our nation wrestles with legalizing gay marriage, did this Cheerios ad ignite such strong reactions?
It’s simple. What’s really going on is nothing more than the USA’s ongoing obsession/fantasy/fear of Black men luring White women from their pedestal of racial and sexual “purity,” and making “What about the children?” babies together.
Let’s not pretend this is new, or that we’re over our nation’s tangled racial history. The real backstory is the iconic threat of Black maleness that took root when slavery ended and free Black men were perceived as a danger to White manhood and power.
The newfound economic and political access enjoyed by Black men after emancipation—including the rights to vote and hold political office—fueled this fear of emasculation, loss of control, and the very premise upon which the United States of America was built: supremacy derived from a power structure based on “majority rules.” At the core of it all was a national phobia about Black men raping White women and “staining” White America with “impure” blood and genes. That fear grew into the mythology that drove anti-miscegenation laws, Jim Crow segregation and lynching.
At the turn of the twentieth century, that fear was fed by waves of new immigrants and the knowledge that, due to centuries of slave-era rapes, some Blacks could pass for White and infiltrate the DNA of the ruling class. White men wanted to guard White women’s sexual purity to ensure that they’d have White babies.
Today, even with a Biracial POTUS, this obsession and anxiety persist. Between the browning of America—with White babies now officially in the minority—growing Black political clout as exemplified by President Obama, the surge of Latino immigrants and an increasing Mixed-race populace, anxiety about White women giving birth to the “wrong color babies” is still very real.
This is one of our nation’s most enduring phobias. It didn’t lessen when Loving v. Virginia struck down laws against interracial marriage in 1967. It has led to countless Black boys and men being slaughtered and lynched without a hint of due process at the mere suggestion that they perhaps laid eyes upon or deigned to speak to a White woman.
Fear of Cheerios unions has been and continues to be a button-pusher for all kinds of Americans. And not all of them are necessarily racist, even if they express their disapproval in unfriendly ways.
Let’s not front: this anxiety isn’t one-sided. Songstress Jill Scott spoke for many Black women when she expressed her discomfort with interracial couples in the April 2010 issue of Essence magazine. Jill described “wincing” when she walked past interracial couples. She cited historical reasons for her stance, touching off a debate between the magazine’s readers. The truth is that some Black women and men worry about racial and cultural extinction, just as some Whites do. On the flip side, more Black women are encouraging each other to date outside the race, since they perceive eligible Black men who want to date and mate their own to be in short supply.
Meanwhile, that “ravaging savage” mythology still dominates, holding our nation in its sway. And it’s not going anywhere. Fear of the Black man is as American as apple pie, and as much a part of the national consciousness as the Pledge of Allegiance.
This has been and continues to be a button-pusher for all kinds of Americans. The ad agency and Cheerios knew that, and banked on the “taboo” boosting their brand, notoriety and cultural swag.
Still, they played it safe, flirting with controversy, but careful not to go too far. As W. Kamau Bell, a comedian with a Cheerios family noted, at no time in the commercial do you see the Black husband/dad actually interacting with his wife and/or child. The viewer is left to fill in the blanks, with imaginations steeped in the lore of forbidden love, lust and tragically confused and rejected offspring providing the subtext that sparked the reactions that turned a cereal ad into national news and a social media darling.
Why? Because we might think we’re reacting to a contemporary family in a cereal commercial, but in fact we are responding to the images running in the background of our national psyche.
What America really sees is the iconic image of big, black King Kong leering at tiny, White Fay Wray as he holds her hostage. The smooth veneer of Sidney Poitier as the super-genteel Black suitor of a rich White woman in the groundbreaking 1968 film, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” The face of OJ Simpson superimposed on a TV screen next to his blonde ex-wife and alleged murder victim, Nicole, as he fled in a white Bronco. And the April 2008 Vogue magazine cover featuring NBA star LeBron James and supermodel Gisele posed to echo the King Kong-Fay Wray image—which experts decried as a “flop,” surprised that the taboo optics didn’t boost sales as expected.
Today, the mythological ravaging “savage” is hawking breakfast cereal; tomorrow, who knows? One thing is certain, though: Black male/White female relationships will still be “taboo,” still push buttons, stoke fears, fuel controversy and possibly sales. Because love it or hate it, American can never get its fill.