Let's venture out on some thin ice.
I've been annoyed for years at the way race is handled in commercials. I've never said anything - it is a sensitive topic. But what am I so afriad of? I'm not a bigot. Can't well meaning people talk about these things? I say yes.
Why is it that when a commercial shows two people using competing products, and one person is white, and the other is black, the white guy is always using the inferior Brand X and the black guy is always using the good brand? Doesn't matter if it's detergent, a cold remedy, a brake job, anything. No way the white guy ever makes the right choice if his counterpart is a person of color. Not 75% of the time, not 90% of the time, but every time - without exception - my entire life.
Now don't even start formulating a response yet. First I'll state the obvious. Clearly, television has a responsibility to avoid hurtful negative stereotypes. And generally, they do a great job. If there was an episode of say, Mr. Belvedere, where the family was burgled and terrorized by a couple of sadistic black thieves, I'd come right out and say it - that would be irresponsible. If someone cast a Jew as the greedy moneylender or a hispanic as a thieving housemaid... also very bad. TV is generally very careful about stuff like that.
But it IS possible to go too far. Just once I'd like to see the black woman pull her shirt out of the dryer, see that the stain is still there and shake her head with dismay; while on the other side of the screen the white woman pulls out her totally clean shirt, and gives a nod of tremendous satisfaction, as if to say "Oh yeah." Would that be such a shocking taboo?
It's not that I want to see a white woman triumph at the expense of a black woman, it's just, I don't know, commercials portay minorities, black people especially, as these secular saints who are capable of no wrong or error, are savvy, witty and fiercely intelligent, and have impeccable style and taste. This annoys me not because I'm thinking "Hey wait a minute! Black people aren't that smart!" - It annoys be because it's deeply condescending. And it's not even cynical, calculated condescension, it's gutless, spineless condescension. It's the cowardly pandering of some advertiser who knows he needs to use a black person in the commercial lest he be accused of anything, but knows he also can't cast the guy in anything other than the "clever bloke" role, lest he be accused of anything. He's not trying to be socially conscious, he simply is steering down the one route which he knows will protect him from any accusation of wrongdoing. And because of this, the white guy always winds up with the stain on his shirt.
Can you imagine what would happen if you saw this commercial? Two guys (one white, one black) are both up for a big promotion at work. They each have a big presentation in the morning. But oh no! They each have a terrible head cold! The white guy reaches for his trusty NyQuil and knocks back a swig. Ahhhhh. The black guy on the other side of the screen is fumbling with his "generic decongestant". That bathroom doesn't look so tidy either, come to think of it....
The white guy wakes up bright and early, what a great night's sleep! He aces the presentation and the boss shakes his hand. Great job! But look at the other side of the screen... the black guy looks terrible! He didn't get a wink of sleep! No way he can make that presentation. Looks like no promotion this year.
Admit it, that commercial would blow your mind. You'd walk around all day feeling vaguely disconcerted. You'd know there was something really weird about that NyQuil ad, but you wouldn't know what. You wouldn't be able to figure it out.
If that commercial existed, and it never will, it would prompt outrage. People in the race business would be mad, but I don't think they'd know quite what to say. Is the commercial reinforcing the dangerous stereotype that black people simply don't know how to shop for a decongestant? How dare NyQuil not cast the black guy as the one using the preferred cold remedy! What are they trying to say, that blacks don't have a flawless record at treating their colds with effective, name brand expectorants?
You see, it's silly. And yet no white guy has ever "won" the commercial. Sometimes it just gets ridiculous. How about those home security commercials, advertising an alarm system. Have you seen these burglars? They look like silent film era bank robbers: the black turtleneck, the skullcap, the sensible slacks, the two-day stubble, a crowbar in one hand and a valise bag in the other. These are the lengths we're willing to go to make sure our "villain" in the commercial is a white guy.
I think there must be minorities who are equally annoyed with this. Isn't the condescension palpable? Do you ever think "Jeez, we don't always have to be Morgan Freeman in the commercial. Go ahead, get the bad warranty."
See, if the black guys made dumb decisions in commericals with the equivalent frequency of whites, wouldn't that be the REAL sign of progress? The real sign of the tolerant multiracial society? Yes I think so.