Editor's Note: This is the first of two blogs discussing how an advertisement for Cheerios featuring an interracial family has sparked emotions and highlighted the need for deeper discussion about race in the United States.
For decades we've watched depictions of the "American family" through our televisions. I pay close attention to what is reflected in the characters depicted in both programming and commercials, and I often form understandings based on what is not there instead of what is. There is a lot "not there" in the media.
When I first saw a Kindle Fire ad featuring a heterosexual couple and a gay couple vacationing together, I jumped for joy, texted my colleagues and posted the video to my Facebook wall. That joy was repeated last week when I saw a new Cheerios ad featuring a beautiful young biracial girl, her white mother and her black father.
Like most little girls, the child featured in the ad is concerned about her daddy's health. When she learns that Cheerios is “heart healthy,” she pours a box of cereal on her sleeping father's chest. It's a cute scenario full of love.
That’s why I was shocked to learn of the explosion of negative and racist comments posted to the ad’s YouTube feed. The multiracial family in the ad had offended people? How is that possible? Yet, this ad clearly represented an unwelcome reality to some viewers, and one they are not often asked to acknowledge. For white Americans, thinking about race and race representation is a secondary concern because white characters and white families saturate our media. For Americans of color, that same privilege has not existed; for biracial families, representation is even less common.
But I believe we are making progress. Between Kindle and Cheerios, we are seeing more of the diversity that is our country’s reality. And despite the negative comments and racist chatter I read in response to both of these ads, I am so happy to see diverse families finally finding a place in our media. When our identities are included and reflected in the world around us, we are more likely to feel validated and accepted, and be more productive members of our communities. Exclusion, however, hurts and can weaken our membership in our communities. We all deserve to see people like us in television shows, films and advertisements.
Educators cannot stop at celebrating the progress we are making. We must also help our students to understand the concept of stereotypes in advertising and ways stereotypes can be harmful, especially when it comes to race and gender. Consider starting a conversation about race by exploring the hateful backlash to Cheerios’ new campaign. We can use this case to teach students about what is not depicted in the media in addition to what is, to explore the concept of power in advertising and to challenge preconceptions about groups of people represented in ads. These skills increase media literacy in our students and develop conscientious consumers.
We applaud the spirit of Camille Gibson, vice president of marketing for Cheerios, who said, "At Cheerios, we know that there are many kinds of families, and we want to celebrate them all." Bravo, Cheerios!
Wicht is a teaching and learning specialist for Teaching Tolerance.