Scrolling the MSN homepage this weekend, I came across a teaser that read something like “racist BK ad pulled.” I stopped and thought, I know they are not referring to Mary J. Blige’s chicken commercial controversy, and sure enough they were. I can think of several “r” words to describe Mary’s chicken wrap advertisement, like ratchet or ridiculous, but racist would not be one of them. And since we know white folks only use the “r” word when someone else puts it in their head, we have to take responsibility for the monster we’ve created when it comes to this ad spot and all the other non-mothereffin’ racial factors we’ve made a fuss over.
I first realized we had an issue with being too quick to deem things racist sometime last year when that silly planking craze reached it’s peak. From somewhere beneath the ashes of a pimped out ride, Xzibit resurrected himself to say the Internet photo craze was racist because it reminded him of how slaves were transported in ships across the middle passage. Reading quotes from that man on the topic, all I could think was, no this negro didn’t. He was so past the point of no return with that comment that all I could do was pray it would die as quickly as his career, and for the most part it did.
That hasn’t stopped black people from highlighting a slew of other incidents that, though they may raise brows, cause a few side-eyes, and make you think twice because they deal with black people and are a bit touchy, are not actually racist. Controversial and racist are not interchangeable words, no more than stereotypical and racist are. I believe the Mary J. Blige situation is the latest glaring example of that. I don’t doubt that Burger King execs were intentional in their use of a black hip-hop soul singer like Mary to sing in their advertisement because, like McDonald’s, they think you can only get through to black people by singing an R&B jingle about chicken. Is it stereotypical? Yes. Racist? No.
The thing is, there are enough examples of actual racism that we don’t have to exaggerate examples that aren’t. Burger King’s commercial was a fail for a zillion reasons—most of which reflect on Mary’s career as a singer, not necessarily the black community as a whole. She signed up for that foolishness, if you want answers from anybody it should be her. She wasn’t sleep when they filmed that dream sequence, no one snuck a racist agenda in on her. She said the words, she sang the song, she thought it was OK, she was irresponsible. If we wouldn’t consider her a racist, the ad execs aren’t either.
The major problem with throwing the “r” word around so causally is when there is an actual incident of racism, we won’t be taken seriously. Remember the story of the boy who cried wolf? That’s essentially what we’re dealing with now. When we point out obvious and indisputable examples of racism, the understanding response it should warrant is usually replaced with an attitude of “there they go crying racism again,” because it’s happening too often. Not that racist things don’t happen everyday, but it’s almost like you some people wake up waiting to make something a racial issue that isn’t. And then we look at situations like the one involving Trayvon Martin where the racism involved should be obvious, people still have their doubts. Then we go and put a chicken commercial on that same level? We have to know the difference and put our energy into efforts that count.
Instances of racism should never be swept under the rug but everything controversial that involves black people is not racist. If we don’t figure out how to distinguish between the two our concerns are just going to keep getting overlooked and dismissed as bogus and outlandish rather than inciting people to corrective action. Remember being taught to choose your battles? That’s something we have to do when it comes to non-racist, stereotypical behaviors or else it will all get thrown in the junk pile and no one will hear the real cries.
Brande Victorian is a blogger and culture writer in New York City. Follower her on Twitter at @be_vic.
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